Vincent Kessler / Reuters Prayers at the Strasbourg Grand Mosque in France, November 2015.

How the U.S. Promotes Extremism in the Name of Religious Freedom

Rethinking the USCIRF

On July 26, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his nomination of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback as U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom. The position was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which also established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), with whom the ambassador’s office closely cooperates. President Trump and members of Congress will appoint new commissioners to the USCIRF in 2018. The commission reports on global violations of religious freedom and makes recommendations to the president and the State Department for action, including sanctions.  

Despite Congress’ best intentions, the USCIRF has strayed far from its mandate. In its 2017 report, the commission effectively supports the right of Islamist extremists to operate in several Muslim-majority countries, Iranian mullahs to spread radicalism abroad, and hardline Islamist organizations to receive foreign funding. It also castigates policies that promote secularism, such as bans on headscarves for girls in public schools. In its quest to protect freedom of religion, the USCIRF is championing the rights of groups that aspire to impose religious coercion on others.

CHURCH AND STATE

Although it operates around the world, in recent years the USCIRF has been particularly harsh in its condemnation of the Muslim-majority, ex-Soviet states of the Caucasus and Central Asia—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The committee has criticized them for excessive restrictions on religious freedom and repression of non-traditional religious groups. All these countries observe strict separation of church and state, have refused to designate Islam as a formal state religion, and maintain secular laws and courts. And in sharp contrast to their treatment in most of the Middle East, non-Muslims in these countries can live as equal citizens.

These states, with their Soviet heritage, have at times been heavy-handed in their handling of religious issues; for instance, authorities in Tajikistan forcibly shave men’s beards and instruct women to wear their headgear only in the traditional Tajik way. It is no secret, moreover, that none of the countries in question are smoothly functioning democracies. But it must also be acknowledged that their rules help protect secular Muslims, women, and minorities, from religious coercion. Islamists who would like to overturn this secular order and enforce a religious state are not allowed to do so. Yet the USCIRF pays no attention to these nuances and simply declares the states to be violating their citizens’ religious freedom.

In its 2017 report, for instance, the USCIRF, as part of its justification for categorizing Tajikistan as a top violator of religious freedom, lists the country’s legislation requiring religious institutions and studies to register with the government. But Tajikistan, which shares a long and porous border with Afghanistan, says the purpose of the law is to prevent terrorists from operating in the country under the guise of legitimate religious activity—an understandable concern. The USCIRF report also criticizes Tajikistan for a law that requires parental consent before a minor can receive religious instruction. The law in question, however, was instituted in order to protect vulnerable young people from falling under the sway of extremists, who often seek to recruit them in public spaces such as soccer fields and markets. Finally, the USCIRF report objects to Tajikistan’s prohibition of the international Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. Yet this group advocates the use of violence to establish an Islamic caliphate and is blatantly anti-Semitic. It is banned in Germany as well as in most Arab countries. 

The USCIRF supports the right of Islamist extremists to operate in several Muslim-majority countries.

The USCIRF has also complained in its recent reports that public schools in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan do not allow girls to cover their heads in school. It laments that Tajik law “prohibits headscarves in educational institutions” and cites the anti-headscarf directive from Azerbaijan’s minister of education as “repression of independent Muslims.” Yet the legislation in question is similar to laws in France and, until 2014, Turkey. In both of the latter cases, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the countries’ right to prohibit headscarves in school, under the reasoning that such restrictions to affirm secularism “may be considered necessary to protect the democratic system” and defend against “extremist political movements” that “seek to impose on society as a whole their religious symbols.” The USCIRF, however, rejects the court’s reasoning and continues to condemn laws that prevent the covering of girls’ heads. Although some parents object, countries that pass these laws justify their policies as part of the state’s obligation to provide girls with a full, non-segregated education. In the complicated question of parents’ religious rights versus the duty of government schools to protect young girls, Washington bureaucrats have little to add and would be better advised to let foreign states work out this question on their own.

Even more troubling than the USCIRF’s criticism of official secularism is its defense of Iran’s freedom to spread radical ideology in neighboring states. One of Azerbaijan’s violations, in the commission’s view, is a 2015 law prohibiting foreign citizens from serving as clerics in the country—a law that exists for the sole purpose of preventing Iranian and other foreign radical clerics from preaching extremism. One wonders why the commission believes it is in the interest of the United States or the people of Azerbaijan to defend clerics from a theocratic, anti-American state that Washington considers a state sponsor of terrorism. 

