Promotion of Religious Freedom

Opinion

Promotion of Religious Freedom

Ian Linden

01 Mar 2012

It is, as Einstein once said, 'very difficult to explain the obvious'. So it is best not to labour over why religious freedom lies at the heart of any meaningful concept of human dignity. Better to assert simply that interfaith relations that attempt to ignore this truth, or keep it for an ever receding "next meeting", are barking up the wrong tree. Outside of references to "reciprocity" from the Vatican, it is rarely on any interfaith agenda. Yet, when it comes to equality of treatment by governments and in society, relations between the world's largest religious faiths, Christians, Muslims and Hindus, are often asymmetric and unjust.

This does not imply refusing to dialogue and to seek common ground, nor adopting a perennially aggressive attitude towards those who violate the rights of religious minorities. For both sides asymmetry should be a spur to dialogue not a roadblock. Nor does it imply the politicization of the right to religious freedom in the way human rights were politicized during the Cold War when a tug of war between individual rights versus the UN Covenant on social/political and economic rights, notably between the USA and the Soviet Union, took place. We hear about discrimination and persecution of Christians by Muslims. It is, of course, deplorable and needs exposure. But what of the multiple other manifestations of religious discrimination and persecution around the world?

Whether it is the Central Asian Republics, south Caucasus, North Korea, Sri Lanka, or certain Indian states, if government is involved actively in placing restrictions on religion, the justification is invariably national security, or sometimes preservation of national identity. Sometimes this is justified. Sometimes there is another plausibly good reason. Germany placed restraints on Muslim radio stations that were promoting anti-Semitism. Yet, the evidence is that religious repression neither enhances stability nor furthers development. Enabling social hostility between people of different faiths to grow is the last resort of governments losing a popular mandate, the diversionary creation of scapegoats.

Such violations are a malign element in the world's current interconnectedness. Otherwise our contemporary connectivity is a precondition for the Global Common Good. Events in which people of one faith suffer are diffracted through a wide variety of mass media, fitted into compelling and conflictive stories about what is happening, instantly influencing people, and sometimes resulting in violent behaviour. The new pressures of globalization have pushed people together, crossing old boundaries through trade, tourism, telecommunications and migration. Even without provocative events half way round the world knocking on into violence elsewhere, the potential for conflict is perennially there in the close juxtaposition of faiths....

The problem is that religious leaders cannot but speak out on behalf of their own faith communities when they are attacked or restricted in the practice of their faith. Their positions of leadership drive them into situations in which language is liable to become more strident as vulnerability and insecurity grows. It is asking a great deal that they speak out positively in favour of freedom of religion by speaking inclusively of all those who may suffer persecution alongside them: Jehovah's Witnesses, Bahá'ís, Ahmadis, Muslims in Gujerat, Tamils in Sri Lanka and so on. Yet not to do so is to undermine the universality – call it catholicity – of their particular faith.

The debate about the voice and role of religion in the public square, around the world, notably in countries such as the USA, India, Turkey and the different member states of the European Union, is influenced by perceptions of the role of religion in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan where the state identifies with one particular religious community. In the latter part of the loop, the values perceived or assumed to dominate the societies lumped together as "the West", despite the diversity of the countries making up "the West", create fears about secular democracy amongst many Muslim leaders. The reverberations of religious persecution, or restrictions on religious freedom, should not be underestimated.....

Protective constitutional provisions are a necessary pre-condition for the maintenance of religious minority rights. But they will not, of course, be enough. They will remain a dead letter if religious and, particularly, government leaders do not educate their people about the importance of freedom of religion and strive for a democratic culture. Moreover, clashes between contending values in a religiously pluralist society require a strong and independent judiciary to counter-balance pressures from the majority exerted at the expense of minorities. A commitment to human dignity entails a practical concern for attitudes throughout civil society: the training of law enforcement officers to uphold human rights, teaching respect and understanding of different faiths to school age children, assuring religious literacy in the language and thinking of the world's faiths for a nation's leaders.

This sets religious leaders a demanding task: to draw from their own traditions and sacred texts the values and virtues that will underpin a human rights culture. The investment of their authority and status in society in the protection of religious minorities, whom they may see as competitors, may gain them opprobrium. Yet the defence of the rights of people of other faiths should be a routine part of their work, no less than the defence of the rights of their own community.