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Why did US blacklist Pakistan for religious freedom violations?

Updated December 14, 2018

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.—AFP/File
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.—AFP/File

On December 11, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States had designated Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious” religious freedom violations.

It’s the first time Washington has saddled Islamabad with this status; previously, Pakistan had been on a less serious watch list.

At first glance, the State Department’s decision to blacklist Pakistan comes across as a tone-deaf move.

Washington downgraded Pakistan’s religious freedom ranking at the very moment when Islamabad has taken several unprecedented steps that suggest a desire to help ease the plight of religious minorities.

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Indeed, Pompeo’s announcement came just weeks after Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy charges.

And it came just days after officials announced terrorism and sedition charges for Khadim Rizvi, a religious hardliner who leads a group that rails against religious minorities and calls for the execution of blasphemers.

So why designate Pakistan this year, and not last year or at any other previous time?

The answer is likely rooted in both US foreign policy goals and domestic political considerations in America.

On one level, this was likely a calculated move attributable to pressure tactics. The Trump White House is increasingly intent on identifying new measures to compel Islamabad to take action against the Afghanistan-focused terrorist leaders it accuses Pakistan of harbouring.

These measures, in Washington’s view, must be punitive but not overly provocative — in order to preclude the possibility of a piqued Pakistan shutting down those ever-critical supply routes serving US forces in Afghanistan.

In that regard, blacklisting Pakistan for religious freedom violations fits the bill. It’s a reputational blow for Islamabad; it joins an unsavoury club that includes Somalia and North Korea.

But otherwise, it’s not a very draconian move. In fact, State Department officials, citing US national interests, have announced they won’t slap sanctions on Pakistan, even though being blacklisted can invite such penalties.

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In reality, it’s folly to think this move can work as a pressure tactic.

If Washington thinks shaming Pakistan for religious freedom violations will compel it to magically engineer a dramatic shift in its longstanding policies towards non-state militant actors, then it’s sorely mistaken.

The timing is poor, too.

At a moment when the White House has never been more eager to get Pakistan’s help in bringing reconcilable Taliban representatives to the negotiating table, penalising Pakistan will make the trust necessary for such cooperation even tougher to secure.

But there’s likely a more parochial factor at play too.

Consider that two key senior US officials involved in the move to blacklist Pakistan — Pompeo and Sam Brownback, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom — hail from the evangelical, Christian conservative wing of the Republican Party.

In that sense, both have reason to be particularly concerned about the troubles of Christians in Pakistan.

While the two officials will have been encouraged by the Supreme Court’s acquittal of Asia Bibi, the fact that she still remains in Pakistan, with her life in danger, is likely of deep concern to them.

In a conference call with reporters about the move to blacklist Pakistan, Brownback said, “we continue to watch very carefully what is happening with Asia Bibi.”

He also disclosed that the decision to blacklist Pakistan was due in great part to the country’s blasphemy laws. Christians are one of the main communities victimised by the misuse of these laws.

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Accordingly, we can read Washington’s move in part as a genuine effort to hold the country more accountable for its very real and very serious religious freedom violations — and particularly those that affect Christians, a very personal matter for several key US policymakers.

All this said, regardless of Washington’s motivations, the hypocrisy is crystal clear.

The Trump administration implements policies that explicitly discriminate against Muslims (witness the travel ban), and it often fails to unequivocally condemn acts of violence against Hindus, Muslims and Jews in America.

And yet this same administration continues to arrogate to itself the right to penalise other countries for the same offenses.

Superpowerdom may confer certain privileges, but free passes shouldn’t be one of them. The United States warrants harsh criticism about the state of religious freedom on its own soil — and that criticism should start at home.

Indeed, when you call out countries abroad for the same problems that you confront in your own backyard, some self-criticism can go a long way — and ultimately help bring more credibility to your cause.


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