The USCIRF also criticizes several states for preventing foreign funds from reaching local Islamic organizations. For instance, its 2017 report censured Kazakhstan for blocking the bank accounts of individuals included in the finance ministry’s list of people “connected to financing of terrorism or extremism.” But not only do these policies respond to the real threat of the spread of radicalism from the Gulf States or Iran, they are also in line with U.S. legislation aimed to combat terrorist financing. The USCIRF is thus actively opposing a key element of the U.S. government’s own counterterrorism policies. 

Stoyan Nenov / Reuters Azeri youth on the shore of the Caspian Sea in Baku, Azerbaijan, June 2015.

GUESSWORK

An inherent problem with the current system concerns the accuracy of the evidence on which USCIRF bases its conclusions. Because the commission’s mandate is to cover the entire globe, it rarely conducts original research, relying instead on reports from local and international NGOs. It then recycles these reports, without independently verifying their accuracy, and puts the U.S. government’s stamp of approval on them. Worse, the USCIRF provides no specific information on the sources of their data beyond naming NGOs and opposition media. In other words, the reader has no basis for verifying the commission’s data. A further problem with this approach is that many NGOs are highly partisan groups that make no pretense of hiding their agenda, whether it is to actively support a government or to bring it down. In its current report, most of the reporting relating to Central Asia and the Caucasus draws from the website of a Norwegian organization called Forum 18. This group has no research division and declares itself a “Christian initiative” that “affirms on the body of the incarnation of Jesus Christ” the right to freedom of religion—not necessarily a recipe for a dispassionate and rigorous research.

The USCIRF staff, moreover, possesses neither the language skills nor the regional expertise needed truly to understand the intricacies of church–state relations around the globe. This is understandable, given that the commission has only fifteen employees. No wonder, then, that James J. Zogby, who served as the commission’s vice-chair until May, stated in his dissenting opinion in the 2017 report that due to insufficient resources, “the commission’s staff is forced to write their drafts based largely on secondary sources or accounts from advocacy groups or the results of a few three- or four-day trips commissioners take each year to some of the countries. After receiving the draft, commissioners are then asked to review and comment on chapters dealing with countries, many about which we know very little.” 

CARROTS OVER STICKS

All the states in Central Asia and the Caucasus that have come under fire from the USCIRF maintain positive and constructive relationships with the United States. As a result of these cordial relations, they are amenable to addressing U.S. concerns and advice on issues of religious freedom, provided the U.S. representatives offer the criticism in a spirit of partnership—and are accurate in their claims. But rather than respecting the difficult challenge these countries face and working with their governments to solve this Rubik’s cube, the USCIRF seems interested only in naming and shaming. After pursuing this tactic without success for nearly two decades, it’s time for the commission—and Congress—to acknowledge that it doesn’t work. The USCIRF is championing the rights of groups that aspire to impose religious coercion on others.

Various liberal democracies around the world have adopted differing models for separating  church and state. A stark contrast exists, for instance, between the American and French models. The Muslim-majority states of Central Asia and Azerbaijan have adopted something close to the French model, which upholds public secularismandfocuses on defending the state and society from religious coercion. Thus, France and the states following its model limit the expression of religion in the public sphere. This model may seem harsh to Americans, who have never had to contend with a dominant religious authority and have been more concerned with securing freedom for their churches to operate than with protecting their citizens from religious coercion. Yet the USCIRF and other U.S. institutions that deal with religious freedom globally should be more tolerant of diversity in the various approaches to managing the relationship of church and state, and accept that different states with different historical challenges will adopt different models.

Rather than leading to positive change, Washington’s current tactics cause bewilderment and anger. One former Tajik minister wondered why United States opposed his country’s fight against extremists, and privately asked one of this article’s authors whether the U.S. planned to sacrifice Central Asia to ISIS in some future deal with the group. Indeed, at the same time as U.S. forces are bombing the bases of Islamist insurgents in Iraq and Syria, the USCIRF is attacking allies in the Muslim world with secular governments, secular laws and courts, and secular systems of education. Their sin? Trying to keep those same extremists at bay. 

As the Trump administration and Congress appoint new commissioners and weigh the USCIRF’s latest report, it is important that they thoroughly rethink the purpose and practices of the commission. Moving forward, several steps need to be taken. First, the USCIRF should recognize that the United States’ approach to church–state relations is not the only valid model—in particular, it should accept the legitimacy of French-inspired models that seek to protect state and society from religious coercion. Further, the USCIRF should only report information that it can independently verify. Foreign governments will be much more amenable to U.S. recommendations if they focus only bona fide violations.

Finally, the USCIRF should focus more on carrots than on sticks. Instead of simply classifying and censuring U.S. partners, or demanding sanctions, it should focus on constructive steps that various agencies of the U.S. government could take in cooperation with these governments in order to address problems and improve governance with respect to religious freedom.

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