The Front Line of Faith

John T. Pinna January/February 2019

Every year the U.S. State Department and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) publish a report listing countries of concern regarding human rights violations. The Mitchell Firm has contributed to government reform and improving public policy across the globe to alleviate such issues for more than 15 years. In February 2018 Matthew Daniels, founder of Good of All, approached the Mitchell Firm with a specific ad-hoc request focusing on international religious persecution. The request was initially limited to a document highlighting laws restricting religious freedom across the Muslim world. The intention of Good of All was to utilize this document as a reference to identify Muslim majority nations with laws prohibiting religious freedom. More specifically, the objective included a strategic plan on how to properly engage countries enforcing such laws. This would be accomplished by cross-referencing this document with Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) and data from the Pew Research Center. Although examples of restrictive laws were identified, the document failed to evaluate the laws’ consequences fairly. In turn, the request evolved into an in-depth analysis of potential correlations linking restrictive religious laws to acts of religious persecution, including acts of violence.

The initial results of this secondary analysis were interesting. It was found that there was insufficient data correlating laws that restrict religious freedom to incidents of religious persecution or acts of violence. On one hand, restrictive religious laws are not inherently the reason behind religious persecution or acts of violence in the Muslim world. On the other hand, Western democratic nations that value religious freedom are not entirely free of religious persecution or acts of violence. The following analysis cites specific examples of this double-edged sword and calls on practitioners to (1) evaluate the correlation linking restrictive religious laws to religious persecution and acts of violence and (2) provide strategic recommendations to alleviate growing instances of religious persecution across the globe.

Muslim Majority Countries

It is well known that totalitarian Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan enforce strict laws prohibiting religious freedom. Iran frequently imprisons individuals who openly practice religious faiths other than Islam, as well as journalists, such as Jason Rezaian, who criticize regime policies. Similarly, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are an example of religious restrictive laws that directly lead to acts of religious persecution and acts of violence.


The Islamic republic of Pakistan is home to 201 million people, 96 percent of whom are Sunni Muslim. Among countries with a Muslim majority, Pakistan has the strictest anti-blasphemy laws in the world. Indeed, violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws carry a potential death sentence for anyone who insults or criticizes Islam. Many blasphemy violations are filed against members of religious and ethnic minorities by the state itself. Last year a Christian man was sentenced to death for blasphemy by a court in eastern Pakistan after being accused of sharing material making fun of Islam.In 2011 Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard after calling for blasphemy laws to be reformed.In April of 2016 a student named Mashal Khan was beaten to death at his university in Mardan for having a religious debate in his dormitory. Although multiple arrests were made in connection with Khan’s murder, blasphemy laws are still enforced by the state and society.

The Ahmadiyya community is a religious ethnic minority in Pakistan with a long history of religious persecution at the hands of Pakistan’s government and society. The Ahmadi faith, well on the periphery of mainstream Sunni Islam, was legally banned in 1974 by former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.Indeed, the second amendment to the constitution of Pakistan and Ordinance XX, a second legislative measure targeting Ahmadis, legally declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims and further deprived them of their religious rights. “Ahmadis face both legal and social discrimination in the Islamic country, and the attacks on their properties have increased manifold in the past decade.”
The state willingness to execute violators of blasphemy laws and alienate entire populations has emboldened Pakistan’s Sunni Muslim population to take the law into their own hands. In recent years Ahmadis have increasingly been subject to horrific acts of violence, primarily attributed to the state’s restrictive laws. Indeed, Baseer Naveed, a human rights activist, argues that Ahmadis “continue to be persecuted and attacked in Pakistan with the full backing of the state.”Pakistan’s strict enforcement of laws restricting religious freedom undoubtedly contributes to acts of religious persecution and acts of violence.

In the context of this article, the objective is to focus on nations in which this potential correlation is more complex. Other Muslim majority nations—such as Afghanistan, for example—are more difficult to link restrictive laws to acts of religious persecution or violence against citizens. Despite being a Muslim majority country with restrictive laws, it is possible other co-related factors contribute more to persecution and violence towards religious minority groups.


In comparison to totalitarian regimes, Afghanistan is home to a more progressive constitution and society. Afghanistan (1) has a constitution that grants religious freedom to all citizens and adheres to international religious agreements and (2) remains a pluralistic society with dozens of communities that speak their own languages, have their own set of customs and practice their own religions relatively undisturbed.Moreover, Afghanistan is one of few Muslim majority countries with legislative figures and councils solely committed to preserving this religious legitimacy. Faiz Mohammad Usmani, Afghanistan’s minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs, is responsible for addressing religious affairs and has taken steps to advance religious freedom. This photo was taken during John Pinna’s meeting with the minister of Hajj who hosted an intrafaith prayer during the holy month of Ramadan. Members from varying religious communities came together to celebrate the holiday in peace and cooperation.

