Archive - January 2015

Religious Repression is China’s Answer to Vatican’s Outstretched Hand
Bishops and a U.S. President Plea for Hindu Tolerance
A Legacy of (Saudi) Liberalism
How Europe and Islam Can Get Along
Revive us encore!
Indian organization works to rescue girls from sex trafficking
Silencing Debate on Islam?
The Politics of Hypocrisy
The problem was not religion

Religious Repression is China’s Answer to Vatican’s Outstretched Hand

It is a wintry season for religious freedom in China.

Freedom in general is suffering in China, as this article in the New York Times explained vividly at the beginning of the year.  The Maoists are back, apparently.  Religious freedom, whether for Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhist, Falun Gong, or Christians, is worsening distinctly.  China already holds a position in the most repressive tier of the world’s violators, as attested by the the rigorous rankings of the Pew Forum.  It seems little interested in moving upwards.

Take the case of Beijing’s treatment of the Catholic Church.  Over many months, Pope Francis has been signaling interest in rapprochement, even declining to meet with the Dalai Lama in the Vatican late last year so as not to offend the Chinese government.  But this regime is not returning the affection.

For the Catholic Church, religious freedom is in one sense a more demanding claim than for other religions: it involves respect for its transnational communion of bishops, centered on the Bishop of Rome, the successor to Peter. Dating back to the 1950s, the Government of China has strongly managed, regulated, and constricted the Catholic Church through the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which rejects the authority of the Pope over the Church by requiring bishops to be ordained under its own authority.

In this manner, China’s regime violates the freedom of the Catholic Church with respect to its essential structure. The Church’s authority to ordain its own bishops is the prerogative that it has insisted upon most vigorously against the encroachments of kings, emperors, and dictators, dating from the Investiture Conflict of the 11th century, to Henry VIII’s seizure of the Church in England in the 16th century, to the French Revolution, to modern Communist dictatorships.

Admittedly, complexity has entered the relationship between the Vatican and China in the past three decades or so as the Vatican has come to recognize the authority of many bishops ordained under the CPCA. Still, the fundamental denial of the Church’s freedom by the CPCA arrangement persists. Over the past half-decade, the Chinese government has become more entrenched in its hostility to the Church’s hierarchy by ordaining several bishops against the wishes of Rome.  A news story of today reveals that China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs intends to continue this practice.  In addition, the government has imprisoned a bishop who refused to join the CPCA soon after his ordination and persists in holding Chinese Christians in jail for worshipping contrary to government regulations.

Accompanying these stories are the reports that have surfaced over the past year of the Chinese government destroying churches and removing crosses, especially in Zhejiang Province.  One news story reports that that “2014 saw the worst persecution of Chinese Christians in a generation.”  During this year, 60 churches were destroyed in Zhejiang province.

Still another recent story in the Financial Times documents the general climate of increasing religious repression in China.

Updated, February 2, 2015.  See this story on China’s crackdown on western textbooks.


Bishops and a U.S. President Plea for Hindu Tolerance

We’ve been following forced conversions and other manifestations of radical Hindu intolerance in India.  President Obama deserves credit for speaking to the issue eloquently on his trip to India.  India’s Catholic bishops pled for religious freedom recently, too.

Update on Thursday, January 29th: More good stories have come out on President Obama’s appeal for religious tolerance, including this one by Harvard Business School’s Lakshmi Iyer on Obama’s speech and this one on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s possible blind eye towards anti-Muslim outbursts In India.

Meanwhile, the fighting Buddhist theme can be witnessed not only in Sri Lanka but also in Myanmar.  See this revealing piece.




A Legacy of (Saudi) Liberalism

Paola Bernardini, a friend of mine who is Associate Director for Research, Contending Modernities, at the University Notre Dame, guest blogs in memory of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah:

Saudi Arabia is rated among the worst of the countries which restrict basic civil and political liberties. In this hereditary monarchy grounded on the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, political parties are forbidden; the public practice of any religion other than Sunni Islam is restricted (including Shia Islam); women are not allowed to drive, nor to hold public office; the media is controlled by government and any opposition to the regime is severely punished with prison and corporal punishment.

And yet, the late King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, who died last week at the age of 91, was known to be a liberal.  As last Friday’s New York Times columnist stated, “King Abdullah’s reign was a constant effort to balance desert traditions with the demands of the modern world.” In only 10 years, which is how long he officially ruled, he appointed the country’s first female deputy minister; started a Center for National Dialogue  headed by  “a 70-strong group of worthies, including, unusually for Saudi Arabia, Shias, women and some noted liberals,” with the role of discussing reform and introducing  more tolerance for religious diversity within Saudi institutions; paid a visit to Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican (the first ever of a Saudi monarch); sponsored the creation of the Vienna Center for Interfaith Dialogue, which carries his name and has a board of directors with representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism; and created the first co-ed university on Saudi soil — KAUST, North of Jeddah — open to both Saudi and Western youth and faculty, where women can drive on campus, the religious police is not allowed and, according to rumors, non-Muslim have their own space for prayer.  These few and yet important attempts at modernization are the reason why the death of King Abdullah bin-Aziz was received with sadness, even when news of a new Saudi blogger being detained in prison and sentenced to 1000 lashes merely for having expressed his political dissent on the web, was being circulated. Hopefully, the new King Salman, who has assumed the throne, will follow in his brother’s footsteps, no matter how strong the resistance on the part of the religious conservatives will be.

