Category - Religious Freedom

Religious Freedom: The Indispensable Work of Brian Grim
Religious Freedom Advocates Resemble ISIS? Really?
New Report on Religious Freedom
Pakistan By the Numbers
Tunisia’s history of harsh secularism yields fertile ground for Islamist radicals
Who’s Afraid of Secularism?
Religious freedom is for losers…
Beneath Hong Kong’s Umbrellas: Religion
Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions
The Right to Proselytize

Religious Freedom: The Indispensable Work of Brian Grim

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.

Religious Freedom Advocates Resemble ISIS? Really?

This past weekend a group of about 30 parliamentarians from around the world came together to sign a “Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief.”  The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom played a key role in organizing the effort.

How much will such a charter matter?  It’s hard to know.  It can’t be a bad thing, though, to build an international coalition of parliamentarians for religious freedom.  It was the U.S. Congress that passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which was championed by key legislators.  Legislatures in other countries can mobilize their foreign policy makers to advocate for religious freedom around the world.

Beth Hurd, though, is not happy with the Charter.  Hurd is a fellow political scientist at Northwestern University who did much to pioneer the study of religion in international relations through her crackerjack book, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations.  But Hurd and I disagree over religious freedom, or at least over the wisdom of promoting it through foreign policy.

Monday, she published a piece in Religion Dispatches saying that the Charter will only embolden ISIS.   She continues an argument against religious freedom policy that she has been carrying on in collaboration with colleagues like Saba Mahmood, an anthropologist at UC Berkeley, Indiana University’s Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, and Maryland Law School’s Peter Danchin.  The four of them have been conducting a project on (or against) religious freedom funded by the Luce Foundation.  From Hurd’s website, it looks like she is set to publish a couple of books next year with Princeton Press and Chicago Press presenting her arguments on religious freedom in extended form.  While I am impressed with Hurd’s productivity, I’ll be ready to argue with her.

In yesterday’s piece, Hurd does not mince words.  The “international religious freedom lobby,” as she calls it, “sought to capitalize on the moral panic surrounding ISIS to advance their agenda.”  She then wonders “whether it would be possible to imagine a more effective ISIS-recruitment tool than the image of a group of global parliamentarians, led by the US and the UK, poised to lead the way to civilization by instructing citizens of the Middle East on how to be religiously free.”

Hurd believes that religious freedom advocates are guilty of espousing and seeking to impose a Manichean worldview that resembles that of ISIS itself.  She pulls back from the brink: “Let’s be clear: ISIS and the IRF [International Religious Freedom] lobby cannot be equated.”  But then she goes on to say how similar the two are.  Both seek to impose a simplistic worldview that divides the world up between “us/good” and “them/bad.”  Much like the colonialists of yesteryear, religious freedom advocates carries on a “mission civilisatrice” that aims to export religious freedom to parts of the world who just don’t think in the same terms.  (In a previous post Hurd compared religious freedom advocacy to the Inquisition.)  Religious freedom advocates focus blindly on religion to the exclusion of other causes of conflict and end up reinforcing religious divisions.  Better to respect diversity and allow the rest of the world to do religion and state as it pleases.

What to make of all this?  It is worth remembering that the cause that Hurd believes to resemble that of ISIS is one that is enshrined in . . . the texts of a religion?  No.  The screeds of a fundamentalist?  No.  Try the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  And numerous international law documents.  And the United Nations, which has a rapporteur for religious freedom.  And now the foreign policies of the United States, Canada, Italy, Britain, Norway, and Germany.  The basis for these efforts is the belief that religious freedom is a universal principle that safeguards the dignity of the human person with respect to his or her religious beliefs and pursuits.

But why advocate – or “lobby for,” as Hurd says – this cause now?  Quite simply, because religious freedom is violated on a vast scale in the world today.  76% of the world’s population, according to the Pew Forum, lives in a country in which religious freedom is seriously violated.  Are there many other human rights that are violated today?  Of course.  Numerous other groups of victims also have strong “lobbies” – ngos, governments, the UN – working on their behalf.  Consider the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, or the outcry against torture during the administration of George W. Bush, or the network of groups fighting human trafficking.  Today’s advocates of religious freedom believe that for too long, religious freedom was ignored and so they are trying to create an architecture for this cause, too.

