Opinion

Mixed Messages: Can the United States Go Further as Champion of Religious Freedom?

As the bulk of political energy and effort rightfully seems to be focused domestically on recent shootings in Texas and Ohio, previous commitments announced by the White House to defend religious minorities and combating religious persecution globally need to move past polite conversation to action.

In particular, President Donald Trump’s expressed concern for Pakistan’s Ahmadi Muslims, among the world’s most persecuted, is noteworthy, but needs to be backed immediately by definitive steps. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent visit to the White House apparently did not cover the topic of religious freedom.

During the State Department’s recent Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, chaired by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, survivors of religious persecution — including Iraqi Nobel Laureate Nadia Murad, exiled Pakistani Shaan Taseer, and others — met with Trump and spoke of their personal suffering and survivorship.

Shaan Tasseer, a Pakistani Muslim, is the son of the late Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, who was gunned down by a member of his own security detail in a hail of 27 bullets in January 2011. It was an execution called for by Islamists who condemned the governor for calling for the repeal of the blasphemy laws when defending a Christian Pakistani woman, Asia Bibi, held on death row on false charges of blasphemy.

Months after his father’s assassination, Shaan Tasseer’s brother, Shahbaz Taseer, was kidnapped by Pakistani Islamists, held in captivity and tortured for over four years until his release from his hostage takers in Balochistan province of Pakistan.

Taseer has taken up his slain father’s cause, as he advocates and raises money for the defense of more than 200 Pakistani Christians who are victims of blasphemy laws, through his charity, Pakistan For All.

These most vulnerable Christians and other victims of the blasphemy laws languish in jail without formal charges or a trial process. Lawyers and judges appointed for the defense of these Pakistani citizens have been executed.

Religious freedom has been a core value of the United States since it was settled on the basis of securing religious freedom for Puritans fleeing England. Even before America was founded, the New World provided religious freedom to the Huguenots leaving France in 1564 for Fort Caroline, near what would become modern Jacksonville, Fla.

In other parts of the world, this administration has been defined by definitive conclusion of the war against ISIS in August 2017. ISIS perpetrated genocide against the ancient and pacifist Yazidi people, pluralist monotheists whom ISIS smeared as “devil worshippers” to justify their atrocities.

On my visits throughout the Iraqi Kurdistan region in Duhok, Erbil and Lalish, the spiritual epicenter of the Yazidis, many recognize the U.S. efforts in standing with these vulnerable people in the face of ISIS.

I have traveled twice as an academic physician and a human rights observer to post ISIS occupation Iraqi Kurdish sites in Iraq. My goals were to try to better understand the aftermath of their brutality and genocide of Yazidi people, killings of the Muslim and Christian Kurdish people and the incredible human sacrifice of the Kurdish Peshmerga.

Most recently on a trip there I met international refugees, internally displaced people and Peshmerga military commanders. While I was not on official government business, all of those I met repeatedly appealed to me for the need of the United States to guarantee their regional security, two years after the war.

After meeting with Yazidi refugees at the Marmrashan Refugee Camp in Kurdistan — where almost 1,700 Yazidi families remain displaced from their homes — in Lalish, I met with spiritual leader Baba Sheikh Kurto Hajji Ismael, elderly and almost blind.

To my international academic colleagues from Canada, Europe and the University of Duhok, Sheikh said: “The United States is the most powerful nation. The United States is a democratic nation. It has the ability to do anything. But words are not enough. Now we need action. If America wanted to, it can secure the Yazidis.”

In December 2018, Trump signed into law a bill facilitating funding for victims of genocide in Syria and Iraq in the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act. Pence recently announced the formation of a new International Religious Freedom Alliance, a global body defending religious freedom.

But more definitive work remains. The United States needs to talk to Pakistan on the issue of blasphemy laws, and address augmentation of U.S. efforts to bolster the security needs to Iraqi Kurdistan to help stabilize and cement Kurdistan’s permanent autonomy from Federal Iraq.

Survivors of religious persecution look to the United States for action. The United States must act.

Qanta A. Ahmed, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a member of University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation. 

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