Religious freedom as a core human right: A three-sided, global debate

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 10:41 a.m. MDT

Onlookers and security staff gather around a car destroyed in a blast next to St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, Nigeria, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011. An explosion ripped through a Catholic church during Christmas Mass near Nigeria\'s capital Sunday, killing scores of people, officials said. A radical Muslim sect claimed the attack. (Associated Press) Onlookers and security staff gather around a car destroyed in a blast next to St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, Nigeria, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011. An explosion ripped through a Catholic church during Christmas Mass near Nigeria\'s capital Sunday, killing scores of people, officials said. A radical Muslim sect claimed the attack. (Associated Press)

This is the first of two articles on escalating threats to religious freedom abroad and U.S. efforts to control those threats.

Today: The current problems and competing values at home and abroad that make effective action difficult.

Part 2: U.S. policy responses since 1998 include a contentious governmental structure and strategic divisions among religious religious liberty advocates.

The images are so ghastly that Al Jazeera froze the video, allowing only voices to tell the tale. An Indonesian mob shouting "Allah Akbar" surrounded three men at the doorway of their mosque, stripped them naked and beat them to death with stones, sticks and machetes. Police officers stood by, helpless or indifferent.

The victims of the February 2011 killings were members of Ahmadiyya, a tiny Muslim sect considered blasphemers by many Muslims because they believe their 19th-century founder was a prophet. In strict Islamic tradition, blasphemy is punishable by death.

Indonesia is a single wave in a rising tide of religious intolerance worldwide. Trouble spots span the globe, with hundreds of incidents in scores of countries each year. In some, the suppression of religious freedom is dehumanizing but not life-threatening; in others, the risk of genocide or "religious cleansing" is real, immediate and growing.

In response, the United States has tried to appeal to universal values and international agreements as it seeks to shame, badger or entice problem nations to reform. But the universality of those values has frayed in recent years, and the elite consensus at home to shore them up is shaky.

Muddled model

Indonesia is justly viewed as a hopeful model of Islamic tolerance and democracy. But in 2005 the Indonesian Ulama Council issued a decree declaring the Ahmadiyya "outside Islam" and "deviant" and urged the government to bar Ahmadis from proselytizing or public worship. Two key government officials soon signed a decree ordering the Ahmadiyya to stop teachings that "deviate from the principal teachings of Islam" and to stop teaching "that there is another prophet with his own teachings after Prophet Mohammed." Against the tide, Indonesia's largest Islamic organization opposed these moves, arguing that it "violates freedom of religion which is guaranteed by the constitution."

In July 2010, large mobs repeatedly tried to vandalize an Ahmadiyya mosque in West Java, while local police made minimal efforts to control the crowd. "When the Indonesian authorities sacrifice the rights of religious minorities to appease hard-line Islamist groups, this simply causes more violence," said Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch in a press release. "While the police rightly stopped mobs from entering the mosque, their failure to arrest a single person will only embolden these groups to use violence again."

The subsequent killings proved Pearson right. Within weeks of that event, extremists sent four book bombs to Indonesian public figures. All were prominent voices for tolerance. There were no fatalities, but the message was clear.

Cultures of impunity

Indonesia's failure to make arrests in the mosque riot is known in human rights circles as "impunity" — the gap where a state lets perpetrators walk and cannot protect their victims. Impunity is a vicious circle, experts say, as violence escalates.

The springboard of impunity is often official discrimination. In Pakistan, four million Ahmadiyya are literally treated as noncitizens. To get a passport, Pakistanis must sign an oath that they consider the Ahmadi founder an "impostor prophet" and his followers "non-Muslims." Being a marked heretic can be tantamount to a death sentence. Pakistan's 2.8 million Christians are also at risk, and in March 2011 Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian minister of minority affairs, was assassinated after he opposed blasphemy laws. The killer was never arrested.

Both official discrimination and impunity are common in religious persecution hotspots. In Nigeria, violence is edging toward civil war, as northern Muslims engage in unchecked retribution cycles with southern Christians. In Iraq, half of an ancient Christian population has fled, while others seek refuge in the Kurdish north. In Iran and Afghanistan, converts to Christianity face execution. In Egypt, Christian Copts are under siege, and 24 were murdered and hundreds were injured by Egyptian security forces in October 2011.

"We have found that an increase in government restrictions on religion coincides with a spike in religious persecution and violence," said Brian Grim at the Pew Research Center (see graphic). Impunity seeps into the social fabric, experts say.

"In Pakistan, there have been numerous cases where neighbors get into a fight, and to settle scores one will invoke blasphemy laws," said Leonard Leo, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "When you abuse a minority you create an unstable and insecure environment for everyone."

Leo points to Nigeria, where he says the Islamist group Boka Haram — which means "Western education is sacrilege" — targets Christians in the south, but in their northern home the group has killed far more Muslims than Christians.

