‘We Need to See Each Other Differently’

Bettina Krause May/June 2022
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In the high-stakes world of international religious freedom advocacy, simply changing laws isn’t enough. 

In 1998 the U.S. Congress took an extraordinary step toward recognizing the importance of international religious freedom. Along with other measures, Congress created an independent, bipartisan body called the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF. Its task? To monitor and report on religious freedom violations around the world, and to advise the president, Congress, and the secretary of state on foreign policy responses. 

Nadine Maenza currently serves as chair of USCIRF, leading a commission of nine political appointees who are supported in their work by a professional research staff. For more than two decades the commission’s reports, hearings, and advocacy work have turned a searchlight on religious freedom abuses worldwide. Perhaps one of the best measures of its success is the fact that authoritarian governments and repressive regimes are paying increased attention to this once low-profile advisory body. In December 2021 the Chinese government issued a headline-making rebuke of USCIRF for its work in raising awareness of the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China.

In a recent conversation with Liberty editor Bettina Krause, Ms. Maenza reflected on the formidable challenges of international religious freedom advocacy. 

Bettina Krause: It must have been surreal to wake up and read news reports that you’d been personally banned by the Chinese Communist Party from traveling to China. That’s a very high-profile slap at USCIRF by one of the world’s great political powers. Why did this happen?

Nadine Maenza: Yes, it was a very interesting moment when I learned I’d been sanctioned, along with three of my USCIRF colleagues. And we also had had three of our other colleagues sanctioned last year. We’ve been loud in calling out the atrocities committed by China against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang region, but also against Christians, Falun Gong members, and Tibetans. We’ve spoken about these things for a long time, but I think what may have raised our profile even more is our recommendations for sanctions against Chinese officials, which have been followed by the U.S. government.

And the government has continued to implement sanctions. It has designated China’s violence against these communities as genocide—in particular, the violence against Uyghur and Turkic Muslims—and it announced a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics. Congress has also just passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.1 These are all things USCIRF has been fighting for and speaking out loudly about. And so the Chinese government wanted to make it known that we weren’t welcome in China. I’m disappointed—I’d love to visit China and Hong Kong. But we’ll continue to fight for the people of those countries.

Krause: I suppose it’s an affirmation, at least, that your message is actually being heard.

Maenza: Yes, we must be doing something right if we’ve risen to that level of notice! Many people don’t know who the USCIRF commissioners are, so when Chinese officials know who we are, that’s a good sign.

Krause: I understand you’ve only just returned from a visit to northeast Syria, which has been in the news a lot in recent years. What did you find there?

Maenza: Yes, this was my fourth trip to northeast Syria. I think one of the region’s greatest secrets is that this area—which makes up one–third of Syria—has among the best religious freedom conditions in the Middle East. And more than half the leaders there are women. 

This came about because, as Syrian democratic forces were partnering with the U.S. in the fight against the ISIS caliphate, they were moving from community to community, freeing them from ISIS. At the same time, they were also setting up self-governance in these freed areas—and this has now become the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Under this administration, everyone has a say in the government, regardless of your ethnicity, your religion, or gender. 

Krause: What you’re describing seems at odds with the general perception of what’s possible for democracy and religious freedom in the Middle East. Why do you think these religious minorities are able to function together in this pluralistic way? What’s different?

Maenza: Well, first, the government they’ve set up is run by committees. They have cochairs, a man and a woman cochair, and the vice cochairs represent different ethnicities or religions. So, you’ll have the cochairs be an Arab and a Kurd, and the vice cochairs could be a Yazidi and a Turkmen, or a Circassian, a Christian, or some other combination.

In fact, one of the largest Kurdish regions in the government is cochaired by a Christian woman. Every layer of government is pluralistic—ethnically, religiously, and in terms of gender. This has given people a voice in their future, and to me that’s an important part of stopping extremism. Shutting down voices isn’t how you do it. What you do, instead, is listen. 

Krause: In looking through USCIRF’s reports, fact sheets, and calendar of events, I see you cover a huge variety of issues. I wonder if there are issues that particularly resonate with you personally. 

Maenza: I think our hearings on genocide prevention and justice for genocide survivors have been particularly important to me. Trying to do a deep dive on those issues—to keep thinking through how to do better on these things—is vital. We keep talking about these challenges, but our track record hasn’t been very good at stopping genocides or prosecuting people who commit genocide. 

We also did a fascinating hearing on religious freedom in “fragile states”—basically places such as Somalia, Syria, or Yemen, where governments are weak and unable to carry out all necessary functions. To me, this was such an important topic. What are best practices for dealing with these fragile areas? One of the simple recommendations to come out of that hearing was that the U.S. shouldn’t only deal with people in those areas who speak English or who are the elites in those countries. It’s about trying to understand the experience of everyday people. 

For me, another important hearing we did recently was Safeguarding Religious Freedom in Northeast Syria. At the time we started addressing this issue, no one really knew the name of the government there. Even senior members of Congress didn’t know there was a government in Syria that protected religious freedom. So I felt we were able to move the needle on that issue, to make recommendations to lift sanctions and to give the government there recognition.

Krause: As you’re talking about trying to create change in these different areas, I’m wondering what tools you have at your disposal.

