Religious Freedom

Freedom of belief discussed in prelude to World Religions Summit

WINNIPEG, Canada — Religion remains a powerful force in world affairs, and freedom of religion must be upheld to ensure that its influence is progressive and positive.

That was among the main themes at a seminar on religious freedom held 22 June 2010. Sponsored by the Bahá’í community of Canada, the seminar was held as a prelude to the World Religions Summit. [See main story]

The day-long seminar featured four international experts in human rights from four different faith backgrounds.

The discussion was wide ranging, but the panelists converged on the idea that the right to investigate and embrace the truth inherent in religion and spirituality is taking on a new importance in world affairs.

“In spite of articles that have been written about the death of God, religion remains a vital force in defining the landscape of modern society — and a potent force for peace and well-being,” said Gerald Gall, a professor of law at the University of Alberta.

“That being the case, there is concurrently a notion that society must protect religious freedom from any assault on its integrity as a matter of human rights,” said Prof. Gall, who is Jewish.

Janet Epp Buckingham, a Christian and director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa, said that religion encourages moral behavior, self sacrifice, and service to others. “Religion is vital to individuals, community and society in general,” she said.

Despite its potential for positive influence, Dr. Buckingham acknowledged, religion is often seen as divisive. But she and the other panelists said that the violence and hatred perpetrated in the name of religion are more often the result of clashes over power, natural resources, or economic or ethnic differences.

She noted reports of increasing conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia. “This is odd because they have lived peacefully side by side for years,” said Dr. Buckingham. “But the Christians are ethnically different. They were often from a Chinese background. And they were well off and getting better off.

“So what was portrayed in the media as being a religious clash has much to do with economics and ethnicity. So you have to take this into account before you say, ‘Oh, religion is such a source of conflict,’” she said.

The former environment minister of Iraq, Mishkat Al Moumin, who is currently director of the Washington-based Women and Environment Organization, reported how supposedly warring Shiite and Sunni groups worked together in Baghdad’s Sadr City to help improve environmental conditions there several years ago.

At the time, there was a shortage of water in Sadr City, and limited sewerage. And to meet those basic needs, even though they often fought against each other on other issues, “both Sunnis and Shiites said they were willing to make it happen. Because they both needed the same thing.”

Dr. Al Moumin, a Muslim, said she believes it is often environmental problems — such as a basic lack of a water or hygiene — that drive people to violence, not necessarily religious belief.

Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University in Montreal, said that too often those who blame religion for violence in the world fail to see how, in fact, the materialistic ideologies that captured the imagination of millions in the last century were responsible for far more deaths than any religious war.

“What we have done in the modern era is to perfect mass murder and bring it to new and unprecedented heights,” said Prof. Akhavan, who previously served as first Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Tribunals for Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The holocaust, perpetrated by Nazism, and the purges in the Soviet Union, he said, showed the failure of “the promise of modernity.” People thought that the “use of the rational faculty could ensure progress and freedom.” Instead, he said, we got “state-sponsored, industrial scale, rational mass murder.”

Today, said Prof. Akhavan, the disenchantment with religion has lead chiefly to the consumer-driven global capitalism that is “robbing us of our dignity as human beings by reducing us to a bundle of appetites.”

In reaction, he said, the world has witnessed a surge in religious fundamentalism that sees Western materialism as moral decay and degeneration. “The challenge is to find a path between these two models,” said Prof. Akhavan, who is a Bahá’í.

Prof. Akhavan said he believes such a path can be found by upholding genuine religious freedom, which entails a search for the truth and the freedom to explore that truth.

“The need is to create a transcendent spirituality, which can give us not merely an opportunity to tolerate each other, but to build a community of belief that transcends our apparent differences,” said Prof. Akhavan.