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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Why the Persecution of Muslims Should Be on Biden’s Agenda

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

The incoming U.S. president must hold China and other countries accountable for religious persecution—and counter Beijing’s global campaign to destroy human rights.

A recent Pew Research Center report documented the highest level of government restrictions on the free practice of religion worldwide in more than a decade. The Middle East and North Africa, Pew found, continues to have the highest prevalence of government restrictions, while Asia showed a sharp increase in the use of force against religious groups, including property damage, detention, displacement, other forms of abuse, and killings.

While Christians were targeted in 145 countries worldwide in 2018, according to the Pew study, Muslims came in close behind, facing harassment in 139 countries. But while Christians face serious repression in much of the world, government actions against Muslims were greater in scope and scale, impacting hundreds of millions of people. Based on my 20 years of work in this field, it is clear to me that no other community faces as high a level of government repression as Muslims—not just in certain countries where they are a minority, such as China and India, but also in places where Islam is the state religion and its practice is strictly enforced. In these countries, governments rarely tolerate dissident interpretations of Islam, let alone a citizen’s right to abandon the faith into which they were born.

China aims at nothing less than destroying Islam in its western province of Xinjiang, where more than 10 million Muslims live. The communist authorities have forced more than 1 million Uighur Muslims into more than 1,000 “reeducation” camps. The crime of “religious extremism” can include everyday tenets of the faith such as wearing a beard, refusing to drink alcohol, or fasting during Ramadan. Internal Chinese documents have confirmed the repression campaign, as has drone footage that shows Uighur Muslims bound and gagged.

China aims at nothing less than destroying Islam in Xinjiang, where more than 10 million Muslims live.

In Myanmar, the government has perpetrated genocide against Rohingya Muslims, as experts have confirmed. Myanmar soldiers have been ordered to “kill all you see” in their massacre of Rohingya Muslims. While the Rohingya are also an ethnic minority, the mass atrocities—people killed, women raped, villages destroyed—that have led around 850,000 people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh would likely not be happening if they were Buddhists. But it is not only authoritarians who target Muslims. In democratic and pluralistic India, which has the third-largest Muslim population in the world, government policies could conceivably force millions of Indian Muslims into statelessness with no recourse to regain their citizenship. The enforcement of laws restricting the slaughter of cows penalizes Muslims for offending against certain Hindu dietary restrictions. Across India, some authorities have turned a blind eye to mob violence against Muslims, including lynching. The revocation of the autonomy of the Muslim-majority state Jammu and Kashmir, along with the long-running lockdown there, has strong anti-Muslim undertones. And India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, recently established criminal penalties for alleged forced conversions in interfaith marriages, a law that grew out of the widespread “love jihad” conspiracy theory.

But unlike Christians in Christian-majority countries, Muslims also face severe restrictions on their rights in Muslim-majority countries, where many governments deny their citizens the freedom to explore interpretations of their faith, change their religion or sect, or choose not to practice a religion at all—sometimes on the penalty of death.

For instance, Saudi Arabia requires all Sunnis to practice the Salafi form of Islam. When this is questioned, jail and torture can follow, as in the case of Raif Badawi, charged with apostasy in 2012 and later publicly flogged for “insulting Islam.” In Pakistan, over 80 percent of those accused of blasphemy are Muslim, including members of the Ahmadi Muslim sect, which the government specifically targets for its theological beliefs. Muslim reformers and free thinkers often live a precarious existence due to extremist attacks and arrests by the authorities. For example, in July 2020 a man was killed by an extremist in a Pakistani courtroom just before his trial for allegedly being an Ahmadi Muslim. In Bangladesh, the blogger Avijit Roy avoided jail for his secularist writings, but he was hacked to death by members of an Islamist terrorist group in 2015. Interfaith marriages are banned in many places.

To penalize and deter foreign officials from perpetrating crimes, the Biden administration should continue and expand the Trump administration policy of targeted sanctions.

With the exception of the Rohingya, persecution of Muslims has generally failed to garner high-level attention from governments and civil society. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and its members have been noticeably silent on China’s oppression of Muslims, losing their voice out of fear of China’s might. Some have even publicly supported Beijing’s measures against their co-religionists in Xinjiang. When Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited China in February 2019, he expressly supported Chinese “anti-terrorism” policies. In July 2019, many OIC members signed a letter celebrating China’s “remarkable achievements” in human rights and backing its Xinjiang policies.

