The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is complaining about bias on the part of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an organization that was intended to counsel the US State Department on matter of international religious freedom. While I’m not entirely clear on all the elements of the ACLU’s complaints, I do support their view that the organization seems to have a strong bias against Islam, as I’ve noted over the years.
The USCIRF is capable of doing good work. And it’s not as if religious freedom isn’t an important issue. Rather, the issue is that the organization is working inconstantly, with unequal attention paid to and complaints made about different religions. Where the organization slams Islam or Islamic countries, it neglects to complain about similar activities conducted by other religious groupings. It finds objectionable practices within Islam that are unobjectionable in others.
The USCIRF nearly lost its congressional funding last year. As a creature of Congress, that would have put it out of business. Its funding was approved at the last minute.
A Look at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
Dena Sher, Washington Legislative Office at 12:31pm
In 1998, Congress created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to draw attention to violations of religious freedom in other countries. The commissioners vote annually to list countries that are of particular concern or place others on a watch list of countries that should be monitored closely for religious freedom violations.
But, since its inception, the commission’s been beset by controversy. People who watch the commission closely say it was created to satisfy special interests, which has led to bias in the commission’s work. Past commissioners and staff have reported that the commission is “rife, behind-the-scenes, with ideology and tribalism.” They’ve said that commissioners focus “on pet projects that are often based on their own religious background.” In particular, past commissioners and staff reported “an anti-Muslim bias runs through the Commission’s work.”
The commissioners’ personal biases have led to sharp divides both within the commission and with the State Department, which it is supposed to advise. One expert calls the commission’s relationship with the State Department “adversarial,” and “not conducive to effective dialogue, let alone cooperation.” And the divisiveness within the commission itself is obvious, ranging from how it dealt with when a policy analyst claimed her contract with the commission was cancelled because she was Muslim to its most recent report in which five commissioners voted to include Turkey on the list of countries of particular concern (alongside a few others like China and North Korea) over the strong objections of the four other commissioners.
Here’s an interesting policy paper from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom taking to task the OIC’s effort to create international laws that punish ‘blasphemy’. The paper (an 8-page PDF web document) notes that criminalizing blasphemy does violence to generally understood protections to individual freedom of thought and expression. It points out as well that the only religion being protected by the OIC is Islam, with nary a word said about other religions. While some countries might wish to see repressive laws internationalized, other international entities are not so thrilled. Even the Holy See finds the effort repugnant, as do the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).
The paper also expresses concern over new legislation arising in Europe that seems over-protective of religious sensibilities while denigrating basic human rights.
I recommend reading the entire paper, short as it is.
The Dangerous Idea of Protecting Religions from “Defamation”:
A Threat to Universal Human Rights Standards
Over the past decade, countries from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) have been working through the United Nations system to advance the problematic idea that there should be laws against the so-called “defamation of religions.” Although touted as a solution to the very real problems of religious persecution and discrimination, the OIC-sponsored UN resolutions on this issue instead provide justification for governments to restrict religious freedom and free expression. They also provide international legitimacy for existing national laws that punish blasphemy or otherwise ban criticism of a religion, which often have resulted in gross human rights violations. These resolutions deviate sharply from universal human rights standards by seeking to protect religious institutions and interpretations, rather than individuals, and could help create a new international anti-blasphemy norm.
In addition to seeking a new norm through these resolutions, OIC countries have argued in various UN contexts that existing international standards prohibiting advocacy of hatred and incitement already outlaw “defamation of religions.” However, the provisions on which they rely—Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)—provide only limited exceptions to the fundamental freedoms of expression and religion. These provisions were intended to protect individuals from violence or discrimination, not to protect religious institutions or ideas from criticism, and they should not be expanded to cover allegedly religiously defamatory speech. Such an expansion, which unfortunately may have been lent support by new language on negative religious stereotyping and incitement in a recent UN Human Rights Council freedom of expression resolution, would undermine international human rights guarantees, including the freedom of religion. It also would undermine the institutions that protect universal human rights worldwide.
… Although these resolutions purport to seek protection for religions in general, the only religion and religious adherents that are specifically mentioned are Islam and Muslims. Aside from Islam, the resolutions do not specify which religions are deserving of protection, or explain how or by whom this would be determined. The resolutions also do not define what would make a statement defamatory to religions or explain who decides this question. For its part, the OIC appears to consider any speech that the organization, or even a cleric or individual, deems critical of or offensive to Islam or Muslims to automatically constitute religiously defamatory speech. This view goes far beyond the existing domestic legal concept of defamation, which protects individuals against false statements of fact that damage their reputation and livelihood. Implementing this approach would violate provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various human rights treaties that protect, with only narrow exceptions, every individual’s right to receive and impart information and speak out.
