Category - Religious Freedom

1
Calvin and the Caliphate
2
Is It Islamic (or Christian)? The State Doesn’t Get to Say
3
The God Squad
4
Islam and Democracy in 2015
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Voltaire is Not the Answer for France
6
#TakeLashes4Raif
7
Religious Repression is China’s Answer to Vatican’s Outstretched Hand
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#IAmRaif
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The Politics of Hypocrisy
10
Sommes-nous Charlie Hebdo?

Calvin and the Caliphate

ISIS fighters on parade in Tel Abyad, Syria, January 2014. (Reuters / Yaser Al-Khodor)

I have Catholic friends who never quite tire of quoting Cardinal Newman at me, that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I’ve often wondered if the same sort of thing isn’t true of international relations scholars; that to be deep in history is to leave the narrow, ransacked way the discipline tends to treat international history. At which point, what John Owen does is doubly special in his latest argument in Foreign Affairs (from his book, Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from The West’s Past).

A little historical comparative can go a long way to moderating the conversation on the contemporary Middle East. At its broadest level, he writes, “Western history shows that the current legitimacy crisis in the Middle East is neither unprecedented in its gravity nor likely to resolve itself in any straightforward way.” Political-theological strife is hardly unknown in the West, and even after the so-called church and state question was “settled”, many – like David Koyzis – have argued that the various ‘isms’ that tore Europe apart in the nineteenth and twentieth century were more than a little religious. It is hard, as an inheritor of the western canon and tradition, to sit too smugly on this side of the twentieth century and claim the special privilege of having transcended sectarian and religious conflict.

In fact, what Owen writes of the seventeenth century might ring just as true of the twenty-first, that “choosing an ideology was as much a political commitment as a religious one…”  Certainly this is the argument of people like William T. Cavanaugh who, in The Myth of Religious Violence, makes a long case that the Wars of Religion were more about supplanting an old political-theological sub-stratum with a new one, or as he puts it, a hostile takeover of the church by the state, than an orderly separation. None of which invalidates the history Owen writes about, though it does make it clear – as he does – that the contest in the Middle East today is at once about the meaning of the religious and the secular, their boundaries, and how those things shape political legitimacy, as they were in Europe.

Is It Islamic (or Christian)? The State Doesn’t Get to Say

Dan Philpott and I both have posted on how to think about the relation of ISIS to Islam, and noted that President Obama has presumed to declare that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’” The President has made similar proclamations since – saying last month at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism that: “They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists.  (Applause.)  And we are not at war with Islam.  We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” President Bush made similar statements, e.g., on September 17, 2001: “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.”

Nor has the Obama administration limited its doctrinal pronouncements to Islam. Early in 2012, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, President of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, published a letter reporting discussions the Council had with White House staff over the “Obamacare” mandate that employers pay for contraception and other procedures to which the Catholic Church has grave objections. According to Dolan, White House staff “advised the bishops’ conference that we should listen to the ‘enlightened’ voices of accommodation …. The White House seems to think we bishops simply do not know or understand Catholic teaching and so … now has nominated its own handpicked official Catholic teachers.”

As Reihan Salam wrote in a trenchant article last month at Slate, it really is not for an American President to say what is or is not Islamic. It is not simply because Obama is a Christian and hence an outsider to Islam. No more does the Head of State of the United States have any business telling Christians what is true Christian teaching, or which clergy are authoritative.  It is for the faithful to decide, without state coercion, what they believe and who their authorities are.

When a President tells the faithful what does and does not constitute a particular religion, he would seem to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Statements such as those of Obama and Bush also are likely to be self-defeating. Ultimately, the faithful – Christians, Muslims, and others – will see state attempts to establish religious doctrine as illegitimate, and they will side with their religious institutions over the American state.

The God Squad

The U.S. government now has a “God Squad.” Religious factors impact many U.S. foreign policy issues. The government needs a stronger toolbox to engage with religious actors and factors in foreign policy. It has been a long, hard road, but the U.S. government is increasing this capacity and commitment. This week Dr. Shaun Casey, Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs, Secretary of State John Kerry, and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, headlined a panel discussion on “The Future of Religion and Diplomacy” to shine a light on the U.S. State Department’s efforts to help policy makers better understand and engage with the religious dimensions of world affairs. The event was hosted by the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, which does important work to educate people in the First Amendment principles of the U.S. Constitution. The State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs has issued guidance to the Department of State and all U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world regarding engagement with religious actors and factors in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Also, several special envoys with responsibilities for religious foreign policy issues are being consolidated into the Religion and Global Affairs Office. This “God Squad” aims to improve the U.S. government’s capacities to effectively navigate the religious dimensions of foreign policy.