Does religious freedom involve a western colonialist imposition of power?  I wonder what the Bahai’s in Iran would think.  Or the Muslims in Gujurat who were massacred under the eyes of then-governor, now-prime minster of India, Narendra Modi.  Or the Ahmadi sect of Islam in Pakistan or Indonesia.  Or Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who is now on death row for allegedly insulting Islam.  Or Christians or Uighur Muslims in China.  Or – yes – the many Yazidis and Christians who were victims of ISIS, and the thousands more who would have been had not the Obama Administration intervened with bombs.  And yes, it was their religion per se that drew ISIS’s ire.  So religious freedom advocates resemble ISIS?  Really?  In almost all instances, religious freedom violations are committed against those who are manifestly disempowered – usually small minorities, and on some occasions, majorities such as the Orthodox Russians who were massacred in the millions by the Soviet government in the 1920s. Disempowerment can look like anything from murder to torture to having one’s place of worship destroyed to being imprisoned in metal shipping crates for months in the blistering Eritrean desert.  Like most human rights causes, the religious freedom movement is aimed at defending people against this sort of treatment.

Does religious freedom suppress diversity?  The whole point of religious freedom is to preserve diversity.  The right of religious freedom means that all persons and religious communities have a just claim against being coerced or interfered with in the expression and practice of their religion.  In a country with robust religious freedom, everyone’s religion is protected.  And this necessarily means all minorities as well as every individual who decides not to practice a faith at all.  Religious freedom is only justly curtailed when religious people violate other human rights; obviously there are some things that one cannot do in the name of religion.  It is hard to imagine something more conducive to diversity than religious freedom.

Are religious freedom advocates one-dimensional?  I have not met one to date who believes that violations of religious freedom are the only source of conflict or that other sources of conflict are not equally worthy of attention by foreign policy makers.  Most of us fight hard to get religious freedom on the agenda because we believe that religion and religious freedom alike were muted in American foreign policy (and that of other Western powers) for several decades during and after the Cold War.  We consider it a victory when American (or western) foreign policy makers incorporate religion into their analysis in a serious way at all or make religious freedom even one of many goals of foreign policy.

Funny, Hurd’s (again, very fine) book on secularism makes the same argument – that religion was long squeezed out by secularism in international relations, including in American foreign policy.  She argued, for instance, that a myopic secularism led the U.S. to support the Shah of Iran and helped to breed the Iranian revolution, fueled by forces that U.S. policy makers thought were fading out of history.  Exactly!  Religion matters.  And it was precisely religious freedom that was lacking in the Shah’s Iran.  And precisely his brutal secularism that gave rise to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Yet, now that people are advocating for bringing religious freedom into foreign policy, Hurd labels them Manichean zealots – resembling ISIS, no less.  Again, far from dominating the foreign policy agenda and crowding other causes and dimensions of conflict, most religious freedom advocates yearn for their cause to be anything more than one forgotten in a corner of the State Department.  Consider that even the George W. Bush administration, whose ideology one might think to have been the most conducive among recent Presidents to religious freedom, utterly subordinated this principle to the desire for stability and the war on terrorism.  When U.S. military forces occupied Afghanistan and Iraq – that is, when they exercised power in its rawest form – in both cases the U.S. begged off from insisting on religious freedom in each country’s constitution.  In other words, in those moments when U.S. policy did most resemble colonialist domination (to grant Hurd and company their argument), religious freedom was imperceptibly low on the U.S. agenda.

Does religious freedom advocacy cause division and reinforce the religious dimension of conflict?  Where is the evidence?  Can Hurd name a single place where advocacy for religious freedom has reinforced religious conflict?  Scholars like Brian Grim and Roger Finke have provided evidence for just the contrary – that it is the denial of religious freedom leads to religious violence.  My coauthors Monica Toft, Tim Shah, and I argued much the same in God’s Century.  Is there any doubt that decades of jailing thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood has led to instability and violence in Egypt – and still fuels it?  Or that father and son Asad’s religiously repressive policies in Syria bred Sunni hatred against the regime there?  Or that Saddam’s brutal suppression of Shiites in Iraq stirred up passions for revenge that, once unbottled, led to civil war and the very sectarian governance of Iraq of which ISIS now takes advantage?  Was the denial of religious freedom the only cause of conflict in these countries? Of course not; nobody has ever said that.  But religion is far more important than the traditional — and still standard — secular analysis allows.

Or maybe Hurd thinks that religious freedom is divisive in that it is opposed by, well, all those who do not accept religious freedom in other parts of the world.  But this is hardly an argument against a human rights policy.  Would she say the same for advocacy against torture or human trafficking – namely, that it should not be pursued because it stirs up the ire of the torturers or the traffickers?  Doubtless religious freedom does not conform to the values of many.  But those same many are the ones at whose hands repressed minorities yearn for diversity.

