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 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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Mertze Dahlin   

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April 14, 2012

The politics of religious freedom

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

A broad national coalition of more than 60 civil advocacy organizations and individuals have sent a joint letter to Senators Inouye, McConnell and Durbin expressing "deep concern" at the recent controversial appointment of Zuhdi Jasser to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The coalition asked that Jasser's appointment by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) be rescinded because he has been a vocal opponent of religious freedom for American Muslims.

The coalition noted that Jasser's organization, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, "applauded" an amendment to Oklahoma's constitution that both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals 10th Circuit have held is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by clearly favoring all other religions over Islam. That amendment specifically targeted Islam for official censure.

The letter also cited Jasser's opposition to the constitutionally-protected construction of a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, his support for the New York Police Department's blanket surveillance of Muslims based on religion rather than evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing and his ties to virulently anti-Muslim groups and individual Islamophobes.

The joint letter also pointed out: “The USCIRF promotes the freedom of religion and belief and it seeks to combat religious extremism, intolerance and repression throughout the world. In contrast with these laudable goals, Dr. Jasser believes ‘…operationally, Islam is not peaceful.’ His consistent support for measures that threaten and diminish religious freedoms within the United States demonstrates his deplorable lack of understanding of and commitment to religious freedom and undermines the USCIRF’s express purpose.”

Ironically, Zuhdi Jasser was not the only problematic new appointee. The Speaker of the House John Boehner appointed McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Robert George, who sits on the board of the Bradley Foundation. The Bradley Foundation is well known for supporting anti-Muslim organizations.

Why the USCIRF has appointed a controversial commissioners, the reason one can see is the anti-Islam bias of the Commission reauthorized on Dec. 16, 2011 by the Congress through 2018, just hours before it was scheduled to go out of existence.

According to Michelle Boorstein (Washington Post 2-17-2011) some past commissioners, staff and former staff of the USCIRF is rife, behind-the-scenes, with ideology and tribalism, with commissioners focusing on pet projects that are often based on their own religious background. In particular, they say an anti-Muslim bias runs through the commission's work.

Writing under the headline, “Agency that monitors religious freedom abroad accused of bias,” Boorstein wrote, the commission was hit this fall with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed by a former policy analyst, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, who alleges that her contract was canceled because of her Muslim faith and her affiliation with a Muslim advocacy group. Boorstein went on to say:

 “The commission's six researchers signed a letter unsuccessfully urging their bosses to  keep Ghori-Ahmad because of what they described as her strong résumé and the need  for an analyst to cover the key region of South Asia. One researcher, Bridget Kustin, quit  in protest, saying in her resignation letter that she would not "remain part of an  organization that would be willing to engage in such discrimination."

 “Rumors about infighting and ineffectiveness have swirled for years around the  commission, which was created by Congress in 1998 as part of the International  Religious Freedom Act. The legislation, which was signed into law by President Bill  Clinton, was championed primarily by Christian groups, along with people of Jewish,  Bahai and other faiths, to get the government to pay more attention to religious  persecution overseas and be an advocate for religious freedom in its foreign policy.”

The commission's nine members, who are appointed by the president and congressional leaders of both parties, include two Catholics, two evangelical Protestants, one Southern Baptist, one Orthodox Christian, one Jew and one Muslim, with one vacancy.

Boorstein pointed out that from the start, critics say, the commission has disproportionately focused its efforts on the persecution of Christians, while too often ignoring other religious communities and downplaying their claims of persecution.  "It was predetermined who the bad guys are and who the good guys are," said Khaled Abou El Fadl, a Muslim who served as a commissioner from 2003 to 2007 and teaches human rights at UCLA. "There is a very pronounced view of the world, and it is that victims of religious discrimination are invariably Christian. It was rather suffocating."

On December 14, 2011, Patrick Goodenough of the Cybercast News Service (CNSNews) writing under the title – “Claims That U.S. Religious Freedom Commission Has Been Too Focused on Christians Don't Stack Up” – also pointed out that critics have alleged an anti-Islam bias, and some say Christians have been overrepresented among the nine unpaid commissioners.

Of the present and former commissioners over the lifetime of the USCIRF, as far as can ascertain 14 are Christian (six Roman Catholic, seven Protestant – Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, evangelical – and one Orthodox), five Muslim, three Jewish, one Mormon, one Hindu, one Buddhist and one Baha’i.

Tail Note

Rejecting the USCIRF’s 2012 annual report Turkey said on April 5: “The report, which is prepared by politicians representing some interest groups, contradicts the findings of U.S. State Department’s annual reports so far.” In a written statement the Turkish Foreign Ministry also criticized the report for failing to address incidents in Europe based on Islamophobia, with many mosques having been attacked and religious leaders being appointed by the state. The statement thus said that “the report [had been] prepared for political reasons.”

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America