By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On June 8th a bipartisan group of 18 US House of Representative members sent a note to speaker Paul Ryan “urging him to prioritize religious freedom during his meeting tomorrow with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” They claimed that there was “ongoing violence and harassment against religious minorities, including Muslims, Christians Buddhists and Sikhs.”
They said that it was in the “best interest of the United States and India to reaffirm religious freedom as a shared value in this growing partnership.” The list of signatories included Republicans and Democrats from various states including Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Juan Vargas of California, Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania and Randy Weber of Texas. It was led by Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona and Betty McCollum from Minnesota.
It’s interesting that a day after a Hindu religious leader was murdered in neighboring Bangladesh, that the congressmen would single out India as the problem. CNN notes that murders of minorities in Bangladesh have become common. A doctor was murdered last month along with two gay activists were killed, a Buddhist monk, a Sufi Muslim minority and a Hindu. Bloggers deemed “secular” have been a frequent target, so much so that headlines read “another blogger hacked to death.” The US Congressmen have not spoken out about religious freedom in Bangladesh.
In Neighboring Pakistan bombings, acid attacks, murders and terror against minorities are also a monthly occurrence. In March 72 people were killed when a bomb targeted Christian families playing at a park, where they were celebrating Easter. Shia Muslims have been frequent targets of bombings. Lynch mobs in Pakistan often attack minorities, especially Christians, as recently as May. A Sikh politician was targeted for murder in April. In March thousands descended on Islamabad to demand the hanging of a Christian woman for “blasphemy”, because in Pakistan blasphemy is punishable by death. But the US Congressmen do not think that hanging people for blasphemy violates religious freedom it seems.
In neighboring Iran the Bahai religious minority are subject to brutal persecution. In india Bahais have a beautiful temple and can do as they please. In Iran there are near daily hate-filled sermons against Bahai, including in government controlled media. Bahai owned businesses are shuttered. Zaroastrians, the indigenous religion of Iran, have been persecuted, and their religious places of worship defiled, since the 1979 Islamist revolution. According to CNN in November 2005, Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, chairman of the Council of Guardians of the Constitution, attacked Zoroastrians and other religious minorities as “sinful animals who roam the earth and engage in corruption.” Zaroastrians in India’s Mumbai enjoy religious freedom. But US congressmen focus on India, not Iran. To focus on Iran would mean condemning the suppression of Kurds, Baluchis, Arabs, Jews and all minorities by the Shia-dominated government. Christians are also persecuted.
In Afghanistan religious persecution is a fact of life, so much so that most non-Muslims minorities have been fully exterminated. Shia Hazzaras have been brutally attacked time and again. It wasn’t enough to cleanse and genocide the Buddhist minority in Afghanistan in the 19th century, in 2001 the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas as the world watched and did nothing. Just one Bengali author in the midst of Afghanistan is enough to trigger her murder by extremists. In India you have hundreds of millions of minorities, in Pakistan just one person is too much.
When we move over to Iraq we find that in the last two years almost the entire Yazidi community has been ethnically-cleansed and genocided from its lands by Islamic State. Thousands were murdered and thousands of women kidnapped and raped. The Islamist movement also targeted all other sects, including Shia; and it cleansed Christians from the Nineveh plains. In this Nazi-like campaign of cleansing and genocide, we did not see a US commitment to religious freedom, but instead ISIS continues to dominate Mosul and continue its crimes, everyday, against minorities. Is the US praising the Kurdish autonomous region for hosting all the religious minorities of Iraq? Where is the support for them?
India stands out as an example of religious freedom, but from the US Congressional letter you’d think it was the problem. Saudi Arabia, where official total discrimination agains all minority religious is an article of law, is not a problem. Saudi Arabia forbids other forms of religious worship besides its own, but even that isn’t enough, it also arrests religious minorities who it imports as servants.
It is part and parcel of the typical US double-standard where countries that are the most liberal, the most free, with the most minorities, are always told they are abusing human rights and told they must do better. But US allies and states the US work with that have no freedom, where people are hacked to death, blown up at easter, slaughtered daily, their religious places of worship illegal and a climate of total persecution, including hangings are normal, are not held to the same standard. It’s truly extraordinary that India, one of the most diverse countries in the world, with more freedom of religious than its neighbors, is attacked for “ongoing violence”, when minorities there go back and forth to mosque or church as they please, where groups such as Zaroastrians and Bahais that have been cleansed from the country they are indigenous to, enjoy freedom, where on public transport one sees people from all faiths, whereas in other countries those people are being hacked to death and bombed. India isn’t perfect, just as European countries have intolerance, and America has intolerance for other religions and minorities. But India’s laws reflect religious diversity. Its neighbors are hanging people for blasphemy or sexual orientation. And somehow it is India that gets the lecture on “shared values”. What shared values does the US and Pakistan have? Millions of dollars in military aid, even though Pakistan somehow “didn’t notice” Osama Bin Laden living next to its major military academy. Pakistan, which breeds generations of extremists who have caused harm to the region, is an ally. No lecture from Congress.
What America does is when it has allies that are 100% persecuting all minorities, it says “this is a pragmatic relationship based on realism, so we must not critique and offend our ally.” But with America’s democratic allies that have religious minorities and diversity, then America’s politicians attack those countries for not upholding “shared values” and American politicians focus on a few incidents of persecution and turn them into lack of religious freedom. Suddenly no talk of “realism” or “their country is different and we must respect their laws and traditions.”
There is nothing wrong with the US supporting religious freedom, in India and other places. When there is persecution in India, the US should speak out, and when rioters attack minorities such as at the Babri Masjid riots, the US should speak out. But on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of religious freedom, India is a 9, while all its neighbors are a 2 or 3. If US congressmen want to speak about freedom and hold countries to standards, they should spend 90% of their time lecturing Pakistan and 10% of their time on India. They should be speaking about the Gulf countries and Saudi. India, home of the Muslim Taj Mahal, the Bahai Lotus Temple and the Sikh Golden Temple, is a symbol of diversity and religious pluralism. Rather than attacking it, the US should be learning from it and working with it, in a world in which ethnic-cleansing and genocide of religious minorities is increasingly common.