U.S. Gets Tough on Pakistan Religious Persecutions, Should Go Farther

The Trump administration’s get-tough approach to Pakistan’s alleged double-dealing does not go nearly far enough

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

The Trump administration’s get-tough approach to Pakistan’s alleged double-dealing — it has allegedly been taking billions in U.S. aid while harboring Islamic terrorists and permitting the wanton persecution of Christians and other religious minorities — does not go nearly far enough.

That’s the stance of the respected U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. While the Trump administration earlier this year put Pakistan on its “Special Watch List” for countries that “engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom,” it stopped short of slapping Pakistan with the much more serious Country of Particular Concern designation (CPC).

By law, the Secretary of State designates a nation as a Country of Particular Concern when it is guilty of “particularly severe violations of religious freedom, including torture or inhuman treatment.”

USCIRF, an independent U.S. federal government commission dedicated to defending global religious freedom, has been pushing the State Department to designate Pakistan a Country of Particular Concern for 15 years.

“Given the strong stance that President Trump has taken on Pakistan recently,” USCIRF chairman Daniel Mark stated, “the failure to designate Pakistan as a CPC this year comes as a surprise and disappointment.”

Rhetorically, President Trump clearly has lowered the boom. In his very first tweet of the New Year, he stated what many Pakistan-watchers have been saying for a long time.

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years,” Trump tweeted, “and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”

The reaction was predictable: An angry outcry from Pakistan that quickly exploded into a series of defensive tweets and proclamations, decrying Trump, denying “lies and deceit,” and defending Pakistan’s important role in counterterrorism.

But Trump’s tweet and the ensuing uproar were just the beginning.

On Jan. 4, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that for the first time the State Department had added Pakistan to the “Special Watch List” for religious freedom violations. According to the State Department, a country is placed on the Watch List when it has “engaged in or tolerate[d] severe violations of religious freedom.”

Then on Jan. 15, the Trump administration announced it would suspend about $2 billion in aid to Pakistan — officially a U.S. ally — over what Reuters termed “accusations that Islamabad is playing a double game in Afghanistan.”

Pakistan is an Islamic state known to persecute just about every other faith group inside its borders. This even includes fellow Muslims not aligned with its rigid Salafist doctrines. Ahmadis, Christians, and even Shia Muslims continue to fall prey to jihadi mobs, murders, and massive suicide bombings in mosques and churches.

To make matters worse, Pakistan’s constitution features an infamous Blasphemy Law, sentencing to death those convicted of insulting Islam, Mohammad, or the Koran. All too often, when the state fails to efficiently do away with the condemned, vigilante mobs finish the job.

The best-known surviving victim of the Blasphemy Law is Asia Bibi, an illiterate field worker and mother of five, who was arrested in 2009 after her Muslim co-workers accused her of blasphemy because she defended her Christian faith.

She is locked up in an 8-foot by 10-foot solitary confinement cell on death row, forbidden to see her family. Asia Bibi’s only hope lies in a much-belated Supreme Court decision on her final appeal for clemency.

It is important to note that two leading Pakistani officials have been assassinated for defending Asia Bibi, and for demanding the elimination of the blasphemy law. Their killers were set free.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, nearly 60,000 people have been killed by terrorists in Pakistan since 2003.

Open Doors, an international Christian organization, has placed Pakistan as No. 5 on its 2018 World Watch List, an annual publication naming the world’s 50 worst persecutors of Christians.

In that context, the State Department’s placement of Pakistan on a “Special Watch List” regarding religious freedom is a small but significant step in the right direction.

And President Trump’s New Year’s tweet exposed the deepening rift between the U.S. and Pakistan for its collaboration with terrorists, for protecting their malignant cells, and for turning a blind eye to their atrocities.

Meanwhile, in response to the U.S. statements, Pakistan’s Daily Times commentator Nasir Saeed wrote that Pakistan should respond positively, and move to promote religious tolerance and discourage religious hatred.

“I don’t think the government is unaware of these issues or of the concerns of international community,” he wrote, “and resolving these is not beyond the means of the government or politicians. The only thing lacking is political will.”

All of which raises a key question: Could cutting U.S. aid actually induce Pakistan to recommit to being a trustworthy counter-terrorism ally?

Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, expressed his doubts in an NPR interview.

“I think that Pakistan is not going to change its behavior for a few hundred million dollars, whether it is given as an incentive or whether it be drawn as a punishment,” he said. “I think people in Washington need to think of other ways of coercing Pakistan.”

Haqqani added that Pakistan leaders, ever fearful of an incursion from arch rival India, are simply acting in what they perceive as their country’s national interest.

“They think that supporting terrorism helps Pakistan have greater strength in the region against India,” Haqqani told NPR. “I don't agree with it. You don't agree with it. The world doesn't agree with it. But that's what they believe.”