This process began in the 1990s, with the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act. Religion was neglected as a factor in foreign policy during the Cold War, as it was thought to be unimportant in the fight against “Godless Communism.” The fallacy of this view was shown in events from the Iranian revolution to the resurgence of religion with the fall of the Soviet Empire. The 1998 IRFA law created several institutions to promote religious freedom, the external, independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom outside of government, and within the State Department, the IRFA law created an Office of International Religious Freedom and an Ambassador of International Religious Freedom (a position now held by Amb. David Saperstein). The State Department IRF Office was charged with producing the annual IRF report. But it also was mandated to interact with civil society, including religious actors, persecuted groups, and human rights groups, as this would be necessary to gather the information for the report and to help guide U.S. foreign policy in this area. This small office, while important to promote religious freedom, was not enough to address all the areas where religion impacts U.S. foreign policy. It has been supplemented with a Special Representative to Muslim Communities (the position now held by Shaarik Zafar), the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism (Ira Forman now holds this post), and the Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (Arsalan Suleman is Acting Special Envoy). Over a year ago, a new office of Religion and Global Affairs was created, directed by Special Representative Dr. Shaun Casey. Now these positions are consolidated into the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, bringing this expertise together. The office is located on the 7th Floor of the State Department, a sign of the importance of the issue to Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry noted at this week’s event that “Religion matters in the world today. If I were to go back to college today, I’d major in Comparative Religions.” Madame Secretary Albright concurred, picking up a theme from her book  The Mighty and the Almighty, noting the challenge before us lies in “harnessing the unifying potential of faith while containing its capacity to divide.”  The heartbreaking headlines from Syria show great challenges lie before us. Godspeed to the “God Squad.”

Islam and Democracy in 2015

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In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s gradual but unmistakable centralization of power continues apace. Turkey, Egypt, Iran – all have at various times tried one kind or another of hybrid between Islamism and democracy. Which raises what may be the most vital long-term political question for Muslims: Is Islam compatible with democracy? The question is vital not just because non-Muslims frequently put it to Muslims. It also is the case that people the world over, including a vast majority of Muslims, aspire to live in democracies. More than two decades ago, Francis Fukuyama’s famous “end of History” thesis declared liberal democracy the winner in humankind’s age-old contest of ideas. Fukuyama’s declaration was premature at best, but it remains true that words such as “democracy” and “freedom” continue to have a grip on billions of people. The late Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi probably spoke for most jihadis when he rejected democracy as “a religion and disbelief.” But in most majority-Muslim countries, people emphatically reject the Zarqawi thesis: they say they want democracy (even if they do not trust the United States to help them achieve it).

As anyone who lives in a democracy knows, however, the word “democracy” is, empirically speaking, a container into which all manner of content can be poured. Some (too few) social scientists, such as Frederic Schaffer, have explored the subjective aspect of democracy – how people in different times and places mean different things by it. Precisely what various Muslims mean by it is in need of further investigation. But it is clear that for at least large numbers of devout Muslims, liberal democracy, at least as currently practiced in the West, is a stumbling block.

When North Americans, Europeans, and, increasingly, Latin Americans say “democracy,” they mean “liberal democracy.” Liberal democracy takes various institutional forms across countries, but in general it is an attempt to marry individual rights and popular government. As has been pointed out many times, both of these things cannot be maximized all the time: sometimes the majority wants to violate individual rights, and sometimes certain notions of individual rights go against popular opinion. In such moments, a polity must choose one or the other. But it is the sustained, consensual attempt to keep individual rights and majority rule together that defines liberal democracy.

Already, some cultures have difficulty with liberal democracy for its attachment to individual rights – as opposed to group rights, or to a strong notion of rights at all. Lee Kwan Yew, éminence grise of Singapore, is famous for saying that Westerners value individual freedoms, whereas Asians value honest and effective government.

