Bahai News - The First Freedom Under Siege
First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life
The First Freedom Under Siege
First Things 112 (April 2001): 18-20.
Worldwide, religious freedom is deteriorating. A world is a difficult thing
to summarize, but the trend shows that repression of religious minorities
is widespread in countries with large populations, such as China, India,
Pakistan, Indonesia, Sudan, and Nigeria, and that religion is increasingly
a key element of modern wars in the Balkans, Israel, Chechnya, and Kashmir.
While overall the situation is worse, however, there is also good news.
Latin America has become one of the most religiously free areas in the
world. And, except for the former Yugoslavia, the countries of Eastern
Europe have also become largely free. One great story of the last quarter
century is the victory of freedom in the traditionally Catholic world. There
are also many free countries in Africa, especially in the south, while
several smaller Asian countries are also free. Nevertheless, the dominant
pattern in the world is the increasing political influence of religion
coupled with increasing religious repression.
Religious persecution, meaning violence in which the religion of the
persecuted or the persecutor is a factor, affects all religious groups.
Christians and animists in Sudan, Baha'is in Iran, Ahmadiyas in Pakistan,
Buddhists in Tibet, and Falun Gong in China are the most intensely
persecuted, while Christians are the most widely persecuted group. But
there is no group in the world that does not suffer because of its beliefs.
All religions, whether large, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or
Buddhism, or small, such as Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness, or Judaism, suffer
to some degree. In many cases these attacks come from their own religious
group. Thus Shiite Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan suffer persecution
and even death from some dominant Sunni groups.
Religious freedom is also not confined to any one area or continent. There
are relatively free countries in every continent and of every religious
background. Perhaps surprisingly, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, South Africa,
Botswana, Mali, and Namibia are freer than France and Belgium. There are
now absolutely no grounds for thinking that religious freedom is an
exclusively Western desire or achievement.
Religious freedom varies depending on the historical religion of the
country. This is complex, since current regimes may reflect comparatively
little of a country's religious background. China, North Korea, and
Vietnam have a largely Buddhist background, but current religious
repression comes from self–proclaimed atheistic materialists. Turkey
has an Islamic background but the present secular government aggressively
represses peaceful Muslim expression. Thirty years ago many traditionally
Christian countries were under Communist repression. Despite this variety,
the overall patterns can be illuminating.
Historically Christian countries, with the notable exception of Cuba,
Belarus, and Serbia, are now nearly all religiously free. Within
Christianity, Protestantism tends to score higher than Catholicism and
both higher than Orthodoxy. Other religiously free countries include Israel
and countries of largely Buddhist background, including Japan, Mongolia,
South Korea, Thailand, and Taiwan. This suggests that a Buddhist tradition
can be a good foundation for religious freedom.
The most striking recent change has been in traditionally Hindu countries,
notably India. India has a strong history of religious freedom but has
recently voted into power a party promoting an intolerant Hinduism, thereby
removing a country harboring nearly a fifth of the world's people from the
list of nations that are religiously free.
Historically Islamic countries form the large majority of the unfree
regimes. There may soon be improvement since Indonesia, with the world's
largest Muslim population, is in a painful transition to democracy while
Nigeria, about half Muslim, may also establish itself as a democracy.
However, both countries are currently unsettled, and their move to
democracy is marked by large–scale regional religious violence.
Policy elites tend to overlook the religious motivations of foreign
regimes, letting their secularism prevent them from even seeing, much less
understanding, the role of religion in human life. For example, at the end
of 1997 the former executive editor of the New York Times, A. M.
Rosenthal, confessed, “Early this year I realized that in decades of
reporting, writing, or assigning stories on human rights, I rarely touched
on one of the most important. Political human rights, legal, civil, and
press rights, emphatically often; but the right to worship where and how
God or conscience leads, almost never.”
This myopia can have painful consequences. The CIA refused to examine the
beliefs and attitudes of the Ayatollah Khomeini's followers in Iran before
they took power, claiming it would be mere“sociology,”
intelligence–speak for irrelevant academic verbiage. Parallel tales
can be told of Vietnam, Bosnia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Nicaragua, India,
Israel, Sudan, and Indonesia.
This neglect often comes from redefining religion as “ethnicity,” a
tendency to which Americans are particularly prone. Distinguished diplomat
Chester Crocker’s otherwise excellent lecture to the Foreign Policy
Research Institute on “How to Think about Ethnic Conflict” described
even the Northern Ireland and India–Pakistan conflicts as“ethnic,”
even though the sides share ethnicity, and are divided by religion.
