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
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder