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US religious monitoring bill bites the dust

Abul Fadl

Simmering divisions among congressional Republicans came to the surface on July 3 when the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee decided to indefinitely postpone a religious monitoring act requiring American administrations to punish foreign countries deemed as permitting or endorsing ‘religious persecution.’ The proposed legislation, legally titled: ‘To Provide for the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring and to Provide for the Imposition of Sanctions Against Countries Engaged in Patterns of Religious Repression and for Other Purposes,’ or HR2431, was removed from the Committee’s docket after it became clear that at least three of its 10 Republicans planned to join eight Democrats in casting votes against the bill.

The bill calls for the establishment of an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring (ORPM) whose purported mission is to investigate and monitor ‘religious persecution’ around the world. ORPM will be headed by a director who ‘serves at the pleasure of the President’ (Section 5). Countries determined by the ORPM as being guilty of persecuting their religious minorities will face automatic sanctions, including suspension of all but humanitarian aid from the United States, restrictions on trade with them, American opposition to loans from international financial institutions, and a denial of visas to officials identified as being engaged in persecution (Section 7).

The bill also makes it easy for people who could prove that they are subjected to religious persecution in their home countries to obtain asylum or refugee status under US immigration law (Section 9). The bill specifically targets Sudan for trade and investment sanctions and an air travel ban (Section 12).

Not surprisingly, certain passages in the text of the bill betray anti-Muslim bias. Section 2 identifies ‘Islamic countries and regions’ as places where ‘governments persecute non-Muslims and religious converts from Islam using means such as ôblasphemyö and ôapostasyö laws, and militant movements seek to corrupt a historically tolerant Islamic faith and culture through the persecution of Baha’is, Christians, and other religious minorities.’ Other than ‘Islamic countries and regions,’ only communist countries are explicitly named in the bill as places where faith groups are subjected to systematic ‘religious persecution,’ which is defined in terms of heinous and abhorrent acts such as the ‘abduction, enslavement, killing, imprisonment, forced mass resettlement, rape, or crucifixion or other forms of torture.’ That Muslims are the targets of ‘religious persecution’ in some parts of the world, including many Muslim countries, the Balkans, India, China as well as the US, seems to be of little concern to the drafters of the bill.

It should be pointed out, in this context, that like the US State department’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism, the bill could be used as an open-ended license to bludgeon Muslim countries into kowtowing to Washington’s diktat. This has raised the ire of even some of Washington’s most-trusted allies in the Muslim world. For instance, in Egypt, the government and the American embassy have recently been involved in a feud over the reported assignment of the role of monitoring alleged ‘religious persecution’ against the local Christian Coptic community to a career diplomat stationed at the embassy.

In a number of recent statements, Egyptian officials, including president Husni Mubarak, have indicated that Washington is using the issue of ‘religious persecution’ as a pressure card. Even the Coptic Pope, Shenuda III, has dismissed the American crocodile tears shed over the alleged persecution of Egyptian Copts as an attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of the community.

By calling on the US government to police the world in search of religious persecution, the measure imputes on secular Washington an international religious crusading role. On the operational level, this role will be carried out by an American Orwellian-like department headed by a non-elected director, with powers similar to those of a Soviet-style Commissar.

Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska), leader of the Republican opposition to the bill in the committee, had reportedly said: ‘It would be supremely arrogant for us to grade every country on earth.’ Indeed, arrogant it is. HR 2431 will facilitate US central monitoring of religion all over the world, except in the US. Interestingly enough, proponents of the bill are adamant that ORPM will not have the authority to monitor Americans.

The crusade is spearheaded by a coalition of secular think-tanks, like the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, Christian groups, mainly the Christian Coalition, the US Catholic Conference, the Southern Baptist Convention and a host of TV and mail evangelist ministries, and Jewish lobbying groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League. The leading ‘messenger’ in this crusade is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, Michael Horowitz, who is believed to be the author of the bill. Seven of the Hudson Institute’s board, are members of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Horowitz embarked on his efforts to promote HR2431 in late 1996. It is estimated that at least US$2 million were spent entertaining leaders of the American Christian Right in order to get them to support the act. Since then, many groups in the Washington-savvy Christian Right have also been lobbying hard in favour of the bill. Numerous meetings have been organized by various organizations of the Christian Right in support of the bill before and since its introduction in May 1997 by congressmen Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) and Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania).

Tabling the bill, which had sailed through the House Foreign Services Committee in March by a large margin of 31-5 and through the House Floor in May by an overwhelming majority of 375-41, highlights deep fissures in Republican ranks. The main fault-lines are those pitting the party’s social conservatives, like the Christian Coalition, who provide its foot soldiers, against business interests, like the Chamber of Commerce and major farm organizations, who provide its financial base.

For their part, business interests have been growing increasingly restive about the excessive use of economic sanctions as a US foreign policy tool. They argue that sanctions often fail to achieve their goals and end up benefiting foreign companies at the expense of US firms. They point to the fact that the proliferation of sanctions has already hit certain American industry sectors particularly hard, especially the highly-lucrative aircraft, construction equipment and automobile manufacturers, as foreign customers opt for non-American suppliers for their fleets.

Some opponents of the bill maintain that it stands on thin constitutional ice. They argue, plausibly, that if congress passes the bill, it will have effectively legislated monitoring the exercise of religion. Such legislation violates the limitations on congressional powers enshrined in the first amendment of the US Constitution which expressly states that: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ One of those who doubt the constitutionality of HR2431 is congressman Ron Paul. In a letter he sent to one of his constituents, a copy of which was obtained by the Crescent International, Paul states: ‘The Constitution. . . does not provide the federal government authority to police the world at taxpayers’ expense.’

Muslimedia: August 16-31, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 12

Rabi' al-Thani 23, 14191998-08-16

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