“Ethnic cleansing” is the new term for religious repression all over
the world, thanks to depictions of the former Yugoslavia wherein war
between Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims was routinely described as
Another mistake is to assimilate religious disputes to the political
categories of Western Enlightenment culture, as though this constituted the
common opinion of reasonable humankind, or at least the common opinion of
Americans. Thus, Islamic and Hindu militants are often described as
"rightwing." But what is a“right–wing” or “left–wing” view
of plans to build a Hindu temple on the site of the Babri mosque, or the
place of the Temple Mount and al–Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem? Neither has
anything to do with categories of left and right, and each situation can be
understood only in light of its deep–seated religious context.
When ethnicity fails to subsume religion, a common alternative is to call
it “fundamentalist,” a catchall term for any manifestation of intense
religious fervor. Such religious militancy is often treated as the
sublimation of drives that can really be explained by poverty, economic
change, or the stresses of modernity. Of course, these can play a role in
religious expression; no part of human life is sealed off from any other.
But all too often what we encounter is a priori methodological commitment
to treat religion as secondary, as an evanescent and derivative phenomenon
that can be explained, but never used to explain.
Taking religion seriously in international affairs can illuminate conflicts
of various kinds. It is worth noting that most wars in the last fifty years
have occurred on the margins of the traditional religions. The Middle East,
the southern Sahara, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and South Asia
are where Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism intersect.
These conflicts are not usually explicitly religious wars. But since
religion shapes culture, people at these boundaries have different histories
and different views of human life, and are thus more likely to oppose one
I am not suggesting that religion, independent of other cultural, ethnic,
economic, political, or strategic elements, is the only or the key factor
in explaining social behavior: societies are complex. But I am saying that
it is simply absurd to examine a political order without attending to the
role of religion.
One reason why religion is frequently associated with social unrest is that
“globalization” or “westernization” is penetrating deeply into
traditional cultures. Traditional believers in Japan or Java did not in the
past wonder about who they were. But now, through new communications and
commodities, local identity cannot simply be taken for granted, and, so,
needs to be consciously asserted.
It is also significant that the leaders of these societies are less likely
than their immediate postwar predecessors to have been shaped by contact
with and education in former colonizing societies. Recent generations of
political elites in traditional societies have most often grown up within
their country and profess less need to adopt Western ways.
Both these trends are exacerbated by the collapse of communism, which
eliminated the only major alternative to globalization. Consequently those
distressed by the dominant directions of the world now look to their own
country’s traditions, which of course are predominantly religious
One result of these trends is the growth of religious nationalism, whether
heartfelt or contrived, wherein countries are defined increasingly by their
religious inheritance. This has typified the conflicts between Serbs,
Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. It is endemic in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal,
while, to acquire legitimacy, the Burmese junta masquerades as Buddhist.
The Chinese government inveighs against “foreign” religions, while
other regimes in the region celebrate so–called “Asian values.”
Within the Islamic world, this religious nationalism interweaves with
pan–Islamic or pan–Arab motifs. In Egypt, Afghanistan, and Malaysia,
the focus is more on the particular country, while for most terrorists
loyalty is to the whole Islamic world. This pan–Islamicism is rapidly
becoming a major factor in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,
and underlies most of the terrorism in Indonesia.
Despite the claims of their proponents, these trends are not repristinations
of previous religious patterns. In traditional societies there was little
need to assert or defend a religious identity, which is one reason that
some of the most religiously free Muslim societies are monarchses such as
Jordan and Morocco. But in the modern world, with its democratic jostlings
and communication networks, religious identities are challenged and, hence,
religious leaders must rally their supporters. The result is that belief
becomes more like ideology and the faithful become more like a movement.
Some policy analysts in the U.S. prefer to play down issues of religious
freedom because they recognize that religious issues are often intractable.
Compromises over religion are much harder to negotiate than deals over land
or water. Religious issues are not named for fear that their mere mention
conjures them into existence.
However, religious conflict and religious repression will not go away simply
because our foreign policy elites refuse to speak of it. The United States
can only address such conflict if it clearly and unsentimentally acknowledges
it. Religious freedom is historically the first freedom in the growth of
human rights and often has more to do with the growth of democracy than does
a direct focus on political activity itself. Integrating religious issues
and concerns into a coherent policy is extremely difficult, of course.
While all human rights pressures make realists nervous, religion carries
the added burden of touching on very deep–seated commitments. But
America's historic concern for freedom will not be sustained without a more
informed and urgent appreciation of religious freedom.
Paul Marshall is the author and editor of many books, including the
best–selling Their Blood Cries Out. He is Senior Fellow at the
Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House, Washington, D.C., and the
General Editor of its Religious Freedom in the World: A Global Report
on Freedom and Persecution (Broadman and Holman, 2000).
©Copyright 2001, First Things
Page last updated/revised 111701
Return to the Bahá'í Association's Main Web Page