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the organization’s founder, Ruchira Gupta, as she negotiates an additional year of schooling for a girl previously withdrawn so that she could be prostituted by relatives.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.
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.
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.
It may be narcissistic, and in poor taste, to talk so soon about how the Charlie Hebdo massacre relates to the rest of us. But of course American pundits are doing it anyway, and I’ll join the fray long enough to note four things.
First, although freedom of speech and of the press have been in the U.S. Constitution since the beginning, and were adopted in European countries at various times, religious blasphemy has not always been protected speech in the West. It is only in recent decades, as our societal elites have become more skeptical of religion, that courts have come to protect speech that ridicules religion.
Second, it took many people in the West a long time to make peace with the right to lampoon religion. Here is a fascinating video clip from 1979 of some of my favorite Englishmen – Malcolm Muggeridge, John Cleese, and Michael Palin – arguing vehemently over the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, whose final scene is taken by many (me included) to be ridiculing Christ’s crucifixion.
Third, one can agree with Muggeridge, who was a fearless journalist, and the Bishop of Southwark in the video that the Monty Python film is blasphemous and ought not to have had the crucifixion scene, and at the same time maintain that Monty Python must be allowed to make and distribute that film without fear of state prosecution or private violence. The same goes for Charlie Hebdo and the lampooning of Muhammad. We have arrived at a point in Western culture where almost nothing is sacred, and maintaining our constitutional freedoms requires that we not carve out exceptions for blasphemy. We must not flinch.
Fourth, as David Brooks notes in a brilliant column today, this goes for campus speech codes as well. As we have de-sacralized religion, we have sacralized the tender feelings of students, and censorship is rife on campuses. The horrific events in France and our reactions to them expose our silliness and incoherence.
In the whirl of public discussion since release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on CIA detention and interrogation after 9/11, I mostly hear a back-and-forth volley of one side insisting, “Torture worked!” (implied: “therefore it is o.k.”), and the other side insisting, “Torture is wrong, just wrong! (And it doesn’t work.)” For me, having already made clear my opposition to torture, I find it deeply disturbing that torture is even considered debatable.
At the same time, I also find it perplexing that the two sides argue with such vehemence that one might think the winner of the media debate would get to set policy — policy right now, on a whim.
I think it is worth reminding Americans, or notifying them if they don’t already know, that the U.S. signed (1988) and then ratified (1994) the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT).
UNCAT defines torture as:
any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
Furthermore, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” (Article 2)
When the 9/11 attacks happened and I went to work for the Department of Defense late in 2001 I had never heard of UNCAT. In 2003 when I was informed that my next assignment, then with the Defense Intelligence Agency, would be interrogation training followed by deployment as an interrogator to Guantanamo, I had never heard of UNCAT. I suspect even today many Americans have never heard of UNCAT; this is unfortunate.
I learned about UNCAT because the Department of Defense included this as a mandatory component of our interrogation training. I distinctly remember that after the instructor explained the history and content of UNCAT, he told us in no uncertain terms, “This is the law of the land.”
Some of the most important arguments for religious freedom come from the work of scholar Brian Grim and his collaborators. Grim teamed up with sociologist Roger Finke to write The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. One of the most interesting arguments there is that religious freedom is correlated with a whole range of other good things. They make a strong argument, for instance, that the restriction of religious freedom is correlated with violence. Now, Grim is making the case that religious freedom is good for business — and hence for economic growth, which in turns encourages stability and peace in a virtuous cycle. He has founded the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation to promote the idea. Explore the links here to see what he is up to.
Key to the leadership of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution is religion. This should not be surprising. In the long wave of democracy movements beginning around 1974, religion has played a major role. My colleagues Monica Toft, Tim Shah, and I found that among 78 democracy movements that we studied, religion played a prominent role in 48.
John Lindblom, a doctoral student in the World Religions World Church program in the theology department here at Notre Dame, notices what many others have not: religion’s role in the Hong Kong protests. He has been involved in China-related teaching, research, and work since 1997. Here’s John:
The pro-democracy protests unfolding in Hong Kong during the past week, appear to have reached a decision point as of Sunday, with student leaders and government officials agreeing for the second time to hold negotiations after the first round of talks were canceled by protestors. At issue is the Beijing government’s announcement that the pool of candidates for the 2017 election to Hong Kong’s top office, the Chief Executive, would be pre-selected by the Communist Party, while protesters demand genuine democracy with universal suffrage and free and open elections. The first planned talks were canceled after protesters were violently attacked on Friday by counter-protesters who students claim were gang members (who spoke Mandarin, indicating they are from mainland China, not Hong Kong) sent in by officials to disrupt the peaceful demonstrations.
