Politics & Policy

Religious Freedom on the Run

(“Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion”/The Pew Forum)
On religious intolerance, the West is catching up to the rest of the world.

Religious freedom is in global crisis and the problem is worsening, according to a report released by the Pew Research Center on September 20.

Outside the West, restrictions on religious actors and their ideas are severe and growing. Millions of people are subject to violent religious persecution, including torture, rape, murder, unjust imprisonment, or execution.

Most of the victims are members of religious minorities. But reformers within majority religious communities are also vulnerable. Especially in Muslim-majority countries, laws and public attitudes that encourage violent reactions against blasphemy, apostasy, and defamation are increasingly discouraging voices of reform. In the West, the belief that religious liberty is essential to individual and social flourishing is eroding. In Western Europe, the French model appears to have triumphed, as religious ideas and actors are driven from public life. Throughout the West, “religious liberty” is shrinking to become a thin and impoverished “private” right — the right to believe or not and, if one believes, to worship and practice in private.

In the United States, the understanding of religion as “the first freedom” is under attack by those who view it as a threat to competing priorities. For an increasing number of Americans, it is a claim of privilege that must be balanced against many similar claims, each of which should be given equal weight. In America, religious liberty is at risk of becoming the fifth freedom, or the tenth freedom, or merely special pleading by religious people.

The Pew Reports

Pew has released religious-freedom reports in 2009, 2011, and 2012. They catalogue government restrictions on and social hostilities toward religion in every country in the world. Taken together, they show how religious freedom has deteriorated in the period 2006–10. Note that this time frame does not include the so-called Arab Spring or, here at home, the Obama administration’s HHS contraception mandate, for example, or its arguments in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.

The global picture is grim. In 2010, 75 percent of the world’s population, up from 70 percent in 2006, lived in countries where religious freedom was rated as either highly restricted or very highly restricted. Most of them lived in about 73 countries, or 37 percent of the countries in the world, up from 29 percent in 2006. Of those 73 countries, most either are Muslim-majority, have Communist governments (e.g., China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba), or are large non-Muslim-majority countries such as India, Burma, and Russia.

The problem is worsening, and at an alarming rate. Between 2009 and 2010, government restrictions on and social hostilities toward religion increased in all five regions of the world.

Most of the nations where religious freedom deteriorated were Muslim-majority states such as Egypt and Libya before the Arab Spring. It will be interesting to see how the new Egypt and Libya fare in future Pew reports. Conservatives who pine for the good old days of Hosni Mubarak and his authoritarian reign should take note of the price of the “stability” that regime imparted. Just months before the overthrow of Mubarak, Egypt was rated the worst country in the world with respect to government restrictions on religion, and “very high” in the category of social hostilities toward it.

But there is little room for Western complacency. While Western nations do not suffer the degree of violent persecution we see elsewhere, the Pew reports give ample reason for concern. In the 2011 report, of the five major regions of the world, the one with the highest percentage of countries where social hostilities toward religion were rising was Europe.

Between 2006 and 2009, social hostilities against religion in the United Kingdom rose to the point that the U.K. was rated “high” in that category, alongside Iran and Saudi Arabia and, by 2010, France and Germany. By 2010, the U.K.’s scores on social hostility had nearly doubled. All three of the NATO allies, two of them permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, were scoring worse in this category than Iran, Sudan, and Vietnam. Meanwhile, their scores on government restrictions also grew worse.

What about the United States? In the 2009 and 2011 reports, government restrictions on religion were graded as “low” and social hostilities as “moderate,” putting us in the company of such states as Congo, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, and Rwanda.

But the 2012 report shows significant deterioration. In government restrictions, the U.S. is now rated as “moderate.” In social hostilities, it now ranks worse than China, Syria, Laos, the Congo, and Uzbekistan.

Here’s a final fact from the three annual Pew reports on religious freedom: Of the religious groups that were the targets of harassment, Christians fared the worst by one important measure. Over the five years covered by the reports, harassment of Christians was reported in 139 nations. For Muslims, that figure was 121.

So What?

The Pew reports warrant three conclusions.

First, the growing persecution of religious minorities constitutes a humanitarian crisis that is of significant proportions but receives little notice from the academy, the media, or policymakers.

Second, the global crisis of religious liberty has significant strategic implications for the United States. Empirical and theoretical studies provide evidence (see, for example, here and here) for what history and common sense suggest: Democracy in highly religious societies will not take root without the acceptance, in both law and culture, of robust protections for religious freedom. Without religious freedom, democracies will not be able to defeat violent religious extremism. To the extent that the U.S. sees the defeat of terrorism and the establishment of democracy in the broader Middle East as vital American interests, it should be working hard to advance religious freedom there.

Third, the United States is not succeeding in this endeavor, despite a statutory requirement to do so (the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act). As I have written elsewhere (e.g., here and here), our policy was largely ineffective under Presidents Clinton and Bush and has reached new lows under the current administration.

The Pew reports help to explain why. It is hard to sell a product you no longer understand and do not believe in. Americans of all political and religious stripes would do well to ponder the the implications, for others and for ourselves.

— Thomas F. Farr is a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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