During the battle over John Bolton’s US Senate confirmation to serve as US Ambassador to the United Nations which resulted in “no vote” and thus his early resignation from a recess-appointed position, I received a lot of sensitive information from incumbent and former staff members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which at best, has a checkered reputation as a defender of global religious rights and seems frequently to be more focused on rolling back Islam. The material dealt with the treatment of employed Muslims and alleged discrimination.
Both because the material was incomplete and because those giving me the information were fearful of the repercussions for current employees and put constraints on the use of the material that would have made it more hearsay than definitive, I didn’t use it.
But I’ve been skeptical of the Commission since.
Mother Jones‘ Nick Baumann and David Corn have more in an important piece profiling the views of some of the Commission Members and their hostility to the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.
President Barack Obama has declared that a group of moderate Muslims have the right to build a community center in lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site once occupied by the World Trade Center towers. Yet representatives of a wholly US government-funded outfit have joined the vociferous opposition to the Park51 or Cordoba House project that critics have dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque.” A leader of this group–which receives $4.3 million a year from the government–has even proclaimed that the community center could be a front for Islamic terrorism. That’s not all: the same agency, the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCRIF), has been the subject of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint for allegedly discriminating against Muslim employees.
The commission was created by Congress in 1998 to monitor religious freedom around the world and scold countries that aren’t meeting religious freedom obligations outlined by international human rights treaties. Its sole source of funding is the US government; it is empowered to make recommendations to the president about policy decisions related to issues of religious freedom. Recently, the commission has decried Vietnam for its systemic violation of religious freedom and slammed China for its repression of Uighur Muslims. But leading conservative members of the commission have supported the opposition to the Cordoba House, essentially joining those who want to deny New York Muslims the freedom to build their religious and cultural center at this particular site.
In a recent piece for National Review Online, Nina Shea, one of USCIRF’s nine commissioners (who are selected by the president and congressional leaders), wrote that instead of “a cultural center for all New Yorkers,” the “mosque” project could be “a potential tool for Islamists”–suggesting it would be a hotbed of jihadism that, among other things, spreads the literature and ideas of Islamic extremism. She compared the leaders of the Cordoba House project to convicted terrorist Omar Abdel Rahman (the “blind Sheikh”) and accused Fort Hood and Christmas Day bombing coordinator Anwar al-Awlaki. (Shea’s piece, as of Monday, was no longer showing up on the NRO site.)
When National Review reconsiders, well, it’s clear lines were perceived to be crossed.
The term “McCarthyism” has been overused, but this mosque controversy seems to me to be contributing to a new variant of McCarthyism in which those defending the rights of religious freedom, moderation and tolerance in the US — rights embedded in the founding documents of the country — are labeled as appeasers or as flacks of Islamic interests, or weak, or anti-Semites; the list of labels is extensive.
Islam is going to be here for a long time — and it’s important for Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and secularists like me to figure out a way to embrace Muslims and their faith just as other faiths are embraced in this society.
But on the subject of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, it has not done its job in a long time.
Either Congress needs to review its roster of Commissioners and, ironically, purge the religiously intolerant.
Or it is time for both houses of Congress to zero this account.
— Steve Clemons