[HT Religion Clause blog, which looks at the intersection of law and religions]
Washington Times falls back on its typical anti-Saudi rhetoric with this article reporting on the Saudi Academy. And, also typical for the Times, it takes a swing at State Dept., too.
What the article (and the USCIRF Commission) fail to note is that religious texts are not tolerant of other religions. A religion is not going to change doctrine because it makes others feel bad.
The first example of ‘intolerance’ cited in the piece, for instance, reads:
The passages found in the review, according to the panel, include:
c A passage in a 12th-grade Koranic interpretation textbook that states it is permissible for a Muslim to kill those who have left the faith, an adulterer or someone who has murdered a Muslim intentionally: “He (praised is He) prohibits killing the soul that God has forbidden (to kill) unless for just cause ….”
The commission said the text defines “just cause” as “unbelief after belief, adultery and killing an inviolable believer intentionally.”
This is a matter of religious doctrine. You can read the Old Testament and find similar sentiments, with the religion’s identity changed of course.
But because a religion’s holy book proscribes certain sins and prescribes certain punishment does not mean that the rule is observed in total purity. Few Saudis are executed for adultery. I can find no evidence of Saudis have been killed for apostasy. This is not the case, I’m well aware, in some Muslim countries, but even there it is not without controversy.
The article, as the Commission report, takes materials out of both textual and religious context.
That said, I’m sure there is more that the Saudi Academy and the Saudi Ministry of Education can do to remove dangerous materials from textbooks. But they cannot be reasonably expected to change religious doctrine. If doctrine and the interpretation of the Quran is to take place, it will have to be on a larger stage than just Saudi Arabia.
The article gets really cheesy, though, when it tries to impugn the Academy because one of its alumni had become a terrorist and two others were not permitted to enter Israel. There’s no question that Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, a former valedictorian at the school, was convicted of plotting to kill the President. He’s clearly a bad apple in the barrel. That Israel refused entry to two other students says not a lot about the students, but considerably more about Israeli visa policy. Their rejection certainly does not serve to indict them as criminals.
State lets Islamic school operate
Officials say Saudi institute will revise violent textbooks
State Department officials said Thursday they have no plans to close a Saudi-financed Islamic school in Northern Virginia that has failed to eliminate violent and intolerant language in textbooks.
“They told us they would revise the textbooks by the 2008 school year,” State Department spokesman Rob McInturff said. “We don’t plan to take additional action apart from the discussions that have been going on with the Saudi government.”
Results released Wednesday from a federal investigation into the Islamic Saudi Academy – with campuses in Alexandria and Fairfax – found textbooks at the 900-student private school had passages that blame the Jews for “discord” and say it is sometimes permissible to kill non-Muslims.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom seems to have a vendetta against the Saudi Academy in N. Virginia. It has issued another (disingenuous) report report on textbooks used in the Academy and restates its call for the Academy to be closed.
The report fails to mention, for example, that the Saudi Academy invited the Commission to review the textbooks—all of them—used in the school. Instead, the report suggests that the Commission had to resort to surreptitious means to obtain the books. This is a failing The Washington Post noted last year when the Commission issued its report. The Commission hasn’t rectified that little problem.
The quotes that it pulls out of texts to demonstrate intolerance are also pulled out of classroom context—what the teachers may or may not explain about them—as well as the context of courses on religious doctrine. I’ve a clue for the Commission: when teaching about themselves, all religious denigrate to some degree other, competing religions. When I attended Catholic schools as a child, I was certainly taught that other religions were, at the very least, suspect. We were forbidden, under pain of damnation, to visit other churches. The role of Jews in the death of Jesus was hotly debated, even when the Vatican was saying that they were to be held blameless.
Religious education cannot reasonably be held to PC standards. It can, of course, be held to some level of tolerance—not telling lies about other religions, not demonizing them—but it cannot be forced to assume that all religions are equal.
The equality of religions is something we learn in secular education. It is not expected to be provided by any particular denomination’s schools.
The report fails to note, as well, that Fairfax County authorities, who conducted their own examination of the texts, did not find cause to refuse a renewal of the schools’ leases.
Religious tolerance is not something you find in Saudi Arabia. It is something that is to be found in the Saudi Academy, however, with both non-Muslim students and faculty.
There truly does seem to be a personal vendetta against Saudi Arabia or the Academy on the part of Commission members. Trying to further their case through suspect means and less-than-truthful reportage, however, damages the Commission far more than it damages Saudi Arabia.
