Freedom of religion and the battle against extremism

Although it has often been relegated to second-class status among human rights concerns, the issue of freedom of religion or belief today stands at the center of many of our most pressing global challenges.

Successful social and economic development, for example, is greatly influenced by the religious beliefs of its participants. Such beliefs impact key factors in the development process, such as individual motivation, community cohesion, and women’s participation — and the right to freedom of religion or belief is accordingly central to the development process.

Experts are also increasingly making connections between religious freedom and other fundamental rights — such as freedom of expression and assembly, equal protection before the law, and rights related to the family, marriage, and children. The rights of women, for example, are often particularly affected by religious belief, as is the status of children.

Most important, perhaps, today there can no longer be any doubt that matters of peace and security are often directly related to freedom of religion or belief.

This fact needs to be stated plainly: among the chief sources of conflict so far in the new millennium have been disputes over religious ideology. The rise of terrorism, in particular, can in large part be connected to a simultaneous rise in religious extremism.

On 25 November 2006, the world observes the 25th anniversary of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. It is an appropriate time, then, to reflect on the Declaration, its significance, and its role in the future.

The Declaration is significant because it delineates and expands upon the right to religious freedom as first established in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR).

The UDHR, in Article 18, proclaims:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The 1981 Declaration reaffirms the fundamental nature of this right, elaborates upon it, and spells it out in practical terms.

The 1981 Declaration indicates, for example, that the right to freedom of religion or belief includes the right to “establish and maintain” places of worship; to “write, issue and disseminate” religious publications; to “observe days of rest and to celebrate holidays”; and to “establish and maintain communications with individuals and communities in matters of religion and belief at the national and international levels.”

At the same time, however, the 1981 Declaration falls short, inasmuch as it fails to elaborate on the right to “change” one’s belief — a point that was clearly outlined in the 1948 UDHR.

As specialists in the field of human rights well know, that simple word — “change” — was removed from the 1981 Declaration at the insistence of some countries. Those who opposed the term saw the right to “change” one’s religion as a threat to the established order — or even as an apostasy.

This does not mean, of course, that the right to changes one’s religion has indeed been expunged. The 1981 Declaration itself notes that nothing in it “shall be construed as restricting or derogating from any right defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights...”

Our view, however, is that a greater emphasis on this right — along with the other rights encompassed under the rubric of freedom of religion or belief — can contribute greatly to combating religious extremism and its accompanying threats to global security.

A greater emphasis on the right to changes one’s religion — along with the other rights encompassed under the rubric of freedom of religion or belief — can contribute greatly to combating religious extremism and its accompanying threats to global security.

In the first place, it is a fact that the underlying teachings of all of the world’s major religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, and the Bahá’í Faith — promote harmony, moderation, non-violence and other ethical teachings that are antithetical to any type of extremism.

Greater freedom to manifest and teach a variety of religious beliefs, then, offers a powerful antidote to religious extremism.

Many human rights organizations have posted a “watch list” of those countries where freedom of religion or belief is most significantly curtailed. And an examination of virtually all such lists will show that many of those same countries are also plagued by religious extremism. The connection is clear: extremism tends to flourish where there is less freedom to adopt and practice the religion of one’s choice.

But in order to truly tackle the problem of religious extremism, one needs to understand and address its underlying cause.

In a statement to the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the Bahá’í International Community noted:

“Many believers find it difficult to reconcile deep religious conviction with tolerance of other beliefs. It is tempting to insist that one has discovered the one and only truth and to relegate the remaining masses of humanity, adhering to other beliefs, to the status of apostates or unbelievers, spiritually doomed, deserving pity at best, or outright ridicule and persecution at worst. Throughout history too many sincere people in every part of the world have fallen victim to this thinking.

“In the Bahá’í view, such attitudes are, in part, the product of ignorance. If other religions are shrouded in mystery, then they become an empty vessel into which the individual is tempted to pour fears and fantasies. Experience shows that ignorance breeds superstition and perpetuates religious prejudice and animosity.”

One part of the answer to religious extremism, then, lies in education about other religions.

 As the Community noted in a 1989 statement: “By eliminating ignorance of other religions and, thereby, promoting understanding, education would treat the latent causes of intolerance and gradually, over time, deprive those who would distort religious teachings for their own purposes of the support they need.”

On this point, the right to “change” one’s religion becomes critically important, especially where it concerns those who promote violence under the guise of religious teachings, which represents both the greatest form of religious distortion and the highest level of extremism.

In some countries now, for example, attempts to change one’s religion are indeed greeted with the charge of apostasy — which under some interpretations of religious law is punishable by death.

If governments were to uniformly make clear that such interpretations are unacceptable, such forms of extremism would be dealt a severe blow. And the real test of such tolerance is whether the right to “change” one’s religion is thoroughly upheld.

The practical reality of this point is further illuminated by the Bahá’í understanding of the oneness of religion. This understanding holds that, despite the varying names for Him, there is only one God, and all of the world’s major religions are progressive expressions of God’s revelation for humanity.

In its 1989 statement, the Community observed: “The spiritual basis for religious tolerance is the recognition of the common source of all the world’s great faiths. A fair-minded examination of the actual utterances of the Founders of the great religions, and of the social milieus in which they carried out their missions, will reveal that there is nothing to support the contentions and prejudices deranging the religious communities of mankind and, therefore, all human affairs.”

Such a fair-minded examination of the teachings of other religions can only come when there are no barriers to the right to both “manifest” one’s religion in “teaching, practice, worship and observance” — and the right to “change” one’s religion.

Promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief and all that it encompasses is today not only a matter of moral imperative but a practical necessity. It offers the best remedy to extremism and fanaticism, and an important safeguard to our collective security.

Our confidence on this point stems from a belief in the essential goodness of the human spirit and the conviction that, in an unrestricted exchange of religious ideas, those teachings that promote peace and harmony will triumph in the end.