Contested values

Despite their failings, all these countries claim to accept the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which holds that everyone "has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion" including the right "to change his religion or belief" and to "manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

The universality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is central to its force. "The modern idea of religious tolerance grew not out of the West," said John Shattuck in a 2002 Harvard address, "but out of a universal revulsion after World War II towards genocide and crimes against humanity." An assistant secretary of state for human rights under President Bill Clinton, Shattuck glossed over the European Enlightenment — itself a product of horrific religious wars — and the American Founding that sprung from it.

But Shattuck's effort to universalize tolerance hides a shaky foundation. In fact, the religion clause of human rights declaration is quite challenging for many authoritarian and Islamic governments. Apostasy from Islam and blasphemy against it are widely seen as capital crimes, and non-Muslims have historically faced discrimination (dhimmi status) in exchange for a modicum of tolerance. Authoritarian governments, meanwhile, view uncontrolled religious passions as threats to public order.

It was thus no surprise that the eight abstentions from the 1948 declaration vote were seven Soviet bloc countries — and Saudi Arabia. The tension within Islam escalated in 1990, when the 45 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting in Cairo signed an alternative Declaration of Human Rights in Islam. The Cairo declaration offers neither religious freedom nor any of the other vital rights outlined in 1948. It has been roundly criticized, but it signals the height of the hurdles.

Stepchild of human rights

Challenged in many developing nations, religious freedom is also a human rights stepchild in the West. For example, one of the most prominent advocacy groups is Human Rights Watch, which has taken religious persecution very seriously in individual cases. And yet while Human Rights Watch has special program officers in several areas — arms, health and human rights; children's rights; women's rights; and lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender rights — it has no such program for minority religions or religious freedom.

"While there are many in the human rights community, at the State Department, and at U.S. embassies who do excellent work to combat religious persecution, historically, there have been many others in these realms who, in practice, have treated religious freedom as inferior to certain other core human rights," said John Hanford who served as U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom from 2002 to 2009. "This was particularly true prior to the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998," he added.

In 1998, many diplomatic and advocacy elites opposed congressional action to entrench religious freedom in U.S. policy as a core human right. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said doing so would create a "hierarchy of human rights," and some objected to the key role of evangelicals and Catholics in supporting the agenda, fearing these were out to advance Christianity abroad.

In his Harvard address noted above, Shattuck called out what he described as "threats to religious tolerance" at home, accusing the Religious Right of seeking to "promote special religious interests overseas." The vehicle for this, he said, was the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

"The burden is probably on the U.S. government to show that in this Act they're not engaging in, crusading or proselytization on behalf of the Christian religion," said Jemera Rone of Human Rights Watch at a 1999 conference in Hartford, Conn.

Shattuck further expanded his critique in a 2007 Pew forum, arguing that the International Religious Freedom Act is a stalking horse for missionary work. Pushing the freedom to openly live one's religion and to change religions could undermine social balance among people that "may or may not want to change their faith," Shattuck argued. The goal of tolerance should be to reduce religious conflict, not to expand religious freedom, he said. There is danger in taking universal human rights too literally, Shattuck suggested, and religious freedom practiced too robustly can be provocative.

The view of these skeptics was that "religious persecution should be vigorously opposed," wrote Thomas Farr of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs in a recent book. "But religion itself was not seen as a human good to be nourished. Rather, it is more often a source of conflict to be managed via tolerance."

Secular agenda

Some human rights advocates also feared that emphasizing religion would undermine their agenda for less traditional and more secular human rights. The tension reaches back to the 1994 United Nations population control conference in Cairo, where the Clinton administration and its allies hoped for major breakthroughs on abortion, family planning, the redefinition of marriage and children's rights. To the administration's surprise, a powerful counter movement developed, led by a religious coalition of Catholics, other Christians and Muslims. In the end, all the controversial proposals were defeated in a fractious conference. When the congressional religious freedom agenda was launched three years later, the last thing secularist rights advocates wanted was to share the field with such contrarians.

Jeffrey Goldberg highlighted the tension in a 1997 New York Times article. He noted an odd conversation between religious freedom agitator Michael Horowitz and Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch. Horowitz was building a coalition of religious leaders for religious freedom and wanted Roth to meet with the Christian Coalition about religious freedom abroad. Roth immediately questioned the group's position on abortion, and Horowitz was stunned at the nonsequitur. Roth said he told Horowitz that certain evangelical views "are contrary to the views of the human rights movement, around the issue of the rights of women, and around the issue of religious tolerance, but we are here to defend the rights of all, including the intolerant."

In short, the same voices that suspected Western religious imperialism in the religious freedom movement were firmly committed to spreading their own secular version of universal Western values. As Thomas Farr wrote, the new religious freedom activists "represented a traditionalist version of Christianity that would very likely contest the administration's vision of human rights. If this kind of religious advocacy got a foothold in the foreign policy establishment, it could mean trouble."

A SHAKY FOOTHOLD: Against this backdrop of contested values at home and abroad, U.S. religious freedom advocacy has struggled to find its foothold. In Part 2 of this series, we will survey the policy solutions put in place in 1998, look at how they evolved over the next 10 years and see what happened when the Obama administration came to town.

email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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