Two centuries after the French and American revolutions, and 20 years after Soviet communism’s fall, liberty of conscience may be receding again
America’s Founding Fathers, albeit living in a world where most people were assumed to be theists and Christians, used finer prose to affirm their belief in liberty. Given that God had endowed the human mind with freedom, said Thomas Jefferson, “all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness.”
So it is sad to find that according to most people who study the subject, the cause of religious liberty is treading water at best, retreating at worst. Two decades have passed since the downfall of most of the regimes where atheism was state policy and religion existed only on sufferance; and over that time, liberal democracy has advanced. But political freedom and the religious sort do not always go together.
A report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, published this week, found that nearly 70% of the world’s 6.8 billion people live in countries with “high restrictions” on religion. This refers both to official curbs on faith and to the hostility that believers endure at the hands of fellow citizens.
As the research group, based in Washington, DC, rightly notes, the two forms of oppression sometimes go hand and hand, and sometimes diverge completely. For example, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran are countries where religious minorities face both sorts of persecution. In Vietnam and China religious communities are not too badly treated by their compatriots but are restricted by the state; and in Nigeria and Bangladesh practitioners of faith are more likely to suffer at the hands of fellow citizens than the government.
The report is a reminder of the paradoxical relations in many parts of the world between majoritarian democracy and personal freedom. For example, Syria’s authoritarian rulers deal harshly with political dissent from any quarter, but it is easier to be a Christian there than in many neighbouring countries. If a democratic election in Syria brought Islamists to power, life would surely get worse for Syria’s Christians. There are several other Middle Eastern countries where secular dictatorships provide minorities with a protection of sorts. Meanwhile in India the imposition of “anti-conversion laws”—making it hard to abandon Hinduism—is clearly an electoral winner in some states; but it says little for the quality of Indian democracy.
After studying 198 countries and self-ruling territories, Pew finds that in 75 of them there is some curb by local or national authorities on efforts to persuade others to adopt one’s faith. In 178 countries faiths are required to register with the government, and in 117 states this obligation has caused problems for some religions.
In the United States there are two bodies with a mandate to monitor global religious liberty: the State Department and a Commission on International Religious Freedom, which often takes a more rigorous view. Both report that more countries are paying lip-service to religious freedom, but in reality it is being systematically undermined, often by courts and local officials; across the world, “there are advances in theory, but impediments in practice,” says the commission’s vice-chairman, Elizabeth Prodromou.
Some countries do not respect religious freedom even in theory—in Saudi Arabia, for instance, public prayer by non-Muslims is out of the question. The kingdom is one of eight nations listed by the State Department as “countries of particular concern” in respect of religious liberty, a category that normally incurs some punitive action. However, successive American governments have let the Saudis off, exercising a waiver on national-security grounds. The commission wishes that the Obama administration would be more assertive.
But the two American bodies concur in deploring a development that appals libertarians: the impending passage by the UN General Assembly of a resolution on the “defamation of religion”, which seems to endorse the idea that liberty of expression can be curbed by law because of the “special duties and responsibilities” that pertain to free speech in sensitive areas like religion. The resolution has been promoted by the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
If any region can work out a new modus vivendi between people of different faiths, it should be Europe. There Muslim immigrants play an active, and mostly constructive, part in the politics of several big democracies—and many say they prefer the liberal ethos of their adopted countries to their authoritarian homelands.
Unfortunately, the Open Society Institute, founded by George Soros, a financier and philanthropist, had some rather mixed news on that front this week. After interviewing Muslims in 11 European cities, it found that big majorities wanted to be involved in local politics and had no wish to cut themselves off from society. But they feel unloved. Nearly 70% said they faced more religious discrimination today than they did five years ago.