Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
Advocating for Human Rights at the US department of StatE
From July 24 - 26, the U.S. State Department invited 80 governments, over 175 civil society representatives, and more than 100 religious leaders to participate in the first ever Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom. MPV’s president Ani Zonneveld and U.N. representative Omair Paul were among the civil society representatives invited, and over the course of three days contributed to the Ministerial plenary and breakout sessions and engaged civil society and government representatives from across the world (and political spectrum). In addition to attending Ministerial meetings, MPV organized a side event in partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and the United States Institute of Peace entitled Engaging Transformative Religious Narratives for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and contributed to a panel organized by allies at Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Watch entitled Religious Freedom in the Human Rights Framework.
We at MPV appreciate the State Department’s efforts to ensure that a diversity of voices and opinions were heard, and note with appreciation the efforts made to exemplify the plight of religious minorities through several first-person testimonies, including those offered from a representative of the Muslim Uighur community in China and a Rohingya lawyer representing her community. Their stories of state-sponsored persecution are legitimate and dire, as were the stories of persecution recounted by Christian and Yazidi survivors of the terror and violence wrought by Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
No one can deny the veracity of these testimonies. In the same vein, we cannot avoid the truth that certain actors utilized this space to promulgate subtle biases against Muslims and Islam, and to promote potentially destabilizing theo-political agendas that ultimately reflect the domestic and foreign policy imperatives of problematic lobbyist groups. We also cannot ignore the fact that recognized hate groups were invited to the Ministerial and used the space to invoke twisted interpretations of religious freedom in order to justify their bigotry and explicit anti-LGBTQI animus. We unequivocally rebuke this behavior and are disturbed by how welcomed this hate was by other invitees. Furthermore, we affirm these narratives and understandings of religious freedom undermine the authenticity, integrity, and inclusiveness of the administration’s objectives to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief.
MPV took every opportunity to challenge these rights-diminishing narratives and understandings by vocalizing our concerns at both the Ministerial plenary meetings and during thematic breakout sessions. During the breakout discussion on “religious freedom and women’s rights,” Ani represented MPV and delivered a statement—to a panelist showing palpable bias against Muslims and Islam—regarding how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as advised by attorney Alan Dershowitz, may shield doctors here in the U.S. from accountability when they conscientiously perform female genital mutilation and cutting on young girls in certain religious communities, including the Dawoodi Bohra community in Detroit, Michigan.
During the “religious freedom and countering violent extremism” breakout session, Ani also challenged the administration to hold itself accountable to the same standards it holds violators of religious freedom abroad: “As a human rights organization, when we challenge Muslim-majority countries on human rights abuses carried out on their soil in the name of Islam, including violations of the rights of religious minorities, we are told by state and non-state actors to take care of our own backyard first.” MPV continued to push back against the blatant anti-Islam sentiment espoused during the session, as Ani responded to an individual who painted Islam as a monolithic and supremacist religion: “Supremacist ideologies are part of the problem that we Muslims need to undo, but what of American Christian legislators who institutionalize their interpretation of Christianity into law? How is this any different than the institutionalization of Sharia law?”
Omair Paul delivered a statement at the “religious freedom and economic prosperity” breakout session addressing the nexus between the abuse of religious freedom rhetoric to justify discrimination against LGBTQI people. In addition to framing rights-diminishing religious and cultural fundamentalisms—which often seep into legislative and policy spaces under the guise of respecting and protecting “religious freedom” or “traditional family values”—as a threat to sustainable and equitable human and economic development, the statement served as a pointed response to the anti-LGBTQI hatred espoused during the plenary session just prior. During that session, a representative of an organization recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBT hate group took the floor to condemn the U.S. State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s imperatives to address and elevate the human rights situation of LGBTQI people internationally, framing these imperatives as incompatible with broader State Department initiatives to protect religious freedom and other human rights.
MPV also called on government officials, including Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, to include Muslim women in policy-level consultations with Muslim communities. This directive was couched in the critique of U.S. government agencies’ and officials’ tendency to “default to the lowest hanging fruit,” i.e. mainstream and well-funded Muslim organizations that are often male dominated and that subscribe to patriarchal interpretations of Islam.