Need for “Sufficiently Profound Responses” to Religion-Related Violence

In his 2015 annual report to the United Nations (A/HCR/28/66), Heiner Bielefeltd, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, focuses on “Preventing violence committed in the name of religion.” He outlines what “sufficiently profound responses” to this grave problem should include.

When Bielefeldt came to the United Nations, apparently he didn’t get the memo explaining that as a U.N. official he should issue lots of bureaucratic blah-blah-blah. Instead, his annual reports have repeatedly been substantive and insightful. The 2015 report is no exception.

Something can be done to reduce religion-related violence, explains Bielefeldt.

His recommendations for states are clear:

Legislation that renders the existence of certain religious communities “illegal” in the country should be revoked.

States should repeal anti-blasphemy laws, anti-conversion laws and any other discriminatory criminal law provisions, including those based on religious laws.

For private citizens and civil society organizations, he emphasizes breaking through cultures of silence. “Silent majority” no more is one of his core recommendations, especially for those in areas with state protections for freedom of speech and cultures of openness who enjoy lower risks than others. Speak out for those who feel they cannot speak for themselves – and do so wisely.

Bielefeldt rejects anemic over-simplifications of religion-related violence. “[P]ublic rejections of violence,” he argues “…should not succumb to the temptation to reduce the issue of violence in the name of religion to mere “misunderstandings” and external abuses. This would amount to an irresponsible trivialization of the problem.”

Instead, he explains, “theologians and religious leaders,” and others too, I would add,

should actually expose themselves to the disturbing fact that perpetrators of violence — or at least some of them — may be convinced to perform an act of service to God when killing fellow humans. Taking seriously these ideas, however bizarre and distorted they may seem, is the precondition for giving sufficiently profound responses. Only by confronting the perverse “attractiveness” of violent religious extremism for some people, including people living in precarious and volatile political circumstances, will it be possible to tackle the various root causes of violence, including polarizing religious interpretations and incitement to religious hatred.

“Violence in the name of religion,” concludes Bielefeldt, “does not “erupt” in analogy to natural catastrophes and it should not be misconstrued as the inevitable result of sectarian hostilities that supposedly originated centuries or millennia ago, thus seemingly lying outside of the scope of the responsibility that different actors have today.”

The actors with responsibility to counter violence in the name of religion are individual citizens including religious leaders, civic and religious organizations, and states – which is to say, all of us can do something to reduce religion-related violence.

Step one: seek greater understanding of this problem. This 2015 report by Bielefledt is a good place to start.

Step two: move beyond simplistic trivializing. Bielefeldt is right to call instead for “sufficiently profound responses.”

Step three: silent no more.

About the author

Jennifer S. Bryson

© 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.