Maenza: USCIRF is an independent bipartisan government agency, so our mandate is to make recommendations to the U.S. government. So we don’t really have tools in terms of policies we can implement, but our recommendations are read by Congress and the administration, and I think that is our most powerful tool. We also do annual reports that you can read at USCIRF.gov, where we talk about the conditions for religious minorities in various countries, the demographics of the country, and our recommendations for what the U.S. government could do to improve conditions.

Much of what we do is behind the scenes, to be quite honest. A lot of briefings with embassies, with officials, with members of Congress, and our own trips to these regions. The majority of what we do, people don’t see. But we’re just trying to move the needle for religious freedom.

Krause: You mentioned that USCIRF is a bipartisan body. Bipartisanship seems to be in short supply at the moment, so how does that work for you in practice?

Maenza: It’s really quite something. We have nine commissioners who are appointed by the president and the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate. Yet we do not ever divide on partisan lines. It’s really a wonderful commission of people who all have the same goal—which is religious freedom for everyone. It doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum. We should all be able to agree that everyone should be able to practice their faith and not be subject to violence because of what they believe or don’t believe.

It’s important to know that we also do a lot of advocacy for atheists. As I tell Christian communities: “If you don’t have the right not believe, then I can assure you, you don’t have the right to believe, either.” These two things go hand in hand. 

Krause: I’ve read criticisms in the past of USCIRF—that it’s an attempt to import a Christian ethos into U.S. foreign policy. But the commissioners themselves are not all Christian, correct?

Maenza: They’re not. We’ve had commissioners of many different faiths over the years. Frankly, much of our advocacy recently has been for Muslims because of the mass atrocities against Uyghurs in China and the Rohingyas in Myanmar. 

We still hear some of the criticism you mention, but I can assure you this is not the case. I do a lot of work for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community—this is very close to my heart. The Yazidi community is the one I’ve probably worked the most with, and which keeps me up at night. My daughter works with the Yazidi community too. There’s just so many other minorities we work for, such as the Sikh community. I know all the commissioners feel the same way.

So I think it’s wrong to throw out those generalizations about the commission. If you take a look at our work, then you’ll see we’re very diverse and we work to represent all religious communities.

Krause: I’m curious to know whether your attitude toward international religious freedom advocacy has evolved through the years you’ve worked with USCIRF. 

Maenza: Absolutely. I think that while having government leaders speak to one another about religious freedom and having the U.S. government be strong on religious freedom is helpful, it’s not sufficient. Religious freedom conditions continue to decline around the world, and so I believe there must be work at the grass roots as well. It can’t just be government officials talking to each other. Civil society leaders have a central role to play. For instance, in Washington, D.C., the International Religious Freedom Roundtable meets every week online and brings together government leaders, advocacy organizations, and religious leaders. And this group has started similar roundtables in about 40 other countries so far, where all parts of civil society can sit together regularly and talk through their problems. 

This approach has been so important for making progress in places such as northeast Syria, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, and Kazakhstan. Government officials are changing laws to be more conducive to religious freedom, but just as important, you’re also seeing the opening up of civil society and more communication at the grass roots. 

Protecting religious freedom means that people have to fundamentally change the way they look at one another. And that takes far more than just a government speech or a change in the law. It takes organizations on the ground, holding events, having discussions, educating, changing curriculums, and so on. It has to encompass every part of a community. 

Krause: So what you’re saying is that building religious freedom isn’t only about changing laws, but also about developing a culture that supports those laws.

Maenza: Yes. We need to help people talk to each other, try to understand each other, and to see one another differently. And I think that’s important for all of us, no matter who we are. We’ve all had that experience of thinking one way about a certain group, and then when we meet someone from that community, our perception changes. We think, Oh, wow, they’re just like me.

1 This landmark legislation was signed into law on December 23, 2021. It focuses on China’s use of Uyghur Muslims as forced laborers. The law aims to prevent goods manufactured using this forced labor from entering the U.S.

The Power of One 

According to USCIRF chair Nadine Maenza, international religious freedom advocacy shouldn’t only be the work of government or civil society leaders. Your voice can make a difference. 

Raise awareness. “Social media has made it easy to share stories, and stories are the most powerful way we have of communicating the tremendous challenge of religious persecution.”

Contact your members of Congress. “They have a lot of power to push on religious freedom, whether it be through legislation or the pressure they can put on the administration. If they hear from their own constituents, they’re more likely to act. So if you’re concerned about persecution in India, for instance, then email your member of Congress and say, ‘I hope you’re standing up for the religious freedom of people of India.’”

Support advocacy organizations. “There are a lot of great organizations doing work on the ground in many different countries, supporting human rights and assisting people. They depend on contributions.” 

Educate yourself. “I’d recommend you go to USCIRF.gov and take a look at our report of the 28 countries that are the worst religious freedom violators. Start paying attention to these issues. You can follow me and USCIRF on Twitter and see what’s happening in these countries. Or if you have a heart for a specific country such as Nigeria, for instance, you can follow other organizations that work in that country. Information is easy to find.” You can follow USCIRF on Twitter, @uscirf and Nadine Maenza, @nadinemaenza.

Article Author: Bettina Krause

Bettina Krause is the editor of Liberty magazine.