Image for What is religious freedom good for?By Anna Su, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law / Illustration by Keith Negley

From the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Nexus

The question in the title seems strange because the answer seems obvious. People should be able to believe and freely practice their faith. But that answer does not fully capture the complexity of the role that religious freedom plays on the global stage as well as on domestic fronts today. On the one hand, there is no lack of examples of religious persecution. For instance, the rise of ISIS in the Iraq-Syrian border was catastrophic for many so-called infidels and apostate Muslims that the group has killed or driven out. Systematic persecution of particular religious communities happens in many other countries, such as in the Central African Republic and in Myanmar. But on the other hand, there is also an increasing amount of criticism directed towards the promotion of international religious freedom by Western governments, as well as various nongovernmental organizations. Among many others, a main complaint is that foregrounding religion as the main explanatory framework for global conflicts breeds sectarianism even more. It turns out that, when we get to the question “What is religious freedom good for?”, who claims religious freedom and why matters, and determining the permutations of those questions is more important and helpful in clarifying the discussion than waving a general banner for religious freedom.

In early 2013, Prime Minister Stephen Harper established the Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.  The move followed the American model of creating an institutional apparatus to incorporate religious freedom promotion in Canadian foreign policy. Its first and current ambassador, Dr. Andrew Bennett, a former civil servant and dean of a Christian college, has since then propped up in several global hotspots to speak out on behalf of Canada against religious persecution. This North American partnership was in full view recently during Ambassador Bennett’s joint tour of Southeast Asia with his American counterpart Rabbi David Saperstein. 

Similar to the American office, the Office of Religious Freedom aims to raise awareness about the issue and provide financial support to organizations abroad for relevant activities. But this model of promoting religious freedom, a recent development which has also attracted European followers (and led to the creation of an International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief), has been chastised by many, first as emanating from the Christian lobby and therefore biased, and second, as an unhelpful and in fact, a rather harmful approach to dealing with geopolitical crises. By focusing on religion, governments end up over-simplifying the roots and causes of the conflict concerned, and in certain cases, produce and reinforce a narrative of sectarian divide where there is none. Finally, religious freedom promotion by governments serves as a form of control of the state by individuals, through recognizing certain religions and excluding others.

But persecuted communities and individuals also use the language of religious freedom. Take the case of Iraqi Christians, or more accurately, Assyrian Christians. As with other Christians across the Middle East, they do not simply identify as Christian but hold multiple allegiances. The argument is that because the “religious freedom” discourse in the West only recognizes religion but not ethnic or other types of affiliations, the persecuted communities purposefully refer to themselves as Christians in order to capture Western attention. By framing the narrative as revolving around religious liberty alone, we exclude the ethnic and nationalistic component of their struggle and therefore risk missing their main objectives, which is not only to practice their religion freely but to keep their homeland. However, it is also true that these persecuted communities are persecuted especially because of their religion—ISIS, after all, demanded that Iraqis in Mosul convert to Islam or face execution.

Religious freedom, like human rights in general, is a malleable tool of politics. It is necessary to disabuse ourselves of the notion that religious freedom is a timeless and universal moral good that stands above the vicissitudes of the human condition. Consider the fact that the birth of religious freedom during the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia was as much about the freedom to worship of warring European princes as it was about the recalibration of power and authority within and without the Holy Roman Empire. Three hundred years later, while the guarantee of individual religious freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reflection of the ascent of human dignity as a principle of international law, it was also the result of a deliberate Anglo-American effort to ensure that minority group protections erstwhile present in the Covenant of the League of Nations would never be revived.

But this does not mean that we should leave global religious freedom promotion efforts for dead. Here, a conundrum exists. Religious freedom presupposes that one is claiming religious freedom. But if we take these criticisms to their logical conclusion and religion is just a smokescreen or proxy for other values and factors in a conflict, what is then left of religious freedom, especially insofar as it is articulated as an international human right? Who should speak for religious freedom and how should states respond to politics couched in the language of religion? There is indeed a danger involved if governments are mired in the world of religion, but current debates appear to take the extreme position on either side without acknowledging that both the principle and law of religious freedom could possibly be at once a tactic and a moral good.

This is an age where both extreme belief and unbelief coexist. If religion is to be taken seriously, the age-old idea that the human conscience is free to believe and worship should be a responsibility for everyone.

Professor Su's research focuses on law and history of international human rights law, U.S. constitutional law (First Amendment), and law and religion. Her research has appeared in the Vanderbilt Law Review, the International Journal of Constitutional Law and the Journal of the History of International Law