Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Holy Land Foundation Trial: a test of religious freedom

[Disclaimer: I apologize to my friends for incorrect translations. After all, Ana la atakellem al arabi (I think that says I don’t speak Arabic). My mistakes are made from ignorance, not, as you know, from any disapproval. I also apologize for the length of this post.]

When FBI agent Laura Burns testifies in the HLF trial, especially when she reads from transcripts of conversations among the defendants, she uses a flat voice calculated to make the defendants’ words sound inexpressive and even unintelligent (she also refuses to pronounce the defendants’ names correctly). The most questionable characteristic of her reading, however, is her apparent attempt to make the defendants’ references to their religion sound flippant or even like swearing. Religious intolerance comes in many forms. Subtly making believers of a given faith seem less sophisticated or sincere than oneself is a time-tested way of expressing intolerance.

Agent Burns’ entire “performance” on the stand is calculated to demean the defendants.

Expressing one’s trust in Allah is part of the every day speech of Muslims. Expressions of faith and trust are common even in academic writing: “So, if it is right, it is from Allah. But if it is wrong, it comes from me. May the Lord direct us to the to the Right Path!” (1) These expressions are not “taking God’s name in vain,” which those of the Jewish-Christian tradition are taught to avoid. They are akin to a devout Christian saying, “Praise the Lord,” or “Thank you Jesus” to indicate the belief that God directs one’s life. The most common of these phrases is “Insha ‘Allah,” which means roughly, “If Allah wills it.” But phrases that mean “Praise be to Allah,” or “Thanks be to Allah,” are part of the thought and every day speech of Muslims. Just as a Christian who “praises the Lord” means what she says, so those expressions by Muslims are a sincere act of their religious practice.

Agent Burns reads such phrases to make them sound flippant or profane.

She has, I think, a calculated reason for reading this way. Some American fundamentalist Christians (this is not to say Agent Burns is one—we have no knowledge of her beliefs, although we do have knowledge of her glaring ignorance of important background of this trial) have influenced our government that it must pave the way for Christians to proseletyze in foreign countries (especially Muslim nations). This anti-Muslim atitude has (whether Americans realize it or not) been written into law.

The International Religious Freedom Act was passed by Congress in 1998 and signed by President Clinton. The Office of International Religious Freedom was formed under the act, within the U.S. Department of State to promote religious freedom as an objective of US foreign policy. That sounds benign enough. However, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an “independent,” bipartisan agency that advises the Administration and Congress on inserting demands for “religious freedom” into our foreign policy, is made up of extreme conservative (fundamentalist) christianists. Its current chairman, Michael Cromartie, appointed by Geroge W. Bush, is the Vice President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a blatantly christianist think tank, where he directs the “Evangelicals in Civic Life” program. Its vice chairman is Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Both of these men are dedicated to advancing the fundamentalist christianist agenda of “Christian Zionism” and the conversion of Muslims to Christianity. The chief duty of this commission is to advise the Office of International Religious Freedom.

The most recent report (September 15, 2006) of John V. Hanford, “ambassador at large” who heads that office, is ironic. It says that Uzbekistan is the worst violator of religious freedom in the world:

“The most serious problem over the last few years in Uzbekistan has been the inappropriate arrest of some Muslims who are simply observant, maybe praying five times a day. Perhaps they have a beard, and just on the basis of these outward signs, they are suspected of having terrorist ties. And in some cases, these people have been horribly treated.” (No comment necessary.)

That the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 has been twisted to become a tool of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab policy in the United States government is obvious (the accusation that the government of Uzbekistan is anti-Muslim notwithstanding). And the Bush Department of Justice falls into lock-step with that policy.

T. Jeremy Gunn, Senior Fellow for Religion and Human Rights at Emory University, who previously worked for the Commission on International Religious Freedom says, The events of 9/11/2001 are

“…not prompting government officials to press for the larger principle of religious freedom that was loudly proclaimed in 1998. Rather, it is precipitating them to cultivate convenient alliances with religious oppressors. If the United States pursues its war [on terror] by abetting regimes that suppress religious freedom in the name of security, it will likely lose the battles for freedom and security.” (2)

Agent Burns (and, indeed, the entire prosecution team) is intent on participating in the Bush administration’s efforts to “suppress religious freedom in the name of security.” And if they have to use intentional (but covert) demeaning of the defendants in the Holy Land Foundation trial to do it, they will stoop even to that.

James Madison, in his Memorial to the Virginia legislature of 1785 wrote,

Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to [those who do not believe what we believe]. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered.
(1) Dr. Faisal bin Misha’al Sa’ud Al Sa’ud. The ‘Open Councils’ and the Islamic Concept of Rule in Saudi Arabian Politics. Gulf Center for Strategic Studies, 2003.
(2) T. Jeremy Gunn. “When Our Allies Persecute: Religion after 9-11.” Religion in the News Fall 2001, 4.3.