The 2010 International Religious Freedom Report

Nothing for Europe to crow about.

The US State Department has just released its annual International Religious Freedom Report (you can find the Executive Summary here and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remarks introducing the report here).

The list of designated Countries of Particular Concern -- those that have "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom" -- is not entirely unexpected: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. But Saudi was not the only US ally to come in for harsh words. The summary concludes the following about Egypt, for instance:

The status of respect for religious freedom by the government remained poor, unchanged from the previous year. Members of non-Muslim religious minorities officially recognized by the government generally worship without harassment; however, Christians and members of the Baha'i Faith, which the government does not recognize, face personal and collective discrimination, especially in government employment and their ability to build, renovate, and repair places of worship.... Government authorities often refused to provide converts with new identity documents indicating their chosen faith. The government failed to prosecute perpetrators of violence against Coptic Christians in a number of cases.... [and] continued to contribute to a climate of impunity.

A few bald facts put the other side about holiday destinations like the Maldives, where you may be surprised to learn that the "law prohibits citizens from practising any religion other than Islam". While the "good news" includes the odd statement that might raise eyebrows among some readers. Take this one about Morocco: "In positive developments, on July 28, 2009, King Mohammed VI formally acknowledged the Holocaust..." Progress of a kind, one supposes.

Just as interesting, however, is what the report has to say about the UK and our neighbours.

In Austria, the report listed 200 anti-Semitic incidents, including one where a Palestinian refugee bit off part of a rabbi's finger.

In April, Belgium's "House of Representatives adopted draft legislation prohibiting persons from appearing in public with the face fully or partially covered, if it makes identification impossible. The draft legislation was sponsored by members of the center-right Francophone Liberal Party (MR), but it received nearly unanimous support in the House of Representatives. Because of religious freedom concerns, the sponsors made no mention in the text of burqas or niqabs. However, human rights advocates and spokespersons of the country's Muslim community criticized the initiative arguing that it was racially motivated."

France: "The country is home to Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities. Members of these and other groups were victims of violent physical attacks, attacks on their places of worship, and discrimination..... During the reporting period, the government proposed draft legislation that would prohibit the wearing of face-covering veils in public. Some religious groups criticized the proposed legislation because if passed it would restrict religious freedom." The bill has since been passed by both the National Assembly and the Senate, although a constitutional challenge is considered likely. "The public debate on this problem intensified when President Sarkozy condemned burqas as 'not welcome on French soil' during a speech on June 22, 2009."

Germany: the list of anti-Semitic incidents, many of them involving the vandalism and desecration of synagogues and cemeteries, to which the report refers is too long to repeat, but includes this horrific example: "during a soccer match, supporters of SV Muegeln-Ablass 09, a district-league soccer club in the eastern state of Saxony, chanted 'a tree, a noose, a Jew's neck' and 'we're building a subway, from Jerusalem to Auschwitz,' until the match was stopped."

Hungary: "Extremist groups grew in size and number. These included the far right-wing political party Jobbik, which grew in popularity while taking openly anti-Semitic positions, and winning 47 parliamentary seats (12 percent of the total) in the April 25 national election." When its members took their seats in May, "Jobbik Chairman Gabor Vona wore a black vest with symbols of the party's banned paramilitary arm, the Magyar Garda."

Italy: Despite many efforts, which the report details, "no Muslim group has been able to build a mosque in the past year", while in April a 1975 anti-terror law was used to prosecute a woman for wearing a niqab. She was fined Euros 500.

Netherlands: The report mentions the electoral success of Geert Wilders and his trial on charges of inciting hatred against Muslims (which has just collapsed), anti-Semitic attacks and arson attempts on mosques. "Muslims faced societal resentment, attributable to perceptions that Islam is incompatible with Western values, that Muslim immigrants have failed to integrate, and that levels of criminal activity among Muslim youth are higher than the national average. Major incidents of violence against Muslims were rare; however, minor incidents including intimidation, brawls, vandalism, and graffiti with abusive language were common."

The list goes on, and you can find the full index for individual countries here.

But two patterns emerge: anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks are far more commonplace all over the continent than we might wish to think. And, as Secretary Clinton said in her introductory speech : "Several European countries have placed harsh restrictions on religious expression." While this may not be the same as the threats to religious freedom she also mentions, from authoritarian regimes and from violent extremist groups, I would say it fits into her third category: "the quiet but persistent harm caused by intolerance and mistrust which can leave minority religious groups vulnerable and marginalized."

The headlines may be grabbed by what the report has to say about China and Saudi Arabia, but there is not so much for Europe to crow about in it, either. In fact, it's more of a stern "room for improvement".

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty
Show Hide image

Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.