InternationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 09

US report: A religiously biased assessment

The selective approach and bias of the United States against Pakistan is evident in 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.

Ten countries, including Pakistan, remain on the US list of “countries of particular concern” for having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom”. According to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, the United States has designated Pakistan, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Nigeria, North Korea, Myanmar and Eritrea as “countries of particular Concern” (CPC) under its International Religious Freedom Act. The Comoros, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Russia have been placed on a special watch list for governments that engage in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom”.

The US is particularly concerned about the Ahmadia community in Pakistan, without understanding its status and reality of belief. The community, which poses itself as Muslim, has been declared non-Muslim all over the world and Pakistan. “The systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadia laws, and authorities’ failure to address forced conversions of religious minorities — including Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs — to Islam, severely restricted freedom of religion or belief,” it added. The report noted that nearly 80 individuals remained imprisoned for blasphemy in Pakistan, with at least half facing a life sentence or death. The report, however, acknowledged that last year they also noted “some high-profile acquittals” in Pakistan. Additionally, the United States designated Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir al Sham, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-West Africa, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, and the Taliban as well. “We have not renewed the prior Entity of Particular Concern designations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS-Khorasan, due to the total loss of territory formerly controlled by the terrorist organisations,” Secretary Pompeo said. The US has removed Sudan and Uzbekistan from the special watch list “based on significant, concrete progress” undertaken by them over the past year. However, placing the Taliban among the entities is shocking to many observers who feared that it could jeopardise US efforts to finalise a peace deal in Afghanistan.

Ironically, the State Department does not name India among the countries of particular concern. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which recommends the designations, had downgraded India to its lowest ranking of “countries of particular concern” (CPC) in its 2020 report, issued in April. The report, released in Washington by the federal government commission that functions as an advisory body, had placed India alongside China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. India was categorised as a “Tier 2 country” in last year’s listing. But the latest State Department notification excluded India among the countries of particular concern. The commission’s report noted that last year, religious freedom conditions in India had experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault. It also noted that the BJP government had allowed violence against minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence.

Pakistan has rejected the US State Department’s “arbitrary and selective” assessment. “The designation of Pakistan as a country of particular concern is completely against the realities on the ground and raises serious doubts about the credibility of the exercise,” said a Foreign Office statement, adding that such subjective designations do not contribute towards promoting the cause of religious freedom worldwide. “Pakistani society is multi-religious and pluralistic with a rich tradition of interfaith harmony. Religious freedom and the protection of the rights of minorities are guaranteed by our Constitution and ensured through a range of legislative, policy and administrative measures,” it said.

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. 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.

The US State Department report is self-contradictory as it points out that persecution and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief exists in every region of the world. If it is the case, why have Pakistan and other countries been singled out? Rights groups and US officials accuse China of incarcerating Uighurs and other Muslims, and US ally Saudi Arabia is in the list for following a rigid school of religious thought. However, India was not included in the blacklist despite a phenomenal rise in attacks on Muslims since the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. During the first five years of the Modi government, 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. Also, the government’s 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 on it. It proves the US bias towards India. The glaring omission of India, where religious freedom and discrimination against minority communities continues in an institutionalised manner, erodes the credibility of the US report.