India and its government under Prime Minster Narendra Modi also seems to get a pass. U.S. President Donald Trump was silent on riots targeting Muslims in Delhi during his visit there last February. The world barely batted an eye when Modi provocatively laid a foundation stone for a Hindu temple on the site of the former Babri Mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya, a spot that has been contested between Hindus and Muslims since the 19th century. And there is virtually no discussion of the limited religious rights of Muslims in Muslim-majority countries. For instance, during an international meeting of foreign ministers and other high-level representatives on religious freedom convened by Poland in mid-November 2020, the persecution of Muslims in Muslim-majority countries wasn’t even on the agenda. The incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden should respond to the persecution of Muslims in concrete ways while also advancing religious freedom for all. This is not to elevate one community’s suffering over another’s, but to make sure that no community is left behind.

First, on Xinjiang, the Biden administration should initiate high-level outreach to majority-Muslim countries, replicating the informal coalition that emerged on the Rohingya issue. It will not be easy, as China can and will push back in ways Myanmar cannot. As one diplomat from an Arab country emphasized to me, China plays rough. For Washington to unite allies and impose a cost for silence, leaders of Muslim-majority nations will need personal overtures from Biden and his prospective secretary of state, Antony Blinken. Naming and shaming governments for not responding to Chinese persecution of Muslims can bring public pressure to bear. Second, the United States should contest every space where China has been working to destroy human rights. While visiting Geneva in my U.S. State Department capacity in March 2020, I saw glitzy displays outside the United Nations Human Rights Council chamber highlighting “human rights programs” in Xinjiang with videos of happy Uighurs. It was tasteless and Orwellian. How was it allowed? Because China strong-arms small countries, pressures U.N. officials, and breaks the rules to suit its interests. Only the United States is powerful enough to lead an effort to push back. One practical and immediate step would be for Washington to rejoin the Human Rights Council after the Trump administration pulled the United States out. The body is dysfunctional, but only a vocal and active U.S. presence can prevent China from undermining human rights standards on a global level and deny Beijing a safe harbor from criticism.

Reforming the pernicious web of laws and attitudes that limit free thinking in the broader Muslim world will be the work of a generation.

The Biden administration should also hold companies accountable for their supply chains and for profiting from China’s and Myanmar’s atrocities. In China’s case, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act enjoys bipartisan support that would impose real costs on perpetrators. Once it passes, the law should be aggressively enforced.

Concerning the other repressive countries, the world will watch whether the Biden administration makes exceptions for partners such as India and Saudi Arabia—or is willing to criticize without fear of upsetting bilateral relations. In an earlier position, I worked with the National Security Council to encourage then-President Barack Obama to raise concerns about minority rights during a state visit to India. To Obama’s credit (and Modi’s consternation), he gave a major speech on the issue during his visit, which Indians afterward told me helped improve the domestic climate. Trump did not publicly follow suit, but Biden can take a firmer tone. And if India does not change course, placing it on the U.S. special watch list for religious freedom violations would be a measured and justifiable next step.

To penalize and deter foreign government officials from perpetrating crimes, the Biden administration should continue and expand the Trump administration policy of targeted sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. Persecutors in China and Myanmar now possibly understand, for the first time, that their actions can produce personal consequences regardless of where they are committed.

Lastly, reforming the pernicious web of laws and attitudes that limit free thinking in the broader Muslim world will be the work of a generation. Success will require a combination of consistent bilateral and multilateral pressure. The International Religious Freedom Alliance launched by the Trump administration provides a ready-made tool to encourage reform, especially when coordinated with action by the Human Rights Council, the G-20, or other multilateral bodies. Biden’s plan to increase the number of refugees accepted by the United States also restores a vital safety valve for those who need to be rescued now.

Consistently speaking out for religious freedom means advocating for Muslims, Christians, and members of other religions when they are targeted for their faith. If the Biden administration does so, it will enhance U.S. credibility and effectiveness across the board.

And it will help many millions of people enjoy a more peaceful and secure future.

Knox Thames is a former special advisor on religious minorities at the U.S. State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations. Twitter: @KnoxThames

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