Taking the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom from Bad to Worse

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The GOP’s appointment of prominent purveyors of anti-Muslim hatred to positions on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is both disturbing and instructive. It exposes the cynical and misguided approach Republicans have taken to the entire enterprise of promoting religious freedom.

Twenty years ago, pushed by right-wing religious fundamentalists in the Republican Party, Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). It was described as an effort to establish “a multifaceted program for ensuring that religious freedom has a permanent place in the formulation of US foreign policy.”

To fulfill this mandate, the IRFA created the office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department headed by an Ambassador-at-large. This office was charged with monitoring the state of religious freedom around the world, identifying countries where serious violations occurred, and then recommending steps that the US government should take to press countries into compliance. As part of its mandate, the office was required to prepare and release an annual report detailing religious freedom conditions in “countries of concern.”

IRFA also created the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), comprised of Commissioners appointed by the White House and Congressional leadership. USCIRF was charged by IRFA with reviewing the State Department’s annual religious freedom report and then commenting on its findings, making its independent recommendations and observations to Congress and the Administration.

When the legislation was being debated, it was vigorously opposed by a number of groups, including the major US Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church, Arab American and American Muslim groups, and career diplomats at the Department of State.

There were early warnings that IRFA: would be used by right-wing ideologues to push their agenda on other countries without understanding that they might do more harm than good to victims of religious persecution; would inhibit efforts by diplomats and religious leaders to promote religious tolerance and understanding; that by naively seeing all conflicts through the lens of religious freedom, it would ignore the political and social root causes of many conflicts around the world making it more difficult for policymakers to address these problems; and that by creating and imposing a false hierarchy of rights, prioritizing religious freedom above all others, it would damage efforts to ensure that all aspects of civil and political rights are protected.

As a result, while IRFA might have been considered a noble ambition, it was a flawed project from its inception and it was destined to fail. As a result 20 years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, the state of religious freedom is arguably worse than it was when IRFA was passed and the proponents of the legislation cannot point to positive changes that have been the result of their efforts.

Especially problematic has been the ill-conceived role played by USCIRF. Initially, the Commission was envisioned as a bipartisan complement to the State Department office. It was to serve as an outside group that would review and evaluate the government’s findings and then make independent recommendations on issues or concerns not addressed in the State Department’s reporting on religious freedom.

Over a period of time, the Commission began to develop an agenda of its own, writing its own report and issuing open letters or press releases chiding the government for failing to act on USCIRF’s concerns.

Instead of finding ways to make advances in protecting religious freedom, USCIRF’s metrics of progress became how many foreign “fact-finding” visits they made, how many times they were quoted in the press, and how many invitations they received to speak on religious freedom.

I was twice appointed by President Obama to serve on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and twice elected as Vice-Chair of the Commission. With my appointment, the White House gave me the injunction to “push back” on right-wing influence on the Commission. What I found in my four years was a deeply flawed body that was incapable of making a meaningful contribution to protecting religious freedom around the world. What was most disturbing was the extent to which USCIRF had come to be dominated by an element of hardliners who saw themselves playing an adversarial role that was all too often, more partisan, than constructive.

Two examples will suffice:

First, the Obama White House was attacked for not doing enough to protect Iraqi Christians. It’s true, of course, that Iraqi Christians were victims ISIS-led genocidal policies. What was problematic was that from 2003 to 2008, during the Bush Administration, when the Christian community in Iraq was ethnically cleansed from 1.4 million to 400,000, USCIRF ignored what was going on in Iraq and was silent on the persecution of these Christians. It wasn’t until Obama was in office before USCIRF found its voice.

Second, members and former members of USCIRF widely criticized the Obama Administration for discriminating against Syrian Christian refugees, citing bogus statistics that only 56 of the 11 thousand Syrian refugees who came to the US during a defined period of time were Christians. After much hue and cry, USCIRF commissioned a study to examine this charge. The study found that while the numbers were correct, there were underlying factors demonstrating that discrimination was not a factor. Unlike their Muslim compatriots, a larger proportion of Syrian Christians did not flee the country and many of those who fled went to Lebanon or Jordan where they were taken in by communities with whom they had familial ties or by churches with which they were affiliated. Of those who did flee, most did not want to be registered as refugees, preferring instead to wait out the war in hopes of returning. Also, a large number of Christians who did want to leave were able to come to the US or Western Europe as part of the family unification provision of US immigration law.

The study was rejected by USCIRF’s Republican hardliners and others on the outside, with one of the newly appointed GOP Commissioners insisting on referring to Obama as “Christophobic” – a term he coined to imply that the president was opposed to Christians.

This partisan divide that skews (and discredits) the commission’s work is but one of USCIRF’s problems.

The Commission continues to act as a Congressionally-funded NGO issuing its report and releases that “name and shame” violators of religious freedom. In all of this, they fail to understand that the “namer and shamer” must be seen as credible by its target to have a meaningful impact. Because, in too many instances they are not seen as an unbiased critic, their denunciations are either ignored or do more harm than good to the victims of violations of religious freedom.

Equally problematic is the fact that the Commission lacks clarity as to what constitutes a violation of religious freedom. In too many instances they fail to distinguish between actual violations of religious freedom and regional, tribal, or sectarian struggles for political power. Instead of spending time understanding the reality of these conflicts, they have engaged in a crude reductionist analysis, seeing everything through the lens of religious freedom. In failing to understand the complexity and non-religious underpinnings of conflicts, their analysis and recommendations often miss the mark. Because religion, per se, is not the cause of tension in Nigeria, Central African Republic, or Iraq, proposing religious freedom is not the solution to their problems.

In the two years since my term on the Commission ended, little has changed. Unfortunately, the new appointments to USCIRF will only take this dysfunctional and counterproductive entity from bad to worse. Individuals who have claimed that Islam is incompatible with “American values,” who have warned against the admittance of Muslim immigrants to the US, and who find Islam inherently violent can only cause further damage to an already damaged partisan enterprise.