Article: The other side of religious freedom

Najm us Saqib
Pakistan has again joined the exclusive club of states designated by the US as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). Following a determination to this effect last year, Secretary Antony Blinken also ‘designated’ China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and a few others as CPC for having engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom last week. Countries like Algeria, Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua have been placed on a Special Watch List. Simultaneously, a list of Entities of Particular Concern (EPC) has been announced that includes, among others, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, ISIS and the Taliban. The pattern suggests that a country’s name remains in either of the lists unless it ‘behaves’ and follows suit. In the recent past, Sudan and Uzbekistan played smart, followed suit and wriggled out of this quagmire. These two fortunate countries are now enjoying ‘religious freedom’ just as any Scandinavian country.

The countries and entities qualifying to be in the Watch List must be violating religious freedom sporadically and inconsistently. To be a CPC, a country must violate religious freedom systematically and egregiously. Sounding confident, Secretary Blinken has vowed to press all governments to remedy shortcomings in their laws and practices and to promote accountability for those responsible for abuses. There would be consequences if they don’t comply. The list of actions against the violators ranges from diplomatic measures such as demarches, public condemnations and the cancellation of meetings to punitive actions such as foreign assistance restrictions, trade restrictions, or loan prohibitions.

Promoting religious freedom abroad with particular reference to human rights is admittedly an important part of US Foreign Policy. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) is the foundational legislation for America’s international religious freedom policy. Designating any country or entity as CPC or EPC or putting any country in the Watch List is the sole prerogative of the US. In order to ensure compliance and efficiency, several official bodies have been put in place including the Office on International Religious Freedom, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and a ‘Ministerial’. As an additional responsibility, the Office has been tasked to advance US foreign policy on anti-Semitism, including the development and implementation of policies and projects to support efforts to combat anti-Semitism.

Centered on promoting religious freedom, the Act directs that the right to believe or not believe should be as one’s conscience leads, and one should be able to live out one’s beliefs openly, peacefully, and without fear. Based on reports submitted by American Embassies abroad, the Secretary of State, each year, identifies governments and non-state actors before according suitable designations. Washington ensures that all relevant information about ‘the countries’ is presented as fairly and objectively as possible. However, as motivations and accuracy of sources vary, ‘the Department of State is not in a position to verify independently all information contained in the reports.’ One feels that the last sentence should be deleted from the official websites as it conveys incorrect messaging and raises questions as to the authenticity and veracity of such reports.

Pakistan is a CPC because ‘religious freedom conditions across Pakistan continue to trend negatively’ with ‘failure of authorities to address forced conversions of religious minorities to Islam’, a fact that ‘severely restricts freedom of religion or belief.’ Paradoxically, even after admitting that in India, ‘religious freedom conditions are taking a drastic turn downward, with national and various state governments tolerating widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities’, Washington would not wish to accord any ‘designation’ to India. Referring to the enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act by the BJP-led government, which ‘provides a fast track to Indian citizenship only for non-Muslim migrants’ and ‘potentially exposes millions of Muslims to detention, deportation and statelessness’, Secretary Blinken has perhaps considered New Delhi’s ‘strategic’ usefulness in overlooking India’s felonies.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC even in the face of ‘some recent improvements such as the lifting of several religious restrictions on women’s rights and passed a parliamentary bill restricting child marriage.’ The only reason Saudi Arabia is a CPC seems to be its ‘public practice’ of Islam and the absence of practices of any other religion in the Kingdom.’ It would be interesting to investigate as to when Saudi Arabia started practicing Islam with no prohibition on practicing any other religion in the Kingdom.

China and Russia are CPCs because religious freedom conditions there ‘continue to deteriorate.’ It is claimed that the government in Russia ‘targets non-traditional religious minorities with fines, detentions and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism.’ The reports also assert that ‘Russian legislation criminalises extremism without adequately defining the term, enabling the state to prosecute a vast range of non-violent religious activity’. Hold on a second here; does it mean that merely defining ‘extremism’ would suffice in absolving Moscow of any undesirable activities?

Talking about terms and their definitions, it would be interesting to know if the United Nations has agreed upon the definition of the term ‘terrorism’. Ironically, several countries have suffered irreparable damage in the economic, political and social domains since 9/11, countless have died, been displaced, and various countries and entities are still being treated as ‘terrorists’ or condemned for ‘harbouring terrorists’ or ‘sponsoring terrorism’ without even defining the word ‘terrorism’.

A cursory look at Secretary Blinken’s announcement may reveal that to merit a suitable ‘designation’, a country or an entity needs to be at odds with the West or having something to do with Islam. Coincidentally, the same week, London also started efforts to ban certain ‘fundamentally and rabidly anti-Semitic’ entities under the Terrorist Act. The fact that such unlikable countries or entities are ‘designated’ whimsically might be a matter of concern for some judicious minds. Others may see some obvious loopholes in the involved processes. But then these ‘designated’ countries and entities must face the ground realities, particularly the one related to Islamophobia. Or, in the words of Kazantzakis, ‘since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.’

(Courtesy Nation, Pakistan)

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