Zuhdi Jasser does not belong on USCIRF

March 30, 2012

This past December, Congress reauthorized the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for another three years, with added provisions on term limits for the Commissioners. The reauthorization was passed after initially being held up by Senator Richard “Dick” Durbin (D-IL) during the Senate confirmation process.

Many members of Congress and civil society groups questioned the effectiveness of the Commission over the past decade, saying it has become extremely politicized and had lost its legitimacy due to the actions and statements of some of its Commissioners. This week’s latest news has done nothing to ease those concerns about the Commission.

On Monday March 26th, a USCIRF press release announced the appointment of Zuhdi Jasser to the Commission by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Jasser is the founder and President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and has been a staunch critic of American Muslims and their institutions. He and members of his family comprise the board of his organization and receives funding from the extremist group, The Clarion Fund. That organization has produced several anti-Islam films that warn of Muslim conspiracies and implicates American Muslims as attempting to reestablish a global caliphate.

The Clarion Fund was the primary funder and producer of Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West and The Third Jihad, both films that characterize American Muslims as a fifth column who seek to destroy the West from within. He has also been a darling of extremists such as Frank Gaffney, whose organization, the Center for Security Policy, gave Jasser its Defender of the Home Front award. Jasser recently defended the NYPD with anit-Muslim Congressman Peter King for its broad surveillance of American Muslim communities.

Worse than Jasser’s appointment itself, is that Jasser’s controversial anti-Muslim affiliations are coupled with actions showing that he does not fully support religious freedom right here in America. His organization supports state-wide legislative bans on personal religious practices relating to marriage, prayer and wills.

Jasser has also made the ridiculous and unsubstantiated claim that 80% of American Muslim mosques and student groups are run by extremists. After being challenged to substantiate his claims, Jasser has not been able to point to any facts or statistics other than a statement made by Hisham Kabbani, a fringe leader, who made the original claim with no supporting evidence of his own, during a lecture at the State Department in 1999.

Finally, Jasser appears to have little support from seasoned observers of American Muslim communities. According to Timothy Furnish, a conservative leaning Islamic affairs analyst, Jasser’s organization has 1,500 members, only 13% of whom are Muslim.

As a private citizen, Jasser is free to express any views on Islam he wants; but to be appointed to an official government commission and espouse his vitriolic views on faith are wrong. If America is serious about pushing for international religious freedom and maintaining its international reputation and standing, then appointing Jasser is completely counterproductive to the Commission’s mandate. His appointment will not only add a toxic element to the conversation on religious freedom, but also create unnecessary friction in the relationship between the United States and Muslim-majority countries.

USCIRF commissioners are supposed to ensure that international religious freedom continues to be an integral part of American foreign policy and national security efforts. Jasser’s background and approach to conversations on religious liberty have been nothing but divisive, ineffective and counterproductive. His appointment to the Commission is an affront to American Muslims and should be offensive to anyone serious about advocating for international religious freedom.

Jasser’s appointment can only be explained as either a grave mistake by Senator McConnell’s staff and supporters, or a deliberate message to the American Muslim community. McConnell is essentially saying that communities are not an important part of America’s decision-making process.

Either way, the appointment is highly problematic. MPAC urges members of Congress to seriously and thoroughly reconsider this decision and the harm it poses to international religious freedom advocacy, whether in Muslim-majority countries or anywhere around the world.

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