Tens of thousands of protesters, mostly students, have taken to the streets in a movement called “Occupy Central” (Hong Kong’s administrative district) since last weekend, and tensions have escalated step by step during the past week, after police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse protesters, who responded with greater numbers and firmer resolve, carrying umbrellas and wearing face masks and goggles. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying rejected their demands that he step down, while stating that students would be treated “with the greatest tolerance.” By Saturday, however, there were warnings that if students did not disperse and allow civil servants back to work Monday morning, that a “tragedy” may ensue. On Sunday, government and university officials urged students to disperse, stating that they had effectively made their voices heard. Even Hong Kong’s retired archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen, who has joined students the streets and strongly supported them in this movement, urged them in a Facebook post Sunday “not to sacrifice a single one” in this cause. As of Sunday night, most protest sites had only a fraction of their earlier numbers, and sites near government buildings showed walkways cleared so that government workers could reach their offices on Monday. Whether or not large numbers return to the streets remains to be seen.
In addition to Cardinal Zen, many among the students leading and participating in the demonstrations are Christians. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Cheng, a political-science professor at City University of Hong Kong and a supporter of the protesters said, “Christians, by definition, don’t trust the communists. The communists suppress Christians wherever they are.”
Beijing’s has used familiar rhetoric in its statements, writing that cadres and the masses “resolutely oppose” the protests, that these protests are an instance of unrest being instigated by a small number of troublemakers, and that this matter is China’s “internal affair” with which foreign entities must not “interfere.” A commentary on the English website of the People’s Daily, China’s largest state-run newspaper, quoted numerous non-Chinese experts to express opposition to the Occupy Central movement. One Catholic news source, Asia News, wrote in late August that Beijing fears that a “germ of democracy” could be implanted in the former British colony and from there “infect” mainland China. The People’s Daily, for its part, commented on the front page of the Chinese edition on Saturday, “As for the ideas of a very small minority of people to use Hong Kong to create a ‘color revolution’ in mainland China, that is even more of a daydream.”
To those who remember the pro-democracy movement of 1989 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, these events and words bear a sadly familiar and ominous tone. We hope and pray that the violent Tiananmen Square massacre (which is remembered by thousands every year in Hong Kong, and to which there is a permanent memorial sculpture at the University of Hong Kong) will never be repeated. In fact, Beijing’s words and actions before, during, and since the Tiananmen movement are the same. Almost always, the CCP blames the unrest on a few lawless instigators, claims that force is needed to regain or maintain stability, and tells outside actors not to interfere with China’s internal affairs. This is the most important test to date for China’s promise to maintain a “high degree of autonomy” as promised for Hong Kong. Students and many others see Beijing’s actions in recent years as incremental encroachments on their previous way of life, which, shaped by 150 years of British colonial rule, is completely different from that in mainland China. Simple gestures such as students continuing to do their homework while sitting in the streets, and cleaning up after themselves at protest sites, indicate that their intentions and commitment to non-violence are genuine, yet their frustrations and fears are real. As recent history has shown, a peaceful resolution to conflict is rare when confronting the Chinese government, but in this case we must still hope and pray that the planned talks will move forward, an agreement will be reached, and a tragedy, which could have enormous repercussions for Hong Kong, China, and the rest of the world, will still be avoided.
ISIL claims to be Islamic. Now, a letter signed by over 100 highly respected Muslim scholars has decisively condemned ISIL’s rhetoric and behavior, and urged the ISIL leader to desist and repent. The signatories describe their views as representative of the “overwhelming majority of Sunni scholars over the course of Islamic history”. Given that ISIL draws some recruits from Sunni Muslims in its fight with Shii Muslims, this letter has the potential to dissuade some recruits, provided that media outlets and social networks help publicize it.
The letter makes 24 points on ISIL’s assertions and activities. Taking a traditional jurisprudential approach, the document cites religious reasoning forbidding virtually all the abhorrent acts feeding ISIL’s notoriety, such as mutilation, killing emissaries, enslavement, torture, desecration of graves and shrines, and ill treatment of women, children, and other religious groups (especially Christians and Yazidis). In these alone, the letter is noteworthy.
Yet this document does more: it addresses the extraordinarily consequential question of who can interpret Islam, and what assertions count as religiously authoritative interpretations. To better explain this, consider that Islam in general, and Sunni tradition in particular, is decentralized in religious authority structures: there is little in the way of a clerical hierarchy. Social conflicts and new communications technologies have added to the crowded field of self-proclaimed religious voices.
