Thursday, June 30 2016

US report on ‘International Religious Freedom’

The US government has published its 2011 report on International Religious Freedom. The report states the US position on “speak[ing] against authoritarian governments that repressed forms of expression, including religious freedom.” The report purpose, in detailing the status of civil liberties across the world, is to help “shape policy; conduct diplomacy; and inform assistance, training, and other resource allocations.”

The executive summary of the report makes note of several key developments:

•  Religious minorities affected by political and demographic transitions have “tended to suffer the most in 2011”. Noting countries which have undergone political change in the Arab Spring, the report highlights the legislative changes which have been made towards greater freedom in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, but notes that Coptic Christians have particularly suffered from instability in Egypt. Burma is noted for its refusal to recognise its minority Muslim Rohingya community.

•  In Europe, the increasing ethnic, racial and religious diversity of the continent have sometimes been accompanied by “growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered "the other."” The restrictions on face veiling in countries such as France and Belgium are also noted.

•  Countries which are noted as places where conflict has had an effect on religious freedom include Bahrain, Iraq, Nigeria and Russia. In Russia, it is mentioned that anti-terror laws have had a negative impact on the country’s Muslims, such as arbitrary detention.

•  Countries which are classed as being chronic violators of religious freedom include China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea “and other countries with authoritarian governments”.

•  The section on the United Kingdom notes that in 2010-11, the Home Office reported 188 instances of gross bodily harm with racial or religious aggravation, down from 224 instances in 2009-10. It adds that “There were 2,982 cases of racial or religiously aggravated actual bodily harm (less serious assault) in 2010-11, down from 3,521 in 2009-10”. Specific cases of Islamophobic attacks are cited in this section and include victims who have been abused, such as being “called “terrorist,” pushed, and spat on. One female Muslim student in Middlesbrough stopped wearing her hijab (headscarf) after someone tried to pull it off her head.” The disproportionate and negative impact of stop and search practices on Muslim communities is also mentioned.

The increase in racism and intolerance towards Muslims in Europe is something which has been progressively noted in successive reports over the last several months. In a report published earlier this year by Amnesty International, the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim prejudice in several European countries, translating into policy which discriminates against Muslims, including in moves to ban the veil, was highlighted. A further study carried out at the University of Leicester noted that even in the UK, where veil bans have been dismissed by government ministers, prohibitions abroad have had a negative impact on veiled Muslim women living in the UK. The growth of anti-Muslim sentiment expressed in mainstream debate led to the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, Nils Muizenieks, to call for Europe to overcome racism and intolerance through its own “European Spring”.

Finally, it is worth noting that the report does not consider the status of religious freedom is the US. This is interesting given recent developments involving five Republican lawmakers who have accused Huma Abedin, a senior aide to the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and other American Muslims prominent in politics and public life, of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Those same allegations have also been leveled at Keith Ellison, one of only two Muslims serving in the US Congress. The nature of these accusations, which have been decried as false and fearmongering, reveal the seriousness of the issue of religious freedom in relation to Muslims in the US. The Center for American Progress last year published a report, Fear Inc., in which is detailed some of the worst offenders in popularizing anti-Muslim prejudice and the impact their views and publications have had on popular perceptions of Muslims in America. Such considerations are further heightened by revelations on the spying of Muslims students by the NYPD, and claims of teaching material in US military colleges referring in derogatory terms to Islam.

It is only fitting that the American government should also look seriously at the issue of religious freedom in America.

The full report on International Religious Freedom is available to download here.

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