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
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.