The matter becomes even more complicated for many faithful Muslims when individual liberties are interpreted in the 21st-century Western manner. When the United States was founded in the late 18th century, the chief threat to liberty was thought to be government, which possessed coercive power and tended toward centralization. Thus the American Bill of Rights lists rights of individuals against the state. In the 21st century, by contrast, most Western elites hold that the chief threats to individual liberty come from society – traditional institutions such as churches, families, even cultures – and that the state ought to safeguard liberty from those things. Hence the culture wars that we are perpetually reassured do not exist.

A traditional Muslim may want to have a guaranteed voice in who governs, but will likely not want to live under laws and courts that seek to weaken the role of Islam – including clergy, mosques, and schools – in public life. Democracy, then, must take on a different modifier – perhaps constitutional, which denotes the rule of law.

I consider this question, among many others, in my new book Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past. By “West’s past” I mean not encounters between the Western and Muslim “worlds,” but rather the West’s own internal ideological struggles over the past 500 years – between, among others, monarchism and republicanism in the 19th century and communism and liberal democracy in the 20th. One lesson is that hybrid ideologies and institutions may emerge from a long struggle. Such happened in the late 19th century as “conservative liberalism,” a fusion of monarchism and republicanism, emerged in most European states. We may hope for another kind of fusion – Islamic democracy – in the Middle East. But the degeneration of democracy in Turkey over the past two years bodes ill.

Voltaire is Not the Answer for France

The New York Times has published at least three pieces in the past three weeks documenting France’s reassertion of its historic secularism — known as laïcité – in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings and the accompanying attack on a Jewish supermarket in early January.  See here, here, and here.

A policy of state-promoted secularism, laïcité was advanced in the French Revolution and saw its triumph during the Third Republic, culminating in the landmark 1905 law that separated church and state in a way that gave the state great control over the Catholic Church.

Now, France is doubling down on laïcité, making December 9th a new Day of Laïcité; requiring prospective teachers to demonstrate their grasp of laïcité; and forcing students and parents to sign a charter pledging respect for the principle. Such a draconian reassertion appears motivated by shock and fear, not only towards the attacks themselves but also in reaction to the large number of Muslims students who refused to observe a moment of silence for the victims.

While the students’ refusal is troubling, and while sympathy for the attacks, and ever more so the attacks themselves, are reprehensible, I wish to argue, as I did in an earlier post, that more laïcité is not the answer.

Towards Muslims, laïcité has meant a ban on headscarves and veils worn by girls in schools; the heavy restriction of minarets on mosques; the state’s failure to build enough mosques to accommodate Muslims; and attempts to pass laws banning Islamic sermons not in French, halal meat, and slaughterhouses that observe Islamic law.

By contrast, the state allows Catholic schools (which it also heavily governs) to hold mass every day; sanctions public holidays on Catholic holy days; and allows schools to serve fish on Fridays and to observe the liturgical calendar.

Add to this combination of restrictions and allowances the state’s permission of magazines to publish pictures that render in obscene fashion both the Prophet Mohammed and the members of the Trinity, and it is not hard to see why French Muslims fail to feel respected as equal citizens.

It is time for France to reconsider its history of the state managing religion and imposing secularism on the nation and rather adopt the principle of religious freedom, which allows religious people to manifest their faith freely and to govern their own communities — as long as, crucially, religious people are willing to respect the full human rights, including the religious freedom, of others.  In this sense, Muslims will have to do their part.  But will they not be more willing to do it if they are respected as equals?

One of the Times pieces quotes political scientist Dominique Moïsi as calling for moving on beyond laïcité, which “has become the first religion of the Republic, and it requires obedience and belief.”  He continues, “[t]o play Voltaire in the 21st century is irresponsible.”

 

 

 

 

 

#TakeLashes4Raif

Six of my colleagues on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and I have been very gratified by the outpouring of support and prayers following the release of our letter to the Saudi ambassador, which I wrote about here, concerning the case of Raif Badawi, the blogger sentenced to a thousand lashes. We’ve been especially amazed by all the people who have called and written to ask how they can join us in solidarity and offer to take a lash for Badawi as well. While we can be fairly certain the Saudi government won’t give a thousand people one lash each instead of lashing Badawi, the gesture of so many standing together for freedom of religion and freedom of speech–for justice, really–is deeply important. Those who wish to add their name can do so here:

takelashes4raif.org

Another frequent question I’ve heard is why we chose to take up this particular case among the far-too-many atrocities around the world. I wrote a bit about that this week in US News & World Report here.

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.

 

#IAmRaif

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.)

Raif1

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.

Sommes-nous Charlie Hebdo?

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.

© 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.