Decentralization means that it is hard to mobilize an authoritative response to misguided religious claims. However, decentralization does not necessarily mean interpretative anarchy. There are established norms governing religious interpretation. The first point made by the signatories is that fatwas (religious legal opinions) cannot be offered without the necessary learning requirements, and must be grounded in Islamic legal theory. From this follow points about specific prerequisites for religious legal interpretation, such as mastery of language and refraining from “cherry-picking” sacred texts, and several points related to ISIL’s wrong assertions about jihad.
Religious vigilantes are those with rudimentary Islamic education who arrogate to themselves to the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. Religious vigilantes like ISIL deviate from the norms that guide traditional religious deliberation. By condemning ISIL’s behavior, this document condemns vigilante brutality in the name of Islam. By affirming the prerequisites of religious interpretation, this document demands a more elevated religious deliberative community.
In one religious ideal, a non-coercive setting would permit the coexistence of different religious interpretations, with people effectively agreeing to disagree. This would allow for thoughtful public deliberation where diverse views are aired and carefully examined. The reality is that some refuse the ground rules, and disputes can turn into shouting matches, where the biggest megaphones and fists prevail. To work for long-term peace, the wider community should breathe life into norms of public deliberation, opening avenues for the redress of grievances, and ensuring that all injustices are held to account.
The latest from Victoria Hui (see earlier posts below):
Tensions in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution were diffused at the eleventh hour last night (Oct. 2, HK time), but could rekindle any time unless protestors find a third alternative between escalating and retreating. Tensions were building up last evening as Hong Kong protestors surrounded the Chief Executive’s office and threatened to occupy other government office buildings if CY Leung would not step down by midnight. In response, the police were seen to stockpile tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and even bullets for AR-15 at the Chief Executive’s office. Observers could finally take a deep breath when CY Leung announced that he would appoint the Chief Secretary Carrie Lam to open negotiations with students. However, few people are optimistic that the negotiations would amount to anything. Not only that Mr. Leung refused to resign as demanded by protestors, Beijing has also stepped up its hardline position that it will not change the arrangements to vet candidates for the CE election in 2017 — which caused the protests in the first place. Protestors will thus continue to feel that they have to escalate to more disruptive actions or the movement would lose momentum and die out. But protestors have a third alternative. Scholars have argued that methods of dispersal — such as consumer boycotts and nonpayment of taxes — could be as effective as methods of concentration — such as the massive demonstrations that are on display now. If targeted boycotts hurt the interest of business tycoons whose support CY relies on and if nonpayment of taxes make bureaucrats unable to administer Hong Kong, then protestors would have a higher chance of compelling concessions and avoiding direct clashes with the police. And the movement will be sustainable in the long-term even when people have to go back to school or to work.
Few issues relating to religion and global politics are as controversial as proselytism. Even those sympathetic to religion’s place in politics are often reluctant to take the final step of giving the nod to proselytism. Those who are skeptical see proselytism as the quintessence of the problem with religion. Political Science Ani Sarkissian of Michigan State, a rising star in the study of religion and global politics, then, argues boldly in claiming that proselytism is closely associated with the rights, freedoms, and representational mechanisms that are the bread and butter of liberal democracy. She writes the following in a post for Arc of the Universe:
Proselytization—the act of trying to change the religious beliefs, affiliation, or identity of another individual—is a controversial issue in discussions of religious freedom. On the one hand, proponents argue that proselytization is a human right, akin to the rights of free expression and conscience. On the other hand, proselytization brings up difficult questions regarding how to balance the rights of some groups to expand their faith versus those of others to protect their traditions. Although international law does protect the right of individuals to change religion, it also allows for limits on coercive attempts to convince others to convert. This leaves open to interpretation how states regulate proselytization.
My current research examines the relationship between restrictions on proselytization (and related activities such as conversion, foreign missionaries, religious publications, and public preaching) and various measures of democracy in countries around the world. Using data from the Pew Research Center, I find that restrictions on proselytization lead to lower quality of democracy. Restricting proselytization is related not only to restrictions on association, organization, the media, cultural expression, academia, personal discussions, property ownership, economic opportunity, and personal social freedom, but also to how well democratic procedures—namely, elections—are followed.
As laws against proselytization fall under the category of limits on expression, they affect both the procedural and rights aspects of democracy. Procedurally, restrictions on expression curtail political competition by reducing the number and variety of voices in the political marketplace, thus limiting political choice at the time of elections. In terms of democratic rights, restrictions on religious expression can signal a regime’s unwillingness to tolerate other expressions of civil rights. This suggests that restrictions on religion are fundamentally motivated by politics rather than theology. I expand on this argument in my forthcoming book, The Varieties of Religious Repression: Why Governments Restrict Religion, and will continue to explore the topic of proselytization in greater detail in the upcoming months.