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World: Freedom House Report Focuses On Muslim Countries

  • Andrew Tully

The 11 September attacks by Islamist terrorists against the United States, and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, drew the world's attention to human rights in predominantly Muslim countries. For its annual report on human rights, Freedom House looked at political rights and civil liberties in these countries, and issued its findings on 18 December.

Washington, 19 December 2001 (RFE/RL) --The New York-based human rights monitor Freedom House says there is a disturbing curtailment of freedom in countries with predominantly Muslim populations.

In its annual report, "Freedom in the World 2001-2002," Freedom House emphasizes that Islam is not incompatible with democracy. But the organization says that in some instances, the religion has spread to poor countries that are marked by cronyism and corruption that are unrelated to Muslim values.

Also, Freedom House says that the people in some of these poorer nations, most notably Afghanistan, have embraced an interpretation of Islam that denies basic human rights to women. Further, it cites a Muslim tradition of merging religion and state, which they say tends to lead to authoritarianism.

This year's report, which was made public in Washington yesterday, focuses on freedom in predominantly Islamic countries because people throughout the world are now paying attention to Islam since the September terrorist attacks on the United States. Those attacks are blamed on Islamic militant Osama bin Laden.

Freedom House's annual report rates countries as "free," "partly free," and "not free." Of the six predominantly Muslim nations that once were part of the Soviet Union, one, Azerbaijan, is rated as partly free. The other five -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- are rated not free.

In all these cases, according to the human rights monitor, the reason for their disregard of civil liberties is based not on a repressive interpretation of Islam or the Muslim tradition of combining religion and state, but on the authoritarianism of their leaders.

In fact, the report says Presidents Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan have used their people's fear of fundamentalist Islam to repress secular efforts to strengthen democracy in the two countries.

In releasing the report during a news conference in Washington, Freedom House paid particular attention to Uzbekistan because of its prominent alliance with the U.S. in the war against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan. Aili Piano, a senior researcher at the organization, says Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, is even more repressive than Aliyev and Nazarbaev, and that he may be hoping to take advantage of his new relationship with Washington.

"There are also concerns that Uzbekistan's growing alliance with the U.S. since 11 September will provide it with an even greater opportunity to suppress dissent while facing less criticism from the West for its poor human rights record."

Piano said there is no question that Uzbekistan faces threats from Muslim extremists, particularly the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). But she stressed that Karimov often exaggerates the threat, and arrests political opponents under the guise of fighting terrorism.

"And it's been well documented that peaceful opponents, both those who have opposed the government on political grounds as well as independent Muslims who do not practice according to state-sanctioned religious groups have been persecuted. Many individuals have been rounded up as supposed extremists. They [government officials] conduct large sweeps, and they targeted not only supposed supporters of the IMU, but many other individuals as well."

Adrian Karatnycky, the president of Freedom House, added that no one would object to Karimov's actions if he were merely fighting terrorism to protect the people of Uzbekistan. Karatnycky said it is the way Karimov is conducting this fight that is worrisome.

"The battle against terrorism -- which needs to be waged, as our survey analysts have indicated, in a variety of settings -- can be and must be conducted within the context of the rule of law. And distinctions have to be made by governments on the basis of evidence of who is a member of a terrorist or an extremist group, and those people who are simply political opponents."

Freedom House's observations on freedom in predominantly Muslim countries were only part of its annual report. Every year, the organization ranks nations in terms of civil liberties. This year, it found 86 of the world's 192 nations are given ratings of "free." This is the same number as last year's report.

According to Freedom House, these 86 nations contain 2.54 billion people, or 41.4 percent of the population of the Earth. It is the highest percentage of people living in freedom since the organization began its annual reports more than a quarter-century ago. Countries rated as "free" include the Baltic states and most of Central and Eastern Europe.

The report -- based on information gathered by Freedom House and outside analysts -- says 58 countries with 1.43 billion people are rated as being "partly free." That means these people face limitations on their political and civil rights. The report says these countries often are characterized by corruption, dominant ruling parties, and sometimes ethnic or religious strife.

Countries rated "partly free" include Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Macedonia, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia.

And the report finds that 48 countries with 2.17 billion people are rated as "not free." This means their residents are denied basic political and civil rights. Countries with this rating include Belarus, Iran, and Iraq, as well as the five former Soviet nations of Central Asia.

Freedom House also cites what it calls five major gains for freedom, as well as five major setbacks. The leading gain, according to the report, is the defeat of the Taliban, which the organization says not only improves chances for freedom in Afghanistan, but also represents greater security for nations targeted by Al-Qaeda.

The leading setback was terrorism, marked by the September attacks in the U.S. The report also cites the fighting in Macedonia, which has threatened the outlook for peace in the Balkans.

In each annual report, Freedom House lists what it calls "The Worst of the Worst," or the most repressive of the countries that it rates as "not free." This year, the countries in this rating include Cuba and North Korea, as well as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkmenistan. Two territories also were listed among "The Worst of the Worst" -- Chechnya and Tibet.

Finally, the report concludes that a free society also encourages economic prosperity. Freedom House says the countries with a "free" rating also account for 87 percent of the world's gross domestic product. The organization says this is so even though these 86 countries account for only 41.4 percent of the world's population.

The 58 "partly free" countries represent about 6 percent of the world economy, even though they have 23.25 percent of the global population, according to Freedom House. And the 48 countries rated as "not free" produce about 7 percent of the world economy. They account for 35.4 percent of the world's population.

(Our correspondent Nataliya Khyznyak also contributed to this report)

(Details of the Freedom House report are available at: http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/survey2002.htm)

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