Another religious council, the Ulama Council, established in the spring of 2002 to ensure religious legitimacy as defined in the constitution, currently persists in society. Within two years the council expanded to Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, making it the biggest religious body in the country. The Ulama Council often clashes with radical organizations like the Taliban, who claim their radical manifesto as the legitimate religion of Afghanistan. Indeed, “the actual intention for which the council was formed” was to counter “‘false’ accusations and propaganda by the Taliban and their allies which ‘confuse the minds of the Muslim and Mujahed nation regarding the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan.’” In 2012 the Afghanistan senate went so far as to ask the Ulama Council to declare jihad on suicide attacks. Yet Afghanistan’s government and the Ulama Council do enforce some laws prohibiting certain aspects of religious freedom.

According to Afghanistan law, “blasphemy and apostasy are capital crimes. Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy if it not recanted in three days” while “proselytizing by non-Muslims to Muslims is illegal.” Afghanistan law also prohibits the production or distribution of materials that are offensive to Islam.

Persecution of Afghan Christians is an interesting example to analyze within the scope of this larger question. In this instance societal pressure is more likely to contribute to Christian persecution and violence than these restrictive laws. Unlike Pakistan, Afghans who convert to Christianity are less likely to be persecuted at the hands of the state despite breaking a fundamental law. Afghans who convert to Christianity are more likely to suffer at the hands of their own families and communities.

“Tribal communities in the country have even more power than the state, meaning that individuals who become Christians are heavily pressured to convert back to Islam. Family members, in particular, will do everything in their power to bring these Christian converts back to Islam or to exact atonement for the shame brought upon their family.Others experience loss of personal property and businesses, beatings, and even death at the hands of their own family members and communities.”

It is difficult to determine what contributes more to Christian persecution and violence in Afghanistan. Yet it is likely societal pressure and violence would continue to plague the Christian community in the event Afghanistan’s government abandoned these restrictive laws.

It is also important to note that Afghanistan is a conflict zone: home to radical organizations that persecute all communities. Asin Iraq and Syria, the long war in Afghanistan has been particularly harsh on religious minorities and foreigners. In 2017 two employees of Operation Mercy, a relief and development NGO, were kidnapped and murdered at the hands of criminal gangs in Kabul. These radical organizations often target “foreigners and wealthy locals, and sometimes [hand] them over to insurgent groups like the Taliban. Since the withdrawal of most international troops from Afghanistan in 2014, militant groups such as the Taliban have become more active in waging ‘jihad’ against the government and Western organizations.”

In early July 2018 an ISIS suicide bomber reportedly killed and wounded approximately 40 people in Jalalabad. Most of the victims belonged to Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu minority groups, and included the only Sikh electoral candidate in the upcoming general election. Among the victims were also Sunni Muslims.

August saw a rise in violence as Taliban fighters attacked the city of Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan. The attack on Ghazni began on a Friday as insurgents strategically stormed the city from multiple entry points, overwhelming and killing approximately 100 Afghan security forces. Approximately 200 Taliban fighters as well as 30 civilians were killed as well. President Ashraf Ghani negotiated a cease-fire offer to the Taliban in preparation for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Qurban (Adha).

Negotiating with such organizations as the Taliban will likely weaken government efforts to protect religious freedom. Indeed, negotiating with the Taliban may temporarily stall their operations but enable them to enforce radical policies within territories under their control. While the Talibanlack a comprehensive manifesto, they narrowly interpret Islam in a way that promotes oppression. After infiltrating a city or gaining control of a territory, the Taliban impose draconian rules that submit communities to their extremist interpretation of Islam. This includes the harassment of religious and ethnic minorities that do not subscribe to Taliban ideologies or authority. Thus, negotiating with the Taliban may result in illegitimate laws enabling the persecution of religious communities. On the other hand, militant organizations such as ISIS contending for power in Afghanistan will persecute every community with or without the existence of laws prohibiting religious freedom.

The cease-fire with the Taliban during the Eid celebrations resulted in an additional Taliban attack on the presidential palace. This attack diminished public confidence in the government and the president. A further development was the appointment of Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad to continue negotiations that National Security Council advisor Lisa Curtis had started earlier in the month with the Taliban. Khalizad has been poorly received by the Afghan community. Secretary Pompeo’s move to endorse Khalizad shows a possible blind spot in the Trump administration’s view of Afghanistan. Khalizad is likely to exclude other ethnic stakeholders in favor of the Pashtuns. There is also a credibility issue, as many Afghans have voiced concerns about Khalizad’s past and present, unethically profiting from funds intended for programming for the Afghan people.

In the context of religious freedom, these developments inject Old World corruption in an already-volatile environment. Allowing an actor who had neglected the rise of ISIS while serving as the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq and later serving in Afghanistan essentially encouraged the Afghans down a path of extreme corruption.

