Presence of USCIRF official at IAMC-sponsored event has raised questions about USCIRF’s impartiality.
NEW DELHI: On 28 February, a senior official with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Stephen Schneck, while speaking at an event in Washington, organised by the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), asked the United States government to condemn the Indian government for what he termed as “egregious violations of human rights and religious freedoms”.
Schneck was speaking at an event where a report by IAMC titled, “Persecution as State Policy”—which claims to provide “detailed accounts of violence by state and non-state actors against religious minorities in India”—was being released.
The USCIRF, which reports to the US State Department, draws its legislative existence from the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and is not a non-governmental organisation, interest group, or advocacy organisation but a Congressionally created entity. It claims that it uses “international standards to monitor religious freedom violations globally, and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress”. The USCIRF commissioners are appointed by the US President and Congressional leaders of both political parties. As per its mandate, it “monitors religious freedom in other countries through the lens of international human rights standard” and uses its report to push the State Department to impose sanctions on the countries that it believes is engaging in religious persecution.
The presence of a senior official of the rank of a commissioner at an IAMC-sponsored event has raised questions, both in India and the US, on the impartiality of USCIRF with officials tracking the developments in India and Washington, stating that the recent events have reinforced the assertions that USCIRF was looking only in one direction in using “material” and “sources” to prepare its annual reports against India. Interestingly, the USCIRF officials were participating in this event even as top officials of the State Department were in India for the G-20 meet, which also saw the presence of Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
While responding to The Sunday Guardian’s queries, USCIRF claimed that it does not “endorse” any report of any other organisation. It did not deny the fact that its official had indeed attended an event that was organised by the IAMC. “USCIRF does not release or endorse other organisations’ reports. Commissioner Schneck participated to present USCIRF’s concerns relating to religious freedom in India.”
Schneck in his speech, as IAMC reported, stated that USCIRF had “has received credible reports that Hindu extremists threaten and use violence including sexual violence against religious minorities”.
This is not the first time that a top USCIRF official has been found to be coordinating with IAMC in recent times. In December 2022, USCIRF commissioner David Curry released another IAMC report, “Genocide Convention & Persecution of Muslims in India”.
The Sunday Guardian reached out to the IAMC with the following questions:
- How would you like to respond to reports that during the time of Rasheed Ahmed, who was executive director (2008-17) of Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA), the body was accused of embezzling public COVID funds?
- Can you confirm or deny that IMANA’s Director of Operations, Zahid Mahmood is an ex-Pakistan Navy official.
- How would you describe your relations with Islamic Council of North America (ICNA)?
- Can you confirm or deny that IAMC had engaged lobbying firm FGR to lobby against India at Washington?
No response was received from the organisation till the time the report went to press.
USCIRF AND IAMC
According to officials, the fact that IAMC and a US government agency were coordinating so closely in an effort to hurt India’s soft image at the international level and push for sanctions was something that had the potential to create doubts about its fairness in the coming years.
The USCIRF, in 2014, changed India’s map, and removed J&K, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh from India. While Jammu and Kashmir is regarded as “disputed” by Pakistan, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh are termed as “disputed” by China, Pakistan’s “iron brother”.
In 2021, Nadine Maenza, the former chair of USCIRF, who completed her second tenure in May 2022, had recommended the US government to impose targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for the “severe religious freedom violations” by freezing their assets, including barring their entry into the US.
Maenza, who joined the USCIRF in 2018, had earlier worked for US politician Rick Santorum, a known friend of Pakistan. Maenza is also president of an organisation called “Patriot Voices” that was founded by Santorum in 2012. Among her colleagues at Patriot Voices, is Terry Allen, who also happens to be a partner in a lobby firm called Fidelis Government Relations (FGR).
FGR was hired by Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) to lobby with USCIRF to target India. For their services, FGR was paid $40K between 2013 and 2014 alone by IAMC. (Official records of the same have been provided with this report.)
IAMC is headed by Rasheed Ahmed, who was executive director (2008-17) of Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA) which was accused of misusing public Covid funds. IMANA’s Director of Operations, Zahid Mahmood is an ex-Pakistan Navy official.
FGR was also hired by Burma Task Force (BTF), another front frequently critical of India that was founded by Shaik Ubaid, who gave $267K to FGR between 2018-2020 to lobby against India with the US Congress among others.
BTF also hosted ISI agent Ghulam Nabi Fai, who was found guilty in 2011 by the FBI for concealing the transfer of US$3.5 million from US to Pakistan and was a well-known lobbying agent for Kashmiri separatists at the behest of ISI. Fai has also been seen frequently with “human rights” activist Angana Chatterji. Shaik Ubaid was a founding member of Coalition Against Genocide along with Angana Chatterji. Chatterji was with USCIRF Commissioner Maenza in another of her companies, Hardwired Global.
BTF, as per officials, is another front of Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). ICNA played a crucial role in blocking the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in 2005. ICNA’s earlier avatar was Halqa-e-Ahbab-e-Islami (HAI), which was set up in 1968. One of the convicts in the Genocide of Bengali intellectuals in 1971, Ashrafuz Zaman Khan was associated with ICNA Queen’s Chapter New York. He was also one of the co-founders of Burma Task Force.
ICNA’s alleged connection with Hizbul Mujahideen founder Syed Salahuddin are the subject of several reports. In 2016, ICNA generated a lot of headlines after it felicitated Motiur Rahman Nizami, the leader of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and Al-Badr, who was responsible for mass genocide of Bengali intellectuals during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. ICNA honoured him posthumously for his “Outstanding Contribution” to Islam and for his role in the 1971 tragedy.
IAMC gave a platform to Dr Mohammad Siddiqui, the founder of SIMI. Later, IAMC justified its decision by stating that Siddiqui’s “commitment to nonviolence and rejection of violence has been steadfast and unequivocal for decades” and that as per Siddiqui, “the SIMI he founded was completely different” and that “Dr. Siddiqi has never been accused by police in any part of India of even the smallest of crimes, much less terrorism.”
What is clear is that at a time when the US and India are coming together to face common challenges, certain individuals and associations have been working overtime to create public opinion in the US against a pairing that is essential to tackle the joint threat to security in the Indo-Pacific represented by the alliance between GHQ Rawalpindi and the People’s Liberation Army, including in operations targeting India. Any rift between the two biggest democracies would be welcome news in Rawalpindi and Beijing.