FeaturedNationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 10

A biased report on religious freedom

The bias of the United States against Pakistan and towards India is evident from its latest report on religious freedom, in which it retained Pakistan among the countries that “tolerate religious discrimination,” but exonerated India despite the persecution of minorities, especially Muslims, a lockdown of occupied Kashmir and its latest citizenship law, which leaves out Muslims.

Nine countries, including Pakistan, remained on the State Department’s annual list of “countries of particular concern” for having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom”. Sudan is the only nation removed from the blacklist. Pakistan was designated in 2018 after years of US hesitation over concerns on the treatment of minorities. According to the announcement made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Pakistan’s name featured in the list of countries, which are subject to sanctions over religious liberty.

Pakistan has condemned the report as arbitrary, detached from reality, biased and unfair. The State Department’s designation of Pakistan is “unilateral and arbitrary,” Pakistan’s Foreign Office said in a statement. “This pronouncement is not only detached from ground realities of Pakistan but also raises questions about the credibility and transparency of the entire exercise,” it added. The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a government-funded body operating separately from the State Department, said it was “particularly gratified” by the designation. Washington specifically referenced the case of Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman jailed in 2009 under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and sentenced to death. She was eventually released in 2018 after the Supreme Court voided her conviction. Despite her release, the US did not remove Pakistan’s designation in the 2019 update to the list. Islamabad thus found itself in the same company as China, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Myanmar, as well as “entities” such as Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS), the Taliban, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. However, Pakistan did manage to avoid sanctions envisioned under the designation, which were waived on grounds of “national interest” – as was also the case with Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

The US has maintained a religious freedom blacklist under a 1998 law, passed at the peak of the “humanitarian interventionism” by the Clinton administration. The law also established the CIRF, which recently drew the ire of India by criticizing New Delhi’s new citizenship rules. Though opposed on almost every issue since the 1947 partition, Pakistan and India thus find themselves agreeing that US meddling in their affairs on the pretext of caring about “religious freedom” is unwelcome and worthy of condemnation.

The US government also announced designations of 68 individuals and entities in nine countries for corruption and human rights abuses under the Global Magnitsky Act, including four Burmese military leaders responsible for serious human rights abuses against the Rohingyas. “Our actions have been, and will continue to be, consistent with our position on religious freedom. No country, entity, or individual should be able to persecute people of faith without accountability. We have acted, and we will continue to do so,” Pompeo said. The “countries of particular concern” can face actions, including economic sanctions, by the United States.

Pakistan has long faced international criticism over its blasphemy laws. Generally, there is no problem with the law itself, it is the misuse which maligns it. The law exists in all Western countries and Pakistan inherited it from British colonial authorities. Recently, the Islamabad High Court rejected a petition against Prime Minister Imran Khan that had accused him of committing blasphemy. The petition cited some remarks made by Prime Minister Imran Khan in the past. However, the court ruled, “A person’s faith or belief is not open to be questioned by another person. Moreover, a mistake or error committed by a person while addressing a public gathering cannot be treated as blasphemous when the facts and circumstances clearly establish that he or she could not have intended to commit such an offense. Faith or religious belief is a personal matter and should not be questioned by others. Likewise, extreme caution has to be exercised in making allegations relating to blasphemy.” It is hoped the judgment will discourage people from leveling frivolous blasphemy allegations against their political, religious and professional rivals.

Clerics and social media users also accused Prime Minister Imran Khan of blasphemy when he uttered some “unsuitable words” in his recent speech. It is despite the fact that Imran Khan has raised a strong voice against a deliberate blasphemous campaign in Western countries. He dedicated a major part of his impassioned speech at the 74th United Nations General Assembly to address the issue of blasphemous content produced in Western countries. He asked them to stop ridiculing the Holy Prophet (PBUH) since his reverence is the foremost component of Islamic beliefs. He calls the Prophet (PBUH) his role model in his speeches. However, his careless use of words hurt the sentiments of people. Some even called him a Jew and blamed him for damaging Muslims and Pakistan. He must practice more caution since he has been accused of blasphemy by his political opponents, particularly the JUI-F, which organised protests accusing him of disrespecting holy figures. His slightest carelessness can endanger his survival. Former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer had lost his life over blasphemy accusations.

However, the US State Department report is self-contradictory as it points out that persecution and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief existed in every region of the world. If it is the case, why Pakistan and other countries were singled out? Rights groups and US officials accuse China of incarcerating at least one million Uighurs and other Muslims, and US ally Saudi Arabia is in the list for following a rigid school of religious thought. However, recent developments in India, which see a phenomenal rise in attacks on Muslims since the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, is not included in the blacklist. During the five years of Modi’s first term, hate crime against Muslims soared. According to the Indian media, 90pc of religious hate crimes in the last decade have occurred since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power.

After Modi was re-elected, he abrogated the special status of Kashmir and imposed a harsh lockdown, which still continues. Also, the government’s latest citizenship law led to nation-wide protests, in which dozens of people were killed and hundreds jailed. However, the US did not utter a word. It proves the US bias towards India.