ODVV interview: International pressure can...
There are many indications leading us to believe that we are living in an age characterized by the face-off of religion and science. Even so, although science is making headway in eliminating many of the humanity’s challenges, faith hasn’t surrendered its preeminence, and The Guardian reported in 2018 that 84 percent of the global population identifies with a religious group, with Christianity being the largest faith group, followed by Islam, Hindus and Buddhists. Sixteen percent of the people in the world, at nearly 1.2 billion, said they have no religious affiliation.
Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right safeguarding the diversity and conscience of human societies. The ability of the believers to profess whatever faith they wish without being discriminated against or persecuted, and the freedom of nonbelief, represent important elements of functioning democracies.
In tandem with the global rise of religiosity, religious persecution is also growing dramatically. Upward of five billion people live in countries with a high or very high level of restrictions on religion. The Pew Research Center reported that in 2018, more than a quarter of world countries experienced “a high incidence of hostilities motivated by religious hatred, mob violence related to religion, terrorism, and harassment of women for violating religious codes.” Lethal encounters with religious undertones were recorded in over 50 countries, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic sentiments spiked across Europe and threats against Hindus permeated some 18 states worldwide.
Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt is a German philosopher, historian and theologian. He is currently a professor of human rights and human rights policy at the University of Erlangen in Nuremberg. From August 2010 to November 2016, he served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Prof. Bielefeldt to discuss the state of religious freedoms in the world, the challenges of the developed countries and nations in the global south with religious intolerance, the global spread of Islamophobia, and other forms of religious bigotry. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: On 25 November 1981, the UN General Assembly passed the resolution 36/55 which gave birth to the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. In 2000, the Commission on Human Rights created the position of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Does the United Nations have practical mechanisms at its disposal to ensure the member states do not get involved in discrimination on the basis of religion and faith, and that countries which do discriminate face proportionate consequences?
A: In recent years, we have experienced a multifaceted crisis of multilateral governance, which, inter alia, has weakened the UN, including its human rights infrastructure. No one who cares about human rights can be satisfied with the current situation – far from it. Not only do we still lack efficient implementation mechanisms, even the general political support for the idea of human rights seems to be moving backwards. That is why we need to mobilize all the available forces and at the same time look out for new human rights agents, like cities, companies and religious community. International civil society has to play an even bigger role.
When talking about the UN, I always emphasize it is not only the international community of governments; no less, the UN is also an international forum for civil society organizations. Hundreds of NGOs have obtained accreditation status and use the international stage of the UN to further human rights. Some of them are specialized on freedom of religion or belief. The 1981 declaration provides a reference document for such commitment – always in conjunction with other human rights instruments, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which in its article 18 professes the right of everyone to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.
Q: High-income, developed countries in the West, which are expected to be at the forefront of combatting religious discrimination owing to their democratic institutions are facing grave challenges these days in their interactions with the religious minorities. Employment discrimination against Muslims is a case in point. The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, in a report addressing Islamophobia and discrimination, concluded that the unemployment rate for Muslim citizens in EU countries is significantly higher than that of non-Muslims. Similar disparities apply to housing, education and civil liberties. Do you think there should be international pressure on these countries to revise their policies?
A: Islamophobia is a reality in Europe, and it affects various societal sectors, from education to the labor market to the media. International pressure can help raise awareness of the problem. But the most important contributions to tackling the scourge of hatred against religious minorities must come from the midst of the respective societies themselves. Entrepreneurs of collective hatred, whether it is Islamophobia, anti-Semitism or other manifestations of contempt, like to stage themselves as the voices of a “silent majority.” Such cynical games can go on as long as most people actually remain silent. The more people take to the streets with loud, clear and noisy messages of solidarity, the better. The reaction of many New Zealanders to the Christchurch massacre was a powerful example in this regard.
Q: As the former UN special rapporteur, do you believe the majority of challenges arising from discrimination based on religion and belief are concentrated in the developing countries in the global south, or are the developed countries similarly grappling with such problems as the encroachment of religious freedoms?
