June 4th, 2018
RELIGION and human rights have always had an intense, tortured relationship. On one hand, liberty of conscience and belief is one of the first and most fundamental principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and other documents that lay out humanity’s minimum entitlements. On the other hand, secular campaigners often blame oppressive forms of religion for a high proportion of the worst assaults on human welfare: from religiously inspired ethnic cleansing to female genital mutilation to the nihilist jihadism which treats every form of faith but its own as a legitimate target.
At this year’s tenth-anniversary session of the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF), an ever-expanding international festival for campaigners against tyranny, victims of religion were more obviously in evidence than practitioners. Speakers included Fatemah Qaderyan, 16, an Afghan teenager who led