In the United States, religious freedom is described as the “first freedom.” Americans invented religious freedom, we’re told, and it’s ready for export. The U.S. has been promoting religious freedom abroad for 14 years, and everyone is taking up the cause. Guarantees of religious freedom are in trade agreements and aid packages. Foreign policy establishments are eagerly joining the bandwagon, with Canada’s proposed Office of Religious Freedom being a recent example.
It’s easy to assume that religious freedom is what keeps tyranny over women and minorities at bay. Presented as the alternative to such unappealing options, it’s not surprising that religious freedom has gathered the political momentum it now enjoys. Everyone is for it.
But what are they for? What are these programs doing? Is the world created by religious freedom a place in which we want to live? Are other options for living peacefully with social and religious differences being pushed aside by this laser-like focus on religious freedom? Is there an alternative? These are important questions for Canada right now.
Paradoxically, the state promotion of religious freedom may add fuel to the fire of the very sectarian conflict that religious freedom claims to be so uniquely equipped to transcend.
Consider Syria. According to Christian rights groups cited by USA Today, “Christians in Syria, where Muslims have risen up against President Bashar Assad, have been subjected to murder, rape and kidnappings in Damascus and rebellious towns.” Apparently, when Muslims rise up against Mr. al-Assad, the result is Christian persecution. This is actually how the regime wants us to see the story: For decades, the al-Assads relied on the threat of sectarian anarchy to justify their oppression.
When news media, government officials and public figures reinforce the regime’s framing of this revolt as a sectarian conflict pitting Sunnis against Alawites and their Shia allies, rather than as a popular uprising against a secular autocracy, it makes sectarian violence more likely. It energizes divides between Christians, Alawites and Sunnis. It brings these identities to the surface, accentuates and aggravates them. When religious difference is the primary lens through which social and political conflicts are framed, sectarian conflict is exacerbated.
Many Syrians hold multiple allegiances, celebrate diverse traditions, are of mixed backgrounds and can’t be squeezed into the rubrics of sectarian identity demanded by religious freedom advocates. Left out in the cold, these “in between” individuals find themselves in the impossible situation of having to make political claims on religious grounds, or being silenced. Religious freedom advocacy politicizes religious difference.
The problem with the proposed Canadian office is not that it places too much emphasis on the plight of Jews and Christians at the expense of Muslims, atheists and others. The problem is much more systematic. The top-down promotion of religious freedom creates a world in which religious difference becomes more real and more politicized. It draws lines between communities, horizontally and hierarchically. It presses dissenters, doubters and families with multiple religious affiliations to choose a side. It compels them to define their identities in religious terms: “Are you this or that?”
This is unhealthy for democracy, and for religion. Not because democracy is necessarily secular but because the religion defended by American bishops, the U.S. State Department and now, perhaps, the Canadian government, regulates, and may even eliminate, spaces in which unconventional and non-established religion has a chance to flourish.
Is there an alternative?
Religious freedom needs to be reimagined as a site of resistance against powerful authorities, rather than a form of discipline imposed by them, funneling people into predefined religious boxes and politicizing their differences. Current examples of religious freedom as resistance include campaigns by Baha’i citizens of Egypt for civic and political recognition, efforts by the nuns of the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious to speak out in the face of a formidable campaign by the Vatican to silence them, and native American and first nations attempts to gain state recognition for their religious traditions. These are bottom-up campaigns.
Religious freedom is not something that can be imposed in a top-down fashion by the state. A more complex, less self-congratulatory story is waiting to be told. Canadians now have a part in telling this story. They have an opportunity to stand up for alternate ways of being religious, and of being human, that are now being sidelined – ironically, by the hegemony of religious freedom.
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is associate professor of political science at Northwestern University and co-organizer of a research project on the politics of religious freedom funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.