Skip to main content

US: Congressional Committee Should Not Single Out Muslim American Community

Statement to the House Committee on Homeland Security

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to submit a statement to this hearing on "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response."

Human Rights Watch is an independent organization dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights in some 90 countries around the globe. We work to secure increased recognition of and respect for internationally recognized human rights in the United States, focusing on issues arising from discrimination, detention, and insufficient access to the courts.

The Committee is charged with the duty to protect the American people, including the 2.5 million Muslims living in the United States. The Committee has high visibility in the public sphere. The actions it takes will reverberate across the country and around the world. They will doubtlessly get special attention in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Iran, and other countries where Muslims in great numbers have risked injury and death to peacefully protest for freedom and human rights.

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that today's hearing will unjustly conflate Islam and violence. We are concerned about the message that this hearing will send to not only to Muslim Americans, but to all Americans. Statements by political leaders that encourage religious bias will promote marginalization of and discrimination against a minority population. They have no place in the halls of Congress.

Singling out Muslim Americans for scrutiny may strengthen the erroneous belief exploited by enemies of the US that America's struggle against al Qaeda is a war against Islam. US national security will be strengthened by recognizing the fundamental rights of everyone within US borders, rather than by seeking to single out one particular group. Today's hearing should not resort to simplistic and sweeping characterizations that betray core principles of US constitutional law and international human rights law.

In 2003, Abdelfattah Amor, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, reported on the issue of freedom of religion in the post-September 11 world. He wrote about a "simplistic - and all too frequent - identification of the Muslim faith with religious extremism. Political leaders and the media continue to dwell on religious identity, using language that encourages the very generalizations they purport to avoid."[1] Today's hearing, by making the Muslim American community its focus, seems designed to make the error that Mr. Amor identified eight years ago. The Muslim community, as Mr. Amor notes, is too varied to allow for such stereotypes. It comprises over a billion people across multitudes of countries, societies, and experiences.

Today's hearing on "radicalization" is directed towards Muslim Americans. It is unclear to us whether the hearing posits that the "radicalization" of Muslim Americans is more worthy of focus compared to other groups, or that Muslim Americans are more susceptible to "radicalization" than other Americans. Under either interpretation, the name of today's hearing draws a distinction between Muslim Americans and non-Muslim Americans. Such a distinction is meritless and discriminatory. Such a distinction should be rejected by government officials, including the members of this Committee, who as a part of the US government are bound not only to refrain from discrimination, but also to look for ways to promote all freedoms - including freedom of religion - in the exercise of their duties. 

The US government through its officials is obligated to comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the United States ratified in 1992.[2] Article 18 of the ICCPR states:

"Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching."[3]

The ICCPR specifies that article 18 is one from which no derogation is possible during a time of public emergency.[4] Article 26 of the ICCPR places an obligation on states to ensure that "the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as ... religion."[5]

The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, unanimously passed by the UN General Assembly in 1981, states:

"Discrimination between human beings on grounds of religion or belief constitutes an affront to human dignity and a disavowal of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and shall be condemned as a violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enunciated in detail in the International Covenants on Human Rights, and as an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations between nations."[6]

Government officials have a particular responsibility under international law not to advocate or engage in discrimination against the populations they were elected or appointed to serve. A UN General Assembly resolution on the "Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance" states that public officials "in the course of their official duties ... not discriminate against persons professing other religions or beliefs."[7]

Be they members of the executive, legislative, or judicial branches at the federal, state, and local level, public officials should act in accordance with US obligations under international law, including upholding, respecting, and protecting the rights to equality and non-discrimination. Prejudice and hostility toward different racial, ethnic, religious, or other groups should have no part in the exercise of their responsibilities.

We thank the Committee for its consideration of these concerns.

[1] United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Abdelfattah Amor, Civil and Political Rights, Including Religious Intolerance, E/CN.4/2003/66, January 6, 2003, (accessed March 8, 2011), para. 96.

[2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, ratified by the United States on June 8, 1992, (accessed March 3, 2011). Articles 2(2) and (3) provide for the state to "adopt such legislative or other measures as may be necessary to give effect to the rights recognized" in the ICCPR, and to ensure that access to a remedy for violations of rights is determined by competent judicial, administrative or legislative authorities.   

[3] Ibid., art. 18.

[4] Ibid., art. 4.

[5] Ibid., art. 26.

[6] UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, November 25, 1981, G.A. res. 36/55, 36 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 171, U.N. Doc. A/36/684 (1981), (accessed March 3, 2011), art. 3.

[7] United Nations General Assembly, Resolution 48/128 (1993), "Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance," A/RES/48/128, (accessed March 3, 2011), para. 5.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.