Western Democratic Countries

The Western democratic world champions freedom of religion legally and socially. The United States of America was founded on the idea of secular religious freedom. The First Amendment guarantees this practice for all citizens, despite their religious faiths or backgrounds. Similarly, every nation within the European Union, outside of Greece’s ban on proselytism, have constitutions guaranteeing religious freedom. Neither the U.S. nor the EU enforce any laws prohibiting the open expression of or practice of any religious faith. However, this does not mean religious persecution does not exist throughout the Western world. On the contrary, both the U.S. and the EU are experiencing a rise in religious persecution toward certain religious communities.

European Union

After the Second World War millions of people were displaced across the globe. As a result new migration patterns drastically increased as people sought new lives and work opportunities. Following the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, “many labor migrants or ‘guest workers’ from Southern and Eastern Europe, Turkey and the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa were recruited by governments and businesses to work in and rebuild Europe.” These skilled workers integrated well into European society and openly practiced their religious faiths relatively undisturbed.

Peace started to falter with the outbreak of the Yugoslavian civil wars in the early and mid-1990s. More specifically, the civil war pitted multiethnic communities against one another. Orthodox Serbs, for example, committed atrocities against Bosnian Muslims that included ethnic cleansing and the first European genocide since World War II. Yet, Western leaders such as French president François Mitterrand and U.K. prime minister John Major did little to prevent the outbreak of violence tearing the Balkans apart.

Twenty years later the rise in Islamist terrorist attacks throughout Europe has resulted in a social, religious, and legal backlash against Islam and Muslim cultural practices. On November 29, 2009, a vote to ban the construction of minarets was accepted by percent of Swiss voters. Many EU nations, including France, Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Bulgaria have since taken legislative measures to ban traditional Muslim clothing; including burqas and niqabs. During this time of heightened security, the need to identify individuals seems a legitimate reason for the temporary removal of burqas and niqabs. However, Senator Marjolein Faber-Van de Klashort of the Netherlands called the burqa ban “a historical day because this is the first step to de-Islamize the Netherlands. This is the first step and the next step is to close all the mosques in the Netherlands.”

The rise of radical politicians and parties such as France’s anti-immigration National Front party or Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AFD), now the third-largest political party in Germany, actively promote campaigns echoing Klashort’s rhetoric. Poland’s recently elected prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki has refused to accept a single Muslim refugee despite pressure from EU leaders. Furthermore, Morawiecki has called on the EU to return to its proper values and traditional Christian roots.He stated that his dream is “to re-Christianize the EU.” Italian interior minister and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the anti-immigration League Party, recently stated, “We cannot take in one more person (refugee). On the contrary, we want to send away a few.” Last month, Salvini barred the French NGO vessel Aquarius carrying 629 immigrants from docking in Italy, which triggered an EU-wide dispute.

Anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric has quickly escalated into violence across Europe. The years 2016 and 2017 witnessed the largest number of attacks against a religious minority in Germany since World War II. In 2016 a record number of 3,533 attacks on migrants and asylum hostels were recorded. This includes 2,545 attacks on individual migrants which left 560 people injured, including 43 children. In 2017 the German government counted 2,219 attacks on refugees and refugee homes, resulting in 1,906 attacks on refugees and 313 attacks on homes, with more than 300 people injured as a result. Although there was a significant decrease in politically motivated attacks from 2016 to 2017, it is likely attributed to the decrease in number of refugees applying for asylum in Germany.

The increase of terrorist attacks orchestrated by radical Islamic organizations throughout Europe is concerning. However, the rise of religious persecution and acts of violence taking hold across Europe is equally concerning. Despite constitutions and laws that allow for religious freedom, Europe is experiencing a rise in radical policies that are directly at odds with this fundamental right.

United States

Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, orchestrated by radical Islamists, President George Bush demanded the Taliban extradite Osama Bin Laden. After the Taliban refused, a coalition force led by the United States invaded Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom quickly escalated into a global war on terror, resulting in American military intervention across the Middle East and Asia. During the past 17 years the global war on terror, an increase in terrorist attacks across the U.S., and divisive rhetoric from the Trump administration have similarly resulted in a backlash against Islam and Muslim Americans. President Trump’s executive order to temporarily ban immigrants from majority Muslim countries, including Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, has intensified poor relations with Muslims both domestically and internationally. Cited reasons include “poor cooperation with U.S. officials, terrorist activity and technical hurdles to properly document their own travelers.”Yet one must be careful to label the executive order a “Muslim ban” as some have stated. Iraq, Chad, and Sudan have been removed from this list and non-Muslim nations including Venezuela and North Korea have been added since the policy was implemented in January 2017. Moreover, the largest Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were never included on this list.