A: I do not think it makes much sense to try to identify such global patterns. I have seen impressive examples of interreligious cooperation, for instance, in Sierra Leone, an economically impoverished country in the southern hemisphere, which thrives on a particular tradition of amicable relations between religious groups. Apart from Muslim-Christian cooperation, there is also a very good relationship between different Islamic denominations: Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadis and others. The interreligious council in Sierra Leone has played a major part in the ongoing attempt to rebuild the nation after years of a traumatizing civil war. Coming from the global north myself, I felt we can learn a lot from these and many other examples.
Q: Is it possible to legally investigate the persecution of religious minorities by governments and non-state actors? Or is it that political gestures and statements of condemnation are the only measures that can be adopted in response? In 2015, ISIS terrorists massacred more than 5,000 Iraqi Yazidis and enslaved some 7,000 of their girls and women. The survivors are now demanding justice and international protection. What can be done about this tragedy and similar episodes?
A: In the current political climate, where resignation and cynicism seem to be on the rise, it is all the more important not to ignore at least a few silver linings. In Germany, two Syrian police officers have recently been brought to court following torture allegations. The trial applies the principle of global criminal jurisprudence. I think it sends an important message not only to perpetrators, but also to victims. For all the difficulties we are facing and in spite of many frustrations with international investigations, it is still possible to bring perpetrators of massive human rights violations to justice.
Q: Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world. Today, the concentration of Muslim populations is not confined to the Middle East and North Africa, but the communities of Muslims are scattered across Asia, Europe and Americas. All the same, Muslim communities complain of rampant discrimination they face and the thrust of Islamophobic sentiments directed at them. Have you ever had the chance, during your tenure, to look into this concern structurally?
A: When working on the UN mandate, I produced a number of thematic reports dealing with manifestations of collective religious hatred, discrimination against religious minorities and violence committed in the name of religion. In this context, I inter alia tackled Islamophobia. The root causes are complex.
One major factor is a loss of trust in public institutions, often as a result of endemic corruption. Loss of trust in public institutions typically provides the fertile ground for collective narrow-mindedness, with all the adverse implications in particular for minorities.
Fragmentation of public discourse is another factor. Human rights can help rebuild trust by strengthening public institutions, facilitating interreligious outreach and countering conspiracy projections by evidence-based investigations.
I also dealt with challenges of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other manifestations of collective hatred in my country-specific reports. With regard to Islamophobia, I would like to raise awareness of the fact that anti-Muslim resentments, sometimes of a racist nature, not only exist in the West. No doubt, it is a serious problem in European countries, including in my own country, Germany. Yet we also see specific forms of Islamophobia, like Shia-phobia, in Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian countries. It may look like a paradox that even Islamic countries show particular features of Islamophobia. But we likewise have examples of traditionally Christian countries in Eastern Europe discriminating against non-hegemonic Christian denominations.
Q: If you are asked to name some successful examples of countries that have been able to institute religious equalities and stamp out discrimination, what nations will you point to? Overall, is the international community striding on the path of modifying discriminatory legislation and upholding the principle of religious freedom?
A: I am reluctant to name any single country as the model. Moreover, I do not think we will ever be able to fully uproot or stamp out, as you say, the danger of discrimination of religious minorities. It remains an ongoing challenge. Having said this, let me mention Cyprus as an example where interreligious cooperation has contributed to alleviating the still complicated situation on the island.
I have already expressed my admiration for the efforts taken in Sierra Leone, where religious minorities enjoy much respect. I could list many praiseworthy initiatives from all parts of the world to demonstrate that combating discrimination can lead to meaningful results.
Q: How is it possible to tread the line between freedom of speech and freedom of religion? As an example, the publication of cartoons blaspheming Prophet Muhammad by the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo has sparked outrage among the Muslims. What should be done under such circumstances to ensure there is no conflict between freedom of the press and people’s religious sensitivities?
A: Against a widespread perception, or rather misperception, I would like to emphasize that there is no general contradiction between freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Both are rights of freedom, after all. Their common purpose is to empower human beings, who should be free to find their own ways, as individuals and in community with other. In my view, the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, as far as I have seen them, are very strange, indeed tasteless. An adequate reaction would be simply to ignore them. I personally would not buy a copy of that journal. Most of my Muslim friends would say that those who created the massacre among the Charlie Hebdo staff have thereby blasphemed Islam in a much worse manner. I absolutely agree. What could be a bigger blasphemy than killing people in the name of religion?
By: Kourosh Ziabari