How Europe and Islam Can Get Along

The Charlie Hebdo killings have reignited the question of whether and how Muslims can be integrated into European societies.  By what principle can such integration can succeed?  I take up the question in a two-part posting at Cornerstone, the blog of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center.

In Part One, I look for an answer in the much-discussed work of Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil.  Scott takes France to task for making a universal out of its aggressive secularism, which turns out to be a very particular approach to religion and politics known as laïcité — and one that marginalizes Muslims.  This much, Scott gets right.

But does Scott provide a better way forward?  In Part Two, I express skepticism.  Her postmodern politics of difference undermines her efforts to find a principle upon which religious and secular people can live together.  More promising is religious freedom, a universal principle that affords wide latitude to religion while respecting liberal democracy.

My arguments here echo those that I invoked earlier on this blog in a debate with Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and that Timothy Samuel Shah invoked in his reflection on Jacques Berlinerblau’s critique of “pomofoco.”



Yesterday, I joined six of my colleagues on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in an open letter (see below) to the Saudi ambassador in Washington concerning the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who is being punished for expressing dissenting views on religion and politics. He was originally sentenced to seven years in prison and six hundred lashes. On appeal, his sentence was raised to ten years in prison and one thousand lashes, as well as a hefty fine of one million riyal, the Saudi currency. (A freelance writer has a good summary of the case and a roundup of news links here.) The lashing, which began a couple of weeks ago, is to be carried out in installments of fifty lashes, each Friday for twenty weeks. (The UK’s Daily Mail covered the first round of the beatings here.) Round two of beatings, to be held this past Friday, was delayed because he had not healed sufficiently from the first week’s beatings to withstand another one quite so soon. I suppose the authorities might find themselves a bit red-faced if he died before they had barely gotten started, but some observers think there is a good chance this will kill him before it’s over in any case.

In the letter to the Saudi ambassador, the seven of us call on his government to halt this brutal, unjust punishment, and, failing that, we offer to each take one hundred of the lashes. When this idea was originally floated, my first thought was that I was too scared (cowardly?) to sign on. My second, more comforting thought was that the Saudis would never call our bluff, as it were, so it was a safe gamble in our attempt to bring enough negative attention to the case that they might reconsider their cruelty. (There’s also a slim hope that the publicity will move President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who are understandably embarrassed at the absence of high-level US officials from the recent, massive rally in France—where, by the way, many carried #IAmRaif placards—to involve themselves in this matter.) My third thought, though, was that I should not sign the letter unless I was genuinely committed to taking the lashes if the Saudis took us up on our offer. Especially in light of the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day earlier this week, I’ve been thinking what it means to sacrifice for others, to go to the Cross, as some might say, in the fight for justice. Similarly, for those who believe it is something to be emulated and not just admired, what does it mean to say, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”? What is our responsibility for this man who is suffering for nothing more than exercising his freedom of speech and freedom of religion?

PDF version of our letter: Standing in Solidarity with Raif Badawi

(Worryingly, the website of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, led by one of the signatories, went down right after posting the letter. I’m told that signs point to a cyberattack, but I don’t know more.)


Revive us encore!

France, along with other northwest European countries, has long been thought to be ground zero for secularization.  Lately in French cities, however, it’s been tough to find a seat in the pews, reports Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.  Gobry admits his experience is anecdotal but offers reasons why it might be something more.  Oh mon Dieu!

Indian organization works to rescue girls from sex trafficking

PBS NewsHour recently featured a story on an Indian organization – Apne Aap (On our own) – that goes door-to-door to rescue girls from sex trafficking.  They are focused on helping “the Last girl re-gain control of her destiny. The last girl is poor, female, low-caste, and a teenager. Additionally, she may be the daughter or sister of a prostituted woman or a victim of child marriage or domestic servitude.”  In support of this mission, Apne Aap works to establish and defend “four essential rights” – legal protection, education, a dignified livelihood, and safe and independent housing.  The PBS NewsHour story features the organization’s founder, Ruchira Gupta, as she negotiates an additional year of schooling for a girl previously withdrawn so that she could be prostituted by relatives.  Even that single year of additional education can make the girl stronger, Gupta explains, and it is one more year she gets to spend not being raped.