WASHINGTON—Last fall, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom asked the U.S. Department of State to secure the release of all Arabic-language textbooks used at a Saudi government school in Northern Virginia, the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA). The Commission took this action in order to ensure that the books be publicly examined to determine whether the texts used at the ISA promote violence, discrimination, or intolerance based on religion or belief. The ISA is unlike any conventional private or parochial school in the United States in that it is operated by a foreign government and uses that government’s official texts. It falls under the Commission’s mandate to monitor the actions of foreign governments in relation to religious freedom. The government of Saudi Arabia, as a member of the international community, is committed to upholding international standards, including the obligation not to promote violence, intolerance, or hate.
The Commission requested Saudi government textbooks repeatedly during and following its trip to Saudi Arabia in May-June 2007. Shortly after the Commission raised the issue publicly, the Saudi government turned over textbooks used at the ISA to the State Department, but as of this writing, the Department has not made them available either to the public or to the Commission, nor has it released any statement about the content of the books that it received. Nevertheless, although it was unable to obtain the entire collection, the Commission managed to acquire and review 17 ISA textbooks in use during this school year from other, independent sources, including a congressional office. While the texts represent just a small fraction of the books used in this Saudi government school, the Commission’s review confirmed that these texts do, in fact, include some extremely troubling passages that do not conform to international human rights norms. The Commission calls once again for the full public release of all the Arabic-language textbooks used at the ISA.
Asharq Alawsat runs this piece quoting the Saudi Embassy in DC disagreeing with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom report that called for the closure of the Saudi Academy, based in Northern Virginia.
Embassy Spokesmen Refutes Religious Textbooks Criticisms
Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Saudi embassy in Washington has refuted the contents of a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom which criticized what it called the promotion of religious extremism in Saudi-run schools, particularly the Islamic Saudi Academy, which operates two campuses in Fairfax Virginia.
A spokesman for the embassy said that the books and curricula at the academy do not carry any hostile language against the followers of other religions.
Dr Abdul-Muhsin Ilyas, deputy director of the Saudi Media Office, told Asharq Al-Awsat, “I can absolutely confirm that all textbooks at the academy do not include contents that offend any religion. We extend an open invitation to all US and non-US media to visit the academy, verify the validity of this, and closely examine the subjects that are taught and also the books used by the students.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended the closure of the Saudi academy, if it does not prove that it does not teach subjects that promote fanaticism. Commenting on this recommendation, a spokesman for the US State Department told Asharq Al-Awsat that Washington will work with the Saudi Government to make the agreed-upon changes in curricula (in a general way).
There’s been a recent furor in the US media over the Saudi Academy in Norther Virginia after a report [13-page PDF document] by the congressionally funded U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The report is strongly critical of the Academy but strangely, according to the Arab News piece cited below, never bothered to contact the Academy directly, instead relying on second- and third-hand reports.
The USCIRF report Much is made of the allegation that the Academy is, in fact, an element of the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Only by the narrowest interpretation—one that neglects reality—could this be true. International Schools, including American schools abroad—are usually linked to an embassy. The American schools in Dhahran and Riyadh, for instance, operate as they do because they are under the sponsorship of the US Embassy. They all show the Ambassador as holding the senior-most position on the School Board. The US government, however, is rarely the sole source of funding, instead charging tuition from the non-USG dependents attending the school. I don’t see any material difference between how the Saudi Academy relates to the Saudi Embassy and how the American schools in Saudi Arabia relate to the US Embassy in Riyadh.
Others commenting on the report focus on the fact that one student (Ahmed Omar Abu Ali), convicted of providing support to and receiving support from Al-Qaeda, conspiracy to assassinate the president, conspiracy to hijack aircraft, and conspiracy to destroy aircraft, attended the Academy. He did. But the thousands of other graduates of the Academy have not been charged, indicted, or convicted of anything. Whatever may have turned Abu Ali into a terrorist, it cannot be the Academy on its own.
The report also neglects to notice any of the changes in practices affecting religious freedom that State Department reported in its annual Report on Religious Freedom issued last month. [My summary is here.]
Also missing from the USCIRF report is the fact that there are Christian and Jewish teachers and students at the Academy. There are actually more Christian students at the school that Muslims. That sounds very discordant to the allegations of extreme denigration of other religions.
Saudi Arabia does have a serious problem when it comes to dealing with religions other than Islam. But the Academy in Virginia does not actually seem to be part of that problem.
That said, the headline of this Arab News article is over the top in its own right. The Academy is not about to close or be closed. The legal grounds suggested by the USCIRF report are specious.
