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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Promoting religious tolerance, inter-faith understanding, and religious freedom

Invited to speak as a panelist at the 5th Session of Istanbul Process at the headquarters of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Below are my prepared remarks focusing on ways to promote inter-faith tolerance and religious freedom.   5th Session of Istanbul Process Meeting Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 3-4, 2015 Session II: Countering and combating advocacy to religious hatred that constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence through affirmative/positive measures The Human Rights Council’s adoption of Resolution 16/18 by consensus in March 2011 was a breakthrough, as it replaced the “defamation of religions” resolutions that had annually created serious cleavages between different voting groups.  Despite legitimate concerns about religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence, the approach of these resolutions resulted in delegations focusing on winning votes instead of improving the situation on the ground in countries of concern.  Instead of concrete improvements to protect people, the “defamation of religions” debates created greater enmity, not solidarity.  Resolution 16/18 was different, approaching the subject within the framework of universally accepted international human rights standards and outlining a comprehensive Action Plan.  The Resolution 16/18 approach focuses on positive measures to counter religious intolerance and protect individuals from discrimination or violence, rather than on criminalizing expression.  No small feat, the resolution bridged what some called civilizational gaps around how best to promote tolerance and combat intolerance.  Resolution 16/18 paved the way for representatives of the OIC, United States and the European Union to initiate the Istanbul Process in July 2011, to discuss ways to implementing the resolution’s Action Plan.  A core provision of Resolution 16/18 is to provide religious freedom and promote religious tolerance.  Religious freedom, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other international agreements, is a capacious right.  The global community has agreed that individuals have unlimited freedom to believe or not to believe and to change religion, as well as the freedom to express religion or belief, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private, subject to only the narrowest of limitations. Religious freedom is also a unique fundamental freedom, as to be fully enjoyed it stands upon other rights, such as speech, assembly, and property rights.  Freedom of religion is considered a basic building block of a progressive nation. However, the intertwined relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of expression complicates the task of finding an agreement on the best way forward to combat religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence. Further complicating matters, these issues often arise in the context of controversy and media frenzy. At the same time, the issues being discussed today are arguably some of the most pressing before the international community. Addressing religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence is at the forefront of the international agenda out of necessity.  There are at least three reasons: First, peoples, cultures and faiths are intermixing as never before. Change is the new constant, with globalization irreversibly bringing people and cultures together in ways that were inconceivable just two decades ago, let alone two hundred years ago.  The United States is increasingly religiously and ethnically diverse, as are every country represented here today, either from new beliefs held by citizens, naturalized citizens born abroad, or guest workers coming for better jobs and pay.  At the same time, there has been an information revolution.  With a click of a button, extremist networks can share videos extolling violent religious ideologies – and coreligionists can share messages of peace. Second, the world is increasingly religious.  Religion plays an important and necessary role in every society.  Religious beliefs are irreducible and go to the very core of individuals’ lives and life decisions.  Births, deaths, weddings, and questions about life all revolve around religious practice.  Individuals have the fundamental right to believe what they want and to act on those beliefs in peaceful and non-coercive ways.  Religious belief is, at its core, about freedom of thought.  The freedom to believe or not believe in god or a higher power.  To search for ultimate truth as one sees fit.  A 2010 survey by the Pew Trust found roughly 84% of the global community believes in something greater than themselves.  In other words, most people around the world believe in God or a higher power that directs and gives meaning to their lives.  And of the 16% described as “unaffiliated,” Pew reported that many had personal religious belief systems, but just didn’t fit into one of the major religious categories.  Similar studies have documented that religious practice is increasing globally.  The authentic and comprehensive practice of faith is an increasing commonality.  Thirdly, while the world is increasingly religious, there are increasing limitations on its free practice.  The Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life has conducted several empirical studies on governmental restrictions on religion and societal hostilities involving religion.  Overall, Pew reported that approximately 3 out of every 4 people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities.  Not everyone is persecuted in those countries, but there are very narrow lanes of permissible activity condoned by the government and/or society.  These statistics are important to consider because rising restrictions on religion overlaid with increasing religiosity is a recipe for human rights abuses, instability, and potentially violence.  So how can the Istanbul Process be preserved in light of emerging threats?  How can the process advance in a meaningful and sustainable manner? For sure, differences remain.  Nevertheless, all stakeholders should reaffirm that Resolution 16/18 and its Action Plan are the right course of action to be followed in combating religious intolerance.  New treaties, guidelines, or observatories are not needed, but rather a recommitment to the existing effort through deeper political and financial support.  Before discussing building something else new, there is more work to be done under the current framework.  Here are some of the activities that need continual focus: The resolution committed nations to speak out against intolerance, including against advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence; to adopt measures to criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief; to foster religious freedom and pluralism by promoting the ability of members of all religious communities to manifest their religion, and to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society; to encourage the representation and meaningful participation of individuals, irrespective of their religion, in all sectors of society. And what would this look like in practice?  First is human security.  A government’s first responsibility is to protect its citizens from violence and discrimination. With violent extremism on the rise globally, police resources are being stretched.  Yet deterrence through prosecution and consequences is vitally important. Recently, in response to the mob lynching of a woman named Farkhunda for allegedly blasphemous activity, an Afghan court sentenced four individuals to death for her murder and 11 policemen to jail for failing to intervene.  While there are due process concerns, these quick and serious verdicts sent an important message that – contrary to the Taliban’s message – that such violence will not be tolerated.    The 2015 Annual Report of the Commission highlighted other areas where there has been progress on these issues – although overall, it documented a global decline in the respect for freedom of religion or belief during 2014, including in OIC, European and other non-OIC countries.  Regarding positive examples, in Pakistan, the Commission highlighted an important decision by the Supreme Court last summer. A far-ranging decision quoting the Quran and Alexis de Tocqueville, it mandated the creation of a special police force to protect religious minorities and a national commission on minorities. In addition to security, a government must ensure that minorities are given equal rights, opportunities, and citizenship.  Many religious communities bristle at being referred to as minorities, stressing that they are citizens of their countries, entitled to the same rights and privileges as others, regardless of their faith.  And that is right.  While faith can be all defining for billions of people, rights should not be conditioned on holding a particular faith.  Non-Muslims have been given citizenship by several GCC countries, for instance.  Practices of listing religion on identification cards can lead to discrimination and create problems when holders of new faiths wish to be recognized.  Indonesia’s recent decision to allow the listing of recognized and unrecognized faiths on ID cards is a step in the right direction.  Also, international standards do not forbid establishing a particular faith as the national faith, but that cannot be a basis for discriminating against minorities or limiting their rights, including the right to religious freedom.    And while citizenship rights are paramount, at times, due to historical reasons or current conditions, religious minorities need special mechanisms to advocate for their rights or to provide an avenue where they can safely and quickly approach government for redress of grievances.  The Commission noted how the new government in Sri Lanka has created special focal points to interact with non-Buddhist religious minorities.  The United States has an array of domestic offices where religious and ethnic minorities can interact with the federal government.  Having a sensitivity to the unique needs of religious minorities during humanitarian events is also important.  For the millions fleeing the ISIS advance, it is critical that host countries and countries of resettlement take measures to ensure that religious minorities are protected and able to practice their faith.  Education must be a part of the solution set.  Ensuring that our children are religiously literate about world faiths and faiths specific to their country can help prepare them to engage in a 21st century that will be defined by diversity.  Also instructing them about tolerance, so they do not view someone of a different faith as the religious “other,” but rather appreciate pluralism.  In this regard, the Commission has welcomed efforts by Saudi Arabia to include passages promoting tolerance in the Kingdom’s school curriculum and hope this effort will be continued by the new King, as well as make efforts to ensure these new texts are circulated so as to compete against hateful materials. 

