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Suhag A. Shukla, Esq.

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Human Rights and Religious Freedom's 'In' Crowd

Posted: 05/05/11 04:35 PM ET

Bangladesh has seen rapid Islamization and a campaign of targeted violence against its Hindu minority over the past decade. Just five-months after the election of an Islamist party in 2001, more than 10,000 cases of gang rape, murder, beatings, harassment, kidnappings, attacks on temples, looting, and illegal occupation of land targeting that country's religious minorities were recorded. In Malaysia, when the Hindu Rights Action Force led a peaceful march of 50,000 native-born Malaysian Hindus demanding equal rights in that avowedly Islamic country, the rally was brutally dispersed and the leaders jailed or exiled. And nearly 100,000 Bhutanese Hindus live in refugee camps in Southern Nepal after Bhutan's "One Nation One People" (read Buddhist only) policy forced them out.

Stark statistics, indeed. Worthy of global opprobrium, no doubt. But the latest report from the quasi-governmental agency tasked with monitoring and reporting on religious freedom around the world, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), seems oblivious to these ongoing atrocities. For Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Bhutan are absent from the Commission's list that designates "Country of Particular Concern" or even the less serious "Watch List." USCIRF's recommendations are delivered to the State Department in the form of an annual report, with the intent and potential of shaping U.S. foreign policy. But alas, like most things in government, even human rights and religious freedom aren't free from the clutches of politics, privilege, and special interests.

The lesson to be learned in what should be the lofty world of human rights advocacy is that all human rights are not equal: there is a definite "in" crowd. Most Americans probably hadn't even heard of Darfur until Angelina Jolie, using her star power, successfully drew international attention to the plight of innocent Sudanese. George Clooney accomplished the same, and Bono transformed our views on racism and health care access in Africa. All of that is a credit to individual passion and advocacy. But what to make of USCIRF's listing of Egypt this year for the recent riots involving Coptic Christians; or Nigeria for anti-Christian violence or India, specifically because some states in that country have tried to regulate the practice of coerced and mass religious conversions driven by dollar-rich American evangelical churches? Could one be blamed for assuming that to be "in" is to be Christian?

A quick read of the USCIRF introduction alone makes one wonder if the suffering of other religoius minorities even matters. But, perhaps, this comes as no surprise given the roots of USCIRF -- the Act establishing the agency was lobbied for by the Christian Solidarity International, International Christian Concern, Open Doors, Cardinal Kung Foundation, amongst others. But regardless of who serves on the Commission or who lobbied for its creation, USCIRF's pronouncements today must condemn the persecution of any and all peoples, regardless of the name(s) by which they call God.

Singling out what issues have made "in" crowd status is by no means intended to undermine the suffering of anyone that is fortunate enough to have this kind of support or access. But what about those who aren't "in"?

Imbalances in representation and lack of diverse perspectives lead to skewed, erratic, and misguided U.S. foreign policies, leave alone the fact that scores of suffering humans are left without voice. This year's USCIRF annual report is a case in point. Bangladesh is barely mentioned, while countries like Bhutan, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka, where primarily Hindus suffer, are wholly ignored.

There's also the listing of India, a third year in a row, in the company of Afghanistan, Cuba, and Russia, on the USCIRF "Watch List." The "Watch List" identifies those countries that the USCIRF believes are in danger of being listed among the worst offenders of religious freedom. Indeed India, like any other country, has its share of problems -- corruption, poverty, archaic and failing infrastructure. But does India, with its unusual legal accommodations given to religious minorities -- separate personal and family laws for Muslims and Christians; an annual Hajj subsidy to Muslims for pilgrimage; and the right of all religious communities, except Hindu, to independently control their respective places of worship free from government interference -- belong in the same category as Afghanistan, Russia, and Cuba?

India has been victim of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism for decades, yet still has maintained post-Mumbai attack law and order. It has also seen its fair share of inter-religious violence -- in the last decade, the deadly riots in Gujarat after a mob burned a train full of Hindu pilgrims in 2002, and the Orissa riots of 2007 after a Hindu spiritual leader was murdered. But the government is held accountable by robust human rights mechanisms, an independent judiciary, and even creating special courts to comprehensively probe incidents of inter-religious violence.

This past March, my colleague, Prof. Ramesh Rao, the author of HAF's annual report, and I were invited by USCIRF to testify as to whether India should be removed from the list. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time a Hindu group was consulted, and HAF was likely the only organization consulted that was arguing for India's removal. Despite our spirited and well-documented testimony, USCIRF reported that though measures to improve religious freedom were ongoing in India, the country should still be kept on the watch list.

During our testimony, some on the Commission seemed very concerned with some state "Freedom of Religion" laws, which many there continue to erroneously refer to as "anti-conversion laws." We pointed out that these laws have seldom been enforced, have not affected the freedom or ability of individuals to convert, and have not been effective in protecting the vulnerable populations they are intended to protect from being forcibly or fraudulently converted as a result of lack of enforcement. We submitted to the Commission amongst several others, a case I cited in an earlier piece here on the Huffington Post -- The Question of Evangelism in India -- how just one church, the Houston-based Central India Christian Mission, proselytized to over 320,000 people and converted more than 19,600 inhabitants in central India in 2010 alone. Does that sound like Indians are having difficulty converting? Suppose we turn the tables: imagine some Hindu guru from India entering the U.S. under the "guise" of visiting rather than obtaining a religious worker (R-1 visa) and then boasting about having successfully converted a stadium full of desperately poor Americans with promises of being saved both materially and spiritually? One can almost hear the calls for stricter immigration laws and the protective regulations that would likely result.

In the U.S., several states have singled out Muslim Americans by proposing legislation to outlaw Shariah. In Arizona, one legislator has gone a step further -- he suggested outlawing the Laws of Karma as well (yes, the "Laws of Karma," but I save that for another piece). Americans have also witnessed, over the past decade, an eroding of the wall separating church and state and diminishing legal tolerance for free exercise by none other than our highest court. Religiously-motivated hate crimes are on the rise, especially against Muslims and anyone who "looks" Muslim, which includes Sikhs and Hindus. And what about the American neighborhoods which misuse zoning laws to keep out "foreign" religions and their houses of worship? By the logic USCIRF appears to use in the judgment of others, perhaps it should list the U.S. on the Watch List too.

HAF's Dr. Aseem Shukla, brought out an interesting observation in 2009 in the Washington Post about the USCIRF: "Examine the makeup of the USCIRF: Six members are Christian, one is Jewish and one Muslim. Not a single non-Abrahamic faith is represented." Could a Hindu, Buddhist, or Sikh Commissioner offer relevant cultural and religious insight and social and political context? Could he or she add balance, deepen the analysis, and dispel false assumptions towards the development of more well-rounded and sound U.S. foreign policies? Absolutely. But we're just not "in" -- yet.