Saudi School in US Faces Closure
Barbara Ferguson, Arab News
WASHINGTON, 19 October 2007 â€” A federal advisory panel has recommended that an Islamic school supported by the Saudi government should be shut down until the US government can ensure the school is not fostering radical Islam.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has released a report that criticizes what it calls a lack of religious freedom in Saudi society. The report also says Saudi schools promote religious extremism.
Particular criticism is leveled at the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA), a 23-year-old private school serving nearly 1,000 students in grades K-12 on two campuses in northern Virginiaâ€™s Fairfax County.
â€œSignificant concerns remain about whether what is being taught at the ISA promotes religious intolerance and may adversely affect the interests of the United States,â€ the report says.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has issued it report for 2007 and, once again, Saudi Arabia is named as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’, along with Burma, China, Eritrea, N. Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.
The report to Congress seeks to put pressure on State Dept. by suggesting a required report, every 120 days, on whether or not Saudi Arabia is implementing reforms it says it is undertaking.
Saudi Arabia has had and continues to have no significant religious freedom. Things have improved somewhat for Muslims who do not follow the strict ‘Wahhabist’ interpretation of Islam, but non-Muslims enjoy barely any religious freedom whatsoever. Reports of the religious police shutting down or arresting non-Muslims caught in the act of worship did drop over the last year, but so much remains to be done that it barely matters. Anti-Semitism remains a serious problem across Saudi society, a result of the intolerance that has played such a major role in Saudi history since the 7th C.
I am not comfortable with the role of Nina Shea, Director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, as Vice Chair of this commission, however. Shea’s role in the intellectually dishonest report on Saudi books to be found in US Islamic facilities should disqualify her and her organization, in my belief. The Saudi is bad enough; it doesn’t need exaggeration.
The full Religious Freedom report is available at the Commission’s website as a 292-page PDF document. The section on Saudi Arabia begins at Page 227 and is re-published below.
Religious Freedom Report: Saudi Arabia
The government of Saudi Arabia engages in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief. Since its inception, the Commission has recommended that Saudi Arabia be designated a â€œcountry of particular concern,â€ or CPC. In September 2004, the State Department for the first time followed the Commissionâ€™s recommendation and designated Saudi Arabia a CPC. In September 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice approved a temporary 180-day waiver of further action, as a consequence of CPC designation, to allow for continued diplomatic discussions between the U.S. and Saudi governments and â€œto further the purposes of the International Religious Freedom Act.â€ In July 2006, the Secretary decided to leave in place the waiver â€œto further the purposes of the Actâ€ by announcing that these bilateral discussions with Saudi Arabia had enabled the United States to identify and confirm a number of policies that the Saudi government â€œis pursuing and will continue to pursue for the purpose of promoting greater freedom for religious practice and increased tolerance for religious groups.â€
Despite this potentially positive development, the Commission has studied the situation and again determines that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia and that the country should continue to be designated a CPC. The Saudi government continues to engage in an array of severe violations of human rights as part of its repression of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. Abuses include: torture and cruel and degrading treatment or punishment imposed by judicial and administrative authorities; prolonged detention without charges and often incommunicado; and blatant denials of the right to liberty and security of the person, including coercive measures aimed at women and the broad jurisdiction of the mutawaa (religious police), whose powers are vaguely defined and exercised in ways that violate the religious freedom of others.
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The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an organization created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) issued its annual report (260-page PDF document) last week.
The organization is required by American law to monitor violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in IRFA and set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international instruments, and to give independent policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.
As expected, the Commission found that there is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was found to be, again, a Country of Particular Concern. Discussion of the meaning of that phrase–and of the different countries so identified–begins on page 81 of the report (page 91 of the PDF). A discussion of Saudi Arabia and its problems begins on page 190 of the report (page 200 of the PDF).
It’s very clear that Saudi Arabia continues to have major problems; I have no real argument with the description of those problems. The Commission continues its discussion with a list of recommendations for US governmental action. I do have a problem with a few of those, not because they are unwarranted, but because they are largely ineffectual. I raised the same complaints in writing about last year’s report.
As I did last year, I’ll annotate the list of recommendations with my comments. As many of the recommendations are repeated from last year’s report, my criticism is also similar. The Commission’s recommendations, beginning on the next page, are indented:
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has issued a call for action on the part of SecState Rice in response to the lack of religious freedom in the above-named countries. This call to action comes in response to the State Department’s annual Report on Religious Freedom. (The 2004 Religious Freedom report on Saudi Arabia is found here. From that site, you can also find earlier reports to see what, if anything, has changed over the past few years.)
