Monday, May 01, 2017

Zogby's Dissent In the USCIRF Annual Report

As previously reported, last week the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued its 2017 Annual Report.  It turns out that buried in the Report-- i.e. not listed in the Table of Contents-- were a "dissenting statement" by Vice Chair James Zogby (pg. 17 of Report), a joint "additional statement" by 7 of the Commissioners (pg. 20 of Report), an "additional statement" by Vice Chair Daniel Mark (pg. 21 of Report), and an "additional statement" by Commissioner John Ruskay (pg. 21 of Report).  Commissioner Zogby's dissent-- which has two parts-- has generated the most interest.  The media (JTA, Mondoweiss, and a Huffington Post column by Zogby himself) focused on Zogby's complaint that a narrow majority of Commissioners refuse to examine the issue of religious freedom in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Equally interesting, however, is Zogby's broader critique of the manner in which USCIRF operates. He says in part:
I believe that part of the reason why we have not been able to contribute to improving the situation of vulnerable faith communities is because of how we have interpreted our mandate. Instead of serving as a bipartisan group of experts making informed recommendations to the Administration and Congress—as was envisioned by IRFA—we have acted more like a Congressionally-funded NGO that issues a variety of materials “naming and shaming” countries that violate religious freedom.
I believe that instead of using our limited resources to produce opinion pieces, press releases, and a lengthy and duplicative annual report, and acting as a “critic” of the Executive Branch, USCIRF should consider new and constructive approaches to its work in order to more effectively promote international religious freedom. Instead of simply making do with “naming and shaming” the many countries that violate religious freedom, we should develop a more focused approach that involves making an in-depth study of a few targeted countries so that we might be in a position to provide the Administration and Congress with creative problem-solving ideas where improvements in religious freedom can be made....
In too many instances, we have failed to distinguish between actual violations of religious freedom and sectarian, regional, or tribal struggles for political power. Too often, in the past, some have engaged in reductionist analysis—seeing everything as a nail, because the only tool we wield is a hammer. In failing to understand the complexity and non-religious underpinnings of conflicts, like those in Nigeria, Iraq, or the Central African Republic, our analysis and recommendations sometimes miss the mark. Religious conflict is not the cause of tension in these countries and, therefore, religious freedom is not the solution to their problems.
Some have expanded this reductionism to extreme and even absurd lengths, claiming that if, as they maintain, religious freedom is “the first freedom,” then all else flows from it. They correctly observe a correlation between religious freedom and prosperity and democracy in some countries, but then mistakenly attribute the latter to the former. In fact, a more convincing case can be made that prosperity and democracy are the prerequisites for religious freedom. In other instances, they have attempted to make the case that religious extremism only originates in countries that violate religious freedom. This patently false conclusion ignores the reality of home-grown extremist religious movements in Western Europe or the United States.