Nevertheless, American Muslims clearly express concerns about the future of the country and their place in American society in the wake of Trump’s election. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority (68 percent) of U.S. Muslims say Trump makes them feel worried, and 45 percent say Trump makes them feel angry. On the other hand, some do say Trump makes them feel hopeful (26 percent) or happy (17 percent). Further evidence of perceived suspicion and hate crimes toward Muslims justify these numbers. Many Americans are suspicious of Muslim beliefs and motives, and Muslims perceive widespread hostility toward their faith. The data reveals that “half of Americans say Islam is not part of ‘mainstream American society,’” while “41 percent say Islam encourages violence more than other faiths.” Many Americans also believe there’s a great deal or fair amount of extremism among U.S. Muslims.

The perceived threat of American Muslims has increased instances of violence as well. Although not nearly as high as acts of violence in such countries as Germany, the number of assaults against Muslims in the U.S. rose significantly between 2015 and 2016, easily surpassing the modern peak reached in 2001. Data from FBI hate crime statistics show 127 reported instances of aggravated or simple assault in 2016, compared with 91 the year before and 93 in 2001. However, assaults are not the only form of hate crime carried out against Muslims across the U.S. The most common is “intimidation, which is defined as reasonable fear of bodily harm. Anti-Muslim intimidation also increased in 2016, with 144 reported victims, compared with 120 the previous year.”Although Muslims face varying levels of persecution more so than other religious communities in the U.S., they are not the only religious community claiming persecution.

In 2012 a same-sex couple took Jack Phillips, a Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake on the grounds of religious beliefs, to court. Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins won their case at the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the state Court of Appeals. However, Jack claimed his First Amendment right to religious beliefs had been violated and the case was eventually taken to the Supreme Court. Two months ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Phillips on the grounds of religious persecution. Indeed, the Supreme Court released the following statement:

“The commission’s treatment of Phillips’ case, which showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating his objection. As the record shows, some of the commissioners . . . disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.”

In other words, the Supreme Court believed the commission looked at the case unfairly and predetermined Phillips’ guilt based on his religious beliefs. It is important to note that Mr. Phillips was “willing to make a birthday cake for the gay couple, but not a wedding cake, as he felt that would violate his religious beliefs.”

Although the United States is perhaps the most tolerant nation in the world in terms of religious freedom,it is not entirely free of religious persecution, both social and legally. In fact, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania’s constitutions currently include blasphemy laws. As recently as 2007, George Kalman’s corporation, I Choose Hell Productions, was rejected for certification on the grounds of violating Pennsylvania’s blasphemy laws. The state argued that a business name “may not contain words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.”While rarely enforced, the law “provides the state with a ‘symbolic power’ of moral condemnation, as well as the prospect of actual punishment,” explained Sarah Barringer Gordon, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The extent of such laws being enforced and their concomitant consequences are important to address in the context of this analysis. Although not nearly as strict as Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, their existence is both hypocritical and unconstitutional.


According to Ashlyn Webb and Will Inboden, authors for Foreign Policy magazine, religious persecution is on the rise, and it’s time for policymakers and academics to take notice. The Trump administration has taken a bold initiative to advance religious freedom by hosting, along with U.S. State Department, the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Delegates from more than 80 countries attended the event and shared valuable information on acts of religious persecution across the globe. Additionally, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released the “Potomac Declaration” and a plan of action to advance religious freedom. As a part of this plan, the Trump administration is asking countries to confront their legal limitations prohibiting religious freedom. More specifically, the “Potomac Plan of Action” argues, “States should promote religious freedom and bring their laws and policies into line with international human rights norms regarding freedom of religion or belief.” This includes protecting freedom of thought, conscience, or religion without penalty of fear or violence as well as the repeal of anti-blasphemy laws that contribute to violent extremism. Although this is a great step in advancing religious freedom, the purpose of this analysis is to evaluate potential correlations between restrictive laws and acts of religious persecution and violence. While it is possible that restrictive laws in some nations contribute to acts of religious persecution and acts of violence, it is clear that religious persecution is on the rise in countries that do not enforce any laws prohibiting religious freedom. Moreover, additional factors outside of restrictive laws have been identified as contributing to religious persecution. Societal and communal pressure or antiquated cultural practices are inherent issues that must also be dealt with. The questions one must ask practitioners to evaluate and attempt to answer are: (1) how can we accurately link restrictive laws to acts of religious persecution and acts of violence? and (2) how can we use this methodology to provide strategic recommendations that can alleviate growing instances of religious persecution across the globe?


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Article Author: John T. Pinna

John F. Pinna is vice president of the Mitchell Firm, a government relations and lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. His varied experiences before joining that firm included vice president of development at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, and director of government and international relations for the American Islamic Congress in Washington, D.C. He cowrote this article with the help of associate John Cosenza.