In an earlier post in Arc of the Universe, Tim Shah, developing an argument of his Georgetown colleague, Jacques Berlinerblau, presented Hurd and her colleagues with a contradiction in their thinking.  At the core of Hurd et. al.’s analysis appears to be the view that people should not impose their values on others – imposition and intolerance of diversity is the besetting sin of western advocates of religious freedom.  But if people have a just claim not to have others impose upon them and to be respected in their diversity, does this not start to look like a defense of autonomy?  Of rights to conscience?  Of freedom to practice one’s own way of life?  Of values that emerged at a great price and through great struggle in the West?  If so, then do not these core values start to look an awful lot like liberalism?  Like religious freedom?  Is not religious freedom also about protecting people against imposition, coercion, and domination?  At the heart of things, are not Hurd and colleagues presupposing exactly what they are arguing against?  On the other hand, if they want to deny this, then are they not coming awfully close to relativism with all of its familiar attendant problems?

How might Hurd and her colleagues respond to these criticisms?  A response is in order.

New Report on Religious Freedom

A report on religious freedom around the world has just been published by Aid to the Church in Need.  It covers a wide array of religions and spans 196 countries.  I have only begun to look at it, but it looks like it will be an excellent resource.  It confirms the findings of the Pew Forum that religious freedom violations are massive and widespread in the world today.

Pakistan By the Numbers

One of the world’s great voices for religious freedom today is Knox Thames, a researcher for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  See Knox’s piece for the Foreign Policy blog on Pakistan’s religious freedom travesty.  It’s a colorful and succinct presentation of an acutely bleak picture.  May it motivate action on behalf of Pakistan’s minorities.

Tunisia’s history of harsh secularism yields fertile ground for Islamist radicals

Tunisia, the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring, is now the largest source of foreigners fighting with the Islamic State.  Prior to the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government maintained a half-century of aggressive secularism, banning the veil and most displays of piety, as well as jailing thousands of suspected Islamists.  After the uprising, the moderate Islamist-led government introduced new religious freedoms, which were then exploited by Islamist radicals to incite violence.  The government has responded by emphasizing public security, and this in turn appears to be generating repression and anger that further fuels the cause of the radicals.  The lesson to be learned here is not that religious freedom is a cause of radicalization in Muslim-majority countries, but rather that when populations are denied religious freedom for extended periods of time, they become more susceptible to the destabilization of peaceful religious practice in favor of violent religious extremism.

Who’s Afraid of Secularism?

Comment Magazine - Cracks in the SecularCharles Taylor makes a small, somewhat off the cuff, argument in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience that strong civil religion tends to beget strong religion. In a recent opinion piece for Comment magazine, I summarized as follows:

This is the case, they say, in Quebec where, after the Quiet Revolution, a strong civil religious Catholic political culture was supplanted for an aggressively secular civil religious culture. They find similar trends in Turkey and France, where formerly strong “religious” civil religions were replaced very rapidly by equally strong secular-liberal civil religions. They write, “[t]hat type of political system replaces established religion with secular moral philosophy.” Maclure and Taylor say this is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau meant by “civil religion,” and when strong civil religions are toppled in political cultures, the probability is that they will be replaced by a rival, equally strong, civil religious tradition. Thick moral content is needed to combat and supplant thick moral content.

Apocryphal of a prediction as it may be, a comparative study of American and Canadian ‘secularism’ paints a very different trajectory for the two countries. Whereas Canadian political culture disestablished Christianity so long ago, we’re now on to disestablishing liberal secularism, toward what others have somewhat ambiguously, but provocatively titled, a post-secular age. The American experience, on the other hand, by virtue of its strong civil religion seems to have a more ominous future. “There is no deux-solitudes (two-solitudes, or two different but coexisting poles) in American civil religion: there is a winner, and there are losers.

My friend Kevin Flatt dissents, and writes a fine rejoinder, How to Survive the Secular Apocalypse. The whole Fall issue of Comment is a treasure, including a fresh interview by James K.A. Smith with Charles Taylor himself on the Charter of Quebec Values, the future of the religious/the secular, and more.

Religious freedom is for losers…

… so says ethicist James Mumford.  What he means is that, when we look across history, we see that religious groups that are in the minority, or fear they soon will be, tend to favor liberty.  It is they who lose from persecution.  Majority religions tend not to favor liberty, because they win without it.  Many Americans will be familiar with how Baptists, a persecuted minority in 17th-century New England, pioneered freedom of conscience.  Mumford shows that the story of how European Catholicism came to be the world’s leading proponent of religious freedom is similar:

What is most powerful in this account, I think, is that Félicité de Lamennais in the 19th century, and Luigi Sturzo and others in the 20th, pressed for religious freedom even in countries where Catholics formed a majority of the population.  Like other religious people, they learned from suffering and elevated religious freedom to a principle.

Note, too, Mumford’s conclusions for the United States and other countries where religious skeptics are enjoying more cultural power than ever and are starting to use it on some university campuses to exclude some religious groups.

Beneath Hong Kong’s Umbrellas: Religion

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.

Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions

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 Right to Proselytize

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.

© 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.