Also, civil society involvement is critical.  Countries need to strengthen local actors who can speak about benefits of religious pluralism -- both interfaith and intrafaith. The religious diversity of the United States, and its history of grappling with discrimination, is a good story. While imperfect, it has much improved due to the efforts of civic and religious leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.   Integrating civil society and religious communities into efforts to combat intolerance and grow tolerance would enhance efforts across the board.  For instance in Cyprus, religious leaders and civil society actors have been central to recent efforts to overcome decades of hostilities and improve relations between Greek Cypriots (who are Christian) and Turkish Cypriots (who are Muslim).

And leaders must speak about the importance of diversity of belief and thought.  The recent UN Security Council session focusing on the plight of religious and ethnic minorities during the ISIS onslaught was a moment of global consensus that minorities have rights and should be protected.  The challenge is ISIS and other terrorists are trying to upend the global system.  To push back, to change the narrative, government leaders and religious leaders, both national and local, need to speak of the importance of religious diversity and rights.  Being silent in the face of false narratives of religious exclusivity is a recipe for increasing violations.  Despite all this, there will always be bigotry and hateful speech.  It is not going away.  If passing laws against hate speech could stop this, it would have been solved.  In fact, such laws have been found to be counterproductive.  The Pew Forum has found that societal hostilities are often higher in countries with restrictive legal regimes. Laws restricting speech are vague and subjective, making them ripe for abuse.  They also help create a climate that can empower extremists by signaling it is permissible to attack those saying things deemed offensive.  And great faith traditions have counseled against a legal response, with Jesus Christ urging his followers to turn the other cheek and the Prophet Muhammed responding peacefully when non-Muslims treated him with disrespect.  Judaism speaks of welcoming the stranger and Hinduism of welcoming all beliefs in god.  Civic and religious leaders need to promote positive messages and marginalize the extreme voices.  Open public debate of ideas, as well as interfaith and intercultural dialogue, at the local, national and international levels are among the best protections against religious intolerance and can play a positive role in strengthening democracy and combating religious hatred. Resolution 16/18 and the Istanbul Process are positives.  The challenge is to build on the areas of common concern and agreement, which are extensive, and focus on working together to increase political support and resources for this effort.  Violent extremism is rising globally, and requires a global response that promotes interfaith understanding and respect for human rights.  Countries committed to 16/18 must not be drawn back into unproductive debates in New York or Geneva on topics that are known to be divisive, subjects that create heat but not light; doing so will only hinder the ability to make progress on the concerns shared by all. * The views expressed here are my own.

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