Top Academic Panel Asks Why Religious Repression is Increasing Despite International Pressure

The IRLA has convened an international body of experts to study a disturbing paradox: while the principle of religious freedom has gained a strong foothold within international law, restrictions on religious practice are actually on the rise around the world.

Despite decades of international support and promotion, the ideal of religious freedom as a universal human right remains elusive in practice, and religious repression continues unabated in many countries, according to a group of scholars who met recently at Harvard Divinity School.

This paradox—the absence of widespread practical success despite broad international support for religious freedom—is a critical challenge, and one that’s preventing real progress in advancing this basic human right, said the scholars in a statement released after three days of study and discussion. Recent studies, such as one released by the Pew Forum earlier this year, show that in 2014 around three-quarters of the world’s 7.2 billion people lived in countries with high or very high restrictions on religious practice or high rates of social hostility related to religion.

The panel of some two dozen scholars and attorneys from around the world—known as the “Meeting of Experts”—is convened annually by the International Religious Liberty Association, an independent advocacy organization founded by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Dr. Ganoune Diop, Secretary General of the IRLA, says the reluctance of many countries to adopt international religious freedom standards is driven by a vast range of different forces—cultural, historical, philosophical, moral, and political.

To understand why these barriers exist, says Diop, it’s important to study the various critiques of religious liberty that are often advanced by these countries, many of which have either a strong anti-Western bias, or are influenced by a politically powerful religion or ideology.

“For some countries, religious freedom is closely linked with the idea of ‘individual rights’ and this doesn’t sit well with cultures based on a more communal and community-based approach to rights,” explains Diop. “Other cultures equate religious freedom norms with liberal permissiveness, which will inevitably lead to a moral breakdown in society.”

“Some countries fear that religious freedom will undermine a dominant religion that’s seen as having vital historical or political importance. Examples of this are some forms of Islam in many Middle Eastern countries, or Orthodoxy in some Eastern European countries. Still others, particularly within Asia, reject religious freedom ideals as far too ‘western.’ They’re seen as incompatible with the local culture, or even as a tool of western imperialism.”

Diop adds, however, that resistance to religious freedom norms doesn’t just come from non-Western countries. He points to Europe and the United States, where the pervasive influence of postmodernism—which is highly skeptical of overarching or universal norms—has led to waning interest in religious freedom ideals. Growing secularism, he says, also leads some to question why religious expression deserves special consideration and protection

Diop, who presented a paper on the first day of the Meeting of Experts, also notes the growing sense of disillusionment, especially among younger people, with the historical track record of overarching socio-political ideologies—everything from communism to liberal democracy.

“We all see double-standards, corruption, the inability to translate ideals into practice,” says Diop, “and so it’s little wonder that many people dismiss international institutions and laws—even those that purport to promote universal human rights—as futile, at best, or as a political tool of repression, at worst.”

Feeding into this narrative, says Diop, is the fact that some Western governments have folded the promotion of religious freedom into their foreign policy programs—thus tainting their efforts with a suspicion that they’re fueled largely by self-interest.

For some people, the very notion of human rights as part of a universal moral code is becoming less relevant, adds Diop. "The worldview of many disenchanted contemporaries, especially those who’ve experienced the traumas of wars and occupations, has been shaped by human brutality inflicting pain and suffering. The past century has been marked by many religious and geopolitical conflicts, two world wars, along with genocides and slavery—both transatlantic and trans-Saharan. These human-wrought tragedies, along with the natural disasters that have punctuated recent history, make it difficult for some people to believe in an orderly universe that justifies human rights."

Among the scholars who presented papers at the meeting were David Little, Professor Emeritus of Harvard Divinity School; Cole Durham, Professor of Law and Founding Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University; Rosa Maria Martines de Codes, History Professor at Complutense University in Madrid; Pasquale Annichino, Research Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy; Dudley Rose, Associate Dean of Harvard Divinity School; Mohamed Mahfoudh, Dean of Law School at the University of Tunisia, Dr. T. Jeremy Gunn, Professor of Law and Political Science International University of Rabat and Amal Idrissi, Law Professor at the University of Moulay Ismael in Morocoo.

The Meeting of Experts will meet next year at Princeton University in New Jersey. Diop says these meetings are immensely valuable in bringing focus and attention to important religious liberty concerns. This is the 18th time the group has met, and through the years, many of the papers presented have been published in the academic journal of the IRLA, Fides et Libertas.

BETTINA KRAUSE | Communication Director
International Religious Liberty Association
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