By Arab News
By Oubai Shahbandar*
The UN General Assembly (UNGA) may be the year’s single largest gathering of heads of state and diplomats, but the event isn’t typically remembered as an occasion in which major policy breakthroughs are achieved. However, during last month’s three-day diplo-palooza, the push for global religious freedom — and support for Muslims struggling for liberty and human dignity — came almost exclusively from one corner: The Trump administration.
It is a fight that brings together all the Abrahamic faiths. And it speaks volumes that it was in the Vatican last week, in the presence of Pope Francis, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once again called for international action against the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to erase Uighur Muslims from existence in Xinjiang province (also known as East Turkestan by the Uighur).
At the spiritual center for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Pompeo put a spotlight on the case of one Uighur, Zumuret Dawut, who was detained by the Chinese communists and forced to renounce her faith as a condition for her release. “When the state rules absolutely, it demands its citizens worship government, not God,” he said.
Maintaining momentum on this issue has shown how serious the administration is. The US co-hosted an event on the sidelines of the UNGA on China’s treatment of Muslim minorities, including the Uighurs. These efforts could not have been timelier, as recent credible reports indicate that Beijing has significantly enhanced its persecution and mass imprisonment of Muslims. As per UN data, approximately 1 million Uighurs languish in a string of detention camps for “re-education.”
The voice that senior administration officials have offered is invaluable for raising awareness and organizing a global pushback against Beijing’s cleansing campaign.
But it is not just China. Muslims in Syria and Myanmar are on also the receiving end of brutal, government-backed systemic cleansing campaigns. The Trump administration has been actively engaged on both fronts.
Special envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey and senior State Department official Joel Rayburn sat down with the Syrian community and members of the Syrian opposition last week to discuss implementing measures to pursue justice and accountability for the war crimes that have been committed — and continue to be committed — by the Iranian-backed Assad regime. Having US government buy-in at such a high level sends a clear message to Assad and Iran: The documentation of some of the worst war crimes since the Second World War will not simply be swept under the proverbial rug.
On Myanmar, more US humanitarian assistance has been ordered for the Rohingya Muslim minority that has faced what by all definitions can be described as a genocidal campaign. More than 1 million Rohingya have been forced out of their homes by the army, with thousands more slaughtered by death squads.
Fighting for religious freedom worldwide is a foreign policy objective that should be commended and remain a priority for the White House. Christians worldwide are also facing persecution and displacement at unprecedented levels — often at the hands of the same despotic regimes that have persecuted and killed Muslims.
The Chinese Communist Party, Iranian-backed death squads and Islamist extremists in the Middle East have targeted Christians just as they target Muslims. As it stands, only the US has the reach, power and influence to prevent and counter such oppression and to ameliorate the suffering of the victims.
Raising the Uighur issue in particular on a prominent platform such as the UNGA is a major irritant for China, and doubly so when that platform is leveraged to bring a human face to the suffering of the Uighur Muslims. One event that stood out for me during the UNGA was the live stream interview held by the State Department’s Morgan Ortagus with the daughter of imprisoned Uighur human rights activist Ilham Tohti. Uighur dissidents like Tohti are feared by Beijing more than anything because they have preached civil disobedience and religious harmony between Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese.
Shortly after the discussion with Tohti’s daughter, he was awarded the 2019 Vaclav Havel Human Rights prize. He continues to languish in a Chinese prison following his 2014 arrest. Showing the world that Uighurs are not forgotten is crucial — it offers the White House additional points of leverage over Beijing and signals that America is willing to do the right thing, no matter how difficult.
There is no human dignity without religious freedom. It is a powerful moving force that can change the direction of history and topple tyrannical, mass-murdering regimes.
In the Vatican, Pompeo rightly underscored the power of religious freedom as a tool for positive change when he remarked: “Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan combined the moral authority of the Holy See and the prosperity and example of the US to fight the evil empire… through unity of purpose they prevailed and left the Soviet leviathan on the ash heap of history.”
The proliferation of evil empires today can be countered with a similar sentiment. Standing by men like Tohti, helping to broadcast their voice to the world, and pressuring regimes that persist in religious persecution — against Muslims and Christians alike — is something that the Trump administration has done across the board better than its predecessor.
That Tohti was the recipient of a prize named after Vaclav Havel — a Czech anti-communist dissident who was famously close to the late Pope John Paul II — was fitting. Havel was one man who kept the faith and helped bring down a communist empire. Individuals like Tohti have the same power to alter the course of world history.
Keeping religious freedom at the forefront of policy formulation and helping those who are most vulnerable to ethnic cleansing is arguably in the national security interests of the US. And, while cynical critics will ask why the US should trouble itself with persecuted Christians and Muslims in faraway lands, history has shown that there is value in lending the powerful hand of the US to those trying to shine a light on the dignity of human life and those trying to survive extermination.
President Donald Trump and his administration should be praised for not shying away from the herculean task ahead. God bless them for it.
- Oubai Shahbandar is a Syrian-American former Pentagon official. He is currently working on a documentary on Syria. Twitter: @os26