The Commission’s report is all well and good. There is no question about the lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia: there absolutely is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. I won’t comment on the other countries as I don’t know them well enough to make an informed comment.
There is also no question but that this situation needs to be changed. Some way of accommodating the practice of religion–at least by non-Sunni Muslims–must be found. The actions this Commission report demand, though, are not going to get there.
The actions recommened to be taken with regard to Saudi Arabia are listed below. I am interleaving my comments in italics.
1) identify those Saudi agencies and officials thereof who are responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom and vigorously enforce section 604 of IRFA with respect to Saudi Arabia, rendering inadmissible for entry into the United States any Saudi government official who was responsible for or directly carried out such violations;
This sounds good, but is essentially going through the motions. Those Saudis who are the most bigoted–and thus the ones limiting religious freedom as spelled out in this paragraph–have no interest in going to the US, ever. Being denied a visa to visit what one considers “hell on earth” is not going to be effective.
2) issue a proclamation, under the Presidentâ€™s authority pursuant to section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 USC 1182(f)), to bar those Saudi government officials from entering the United States who have been responsible for propagating globally an ideology that explicitly promotes hate, intolerance, and human rights violations;
“Responsible for propagating” is a pretty vague term. Does it mean the authors and publishers? Does it mean the person–even an official–who puts a requested book in the mail? And the last time I looked, there were US Constitutional protections of freedom of speech and thought that do protect the promotion of “hate, intolerance, and human rights violations”. What’s prohibited are calls to violence and the violation of human rights, not just their promotion. There are certainly some Saudi publications that can be seen to call for violence and would therefore fall under this paragraph, but most do not.
The US government is also particularly incapable of addressing matters of religious doctrine. The US government does not get involved in disputes about what a religion “really means”, leaving that to the followers of the religion.
While there is certainly a problem with much of the material that comes from fundamentalist Islam, do we really want the government to start deciding which religious doctrines are “correct”?
Further, the point of my first comment applies. The real bigots don’t want to vist the US under any circumstances. Those in a governmental office that might oversee their operations could certainly be penalized by being prohibited from getting visas.
But that raises another question: Isn’t it to our benefit to have dialogue and discourse with our enemies? Isn’t it more effective to have bigots visit a country that allows all religions to co-exist, without violence and (mostly) without vituperation to lean how it can be done?
3) issue a demarche urging the government of Saudi Arabia to cease funding or other support for written materials or other activities that explicitly promote hate, intolerance, and human rights violations, including the distribution of such materials in the United States and elsewhere outside of Saudi Arabia; and
This one is do-able. The USG can certainly issue demarches. It does it on a daily basis. Sometimes the receiving government pays attention, sometimes it changes its behavior, sometimes it simply ignores the advice.
What is more useful, and fruitful, is the continued pressure applied by American officials on Saudis in direct conversation. When USG officials complain in person about religious intolerance, they are listened to and, as the Religious Freedom report indicates, things can change. When the President or the SecState urge moderation, things can happen.
The Saudis need to clean up their act in terms of the extremist polemic that infuses a lot of their religious materials. That’s a given. Sending another piece of paper isn’t terribly effective, though.
4) order the heads of appropriate U.S. agencies, pursuant to section 405(a)(13) of IRFA, not to issue any specific licenses and not to grant any other specific authority for the export of any item on the U.S. Commerce Control List of dual-use items [Export Administration Regulations under part 774 of title 15] to any agency or instrumentality of the government of Saudi Arabia that is responsible for committing particularly severe violations of religious freligious freedom. In FY 2004, the Commerce Department approved approximately $67 million worth of articles for Saudi Arabia, including, for example, such items as thumbcuffs, leg irons, shackles, and other items that could be used to perpetrate human rights violations.
This one could certainly be implemented, but again the effectiveness is doubtful. Who gets hurt by banning it? Not Saudi Arabia. Those listed items are available from any number of developed or developing countries, none of which are bound by the International Religious Freedom Act. The companies that exported $67 million in these products won’t have that trade–and that’s probably not a bad thing, unless you happen to work for that company, of course. But if we don’t sell these items, we can at least take a moral stand, which has merit of its own.
Saudi Arabia does not permit religious freedom. It needs to do more to accommodate the religious needs of the millions of non-Sunni Muslims who live in the country. The 2004 Religious Freedom report suggests that changes are in progress, but those changes seem little and slow. Perhaps by simply being named a Country of Special Concern, Saudi Arabia will move more quickly. But the steps urged in this Commission report don’t seem particularly well aimed toward achieving that goal.
There’s a somewhat longer version of the report located here, but it doesn’t really add materially to what the initial report says.