Silencing Debate on Islam?

As prior posters to this blog and media worldwide have noted, the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre reignited a debate that has been flaring off and on for years; namely, whether freedom of expression should be limited, among other things, by religious sensibilities (or sensitivities, as some might say).  Not always but often, this debate is framed as one of Westerners (especially those in the U.S., where free speech has very few legal limits) versus Muslims.  Thus, it was particularly interesting to note a recent Washington Post article by Asra Q. Nomani, a former WSJ reporter and author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.  In that article, Nomani charts what she identifies as a 10-year campaign led by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and others to police Muslim and non-Muslim critics of Islam under the guise of combatting “Islamophobia”.  The tactics she describes have the effect of “quashing civil discourse”, preventing much needed conversation about the meaning and future of Islam.  Nomani, who has received death threats, calls for renewed attention to ijtihad – the Islamic law concept of critical thinking and interpretation.  Her analysis is not uncontested, but it is an important contribution to the debate and worth reading.

The Politics of Hypocrisy

Freedom of speech, like freedom of religion, is one of those things pundits like to cry foul on for hypocrisy, partly because it’s so easy, partly because there’s so often some truth to it. Some truth being the operative, and highly misleading watch phrase.

In the forthcoming issue of Convivium Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Dr. Andrew Bennett, gets the question put to him in Turkey when calling, very frankly, for the restoration of both civil and ecclesiastical properties to Jewish and Christian communities. In response, one of the people talking with him said: “Well, thank you, Ambassador Bennett, for engaging with us on these questions and raising these issues with us. Perhaps we could come and help you with Quebec.”

Foreign affairs always runs a  hypocrite’s gamble: pressuring and encouraging the virtues that Canadians hold dear abroad, when our practice at home is far from perfect. The launch of the Office of Religious Freedom in 2013 dovetailed a little too conveniently for some with the (defeated) Charter of Quebec Values, raising the now often repeated charge to ‘get our own house in order’ before going abroad. This argument makes two very important political mistakes.

First, it intentionally ignores the spectrum on which political and social problems take place, falsely presuming that scale and severity does not matter. To say that the Charter of Quebec Values would have been a violation of religious freedom of the same kind as Turkey’s seizure of places of worship is to say Canada is a lawless society of the same kind as, say, Somalia and its infamous offshore piracy because there is jay walking in Montreal during rush hour. Both are lawless acts, but prudential politics recognizes degree matters.

The second major mistake in this argument is the expectation that Canadian society will have worked out to a nearly perfect degree the fullest expression of its most cherished virtues before preaching them. Obviously this will never be true. Canada’s most cherished virtues are aspirational. We aspire to be people of generosity, of fairness, of tolerance, of justice, and of genuine pluralism. Societies and people do not arrive at these things. They aspire to them. And it is, after all, what we love, what we aspire to, that is the best definition of a people and of a country.

The same basic mistakes are scrawled across editorial pages after the terrible events of Paris. We are not all Charlie, of course, and that I choose not to use my freedom of speech to post satirical cartoons of other’s faiths does not somehow make me complicit in this terrible violence. I can defend the right of those who do without joining in. I can defend the virtues of freedom even wishing we used those virtues different ways. Degree – how and why I disagree – and intent – what I am aiming for – matter.

Every liberal society worthy of its name treasures freedom of speech, just like freedom of religion. And every society on opening its mouth to say so is a hypocrite. That’s not a reason to stay close mouthed. But it is a good reason to try harder.

The problem was not religion

On the Foreign Policy blog today, Christian Caryl posted a piece, “Religion is Not the Enemy,” where he takes issue with one way of interpreting the Charlie Hebdo violence — that religion is the problem.  He begins by engaging Salman Rushdie:

It was entirely appropriate that one of the first people to weigh in after the Charlie Hebdo massacre was Salman Rushdie, the man who spent years of his life defying a state-sponsored death threat prompted by a presumed act of blasphemy. Though Rushdie isn’t one of my favorite novelists, I’ve always admired his firm stand in defense of the freedom of speech — and I’m glad that the British government had the guts to defend his rights.

By the same token, I don’t in any way dispute his right to make the statement that he issued yesterday — even though I find myself in rather strong disagreement with it. Here’s what he said:

Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. “Respect for religion” has become a code phrase meaning “fear of religion.” Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.

Caryl takes issue.  Further down, he writes,

The problem with such arguments is that the ranks of the religious inconveniently include people who have done great good for humankind. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent campaign for justice is unimaginable without his background as a Baptist preacher. The Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis because he denounced the Holocaust and bemoaned the criminality of Hitler’s regime. Fervent Buddhists like Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama have devoted their lives to the defense of human rights. The Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel believed himself to be doing God’s work as he laid the foundations of modern genetics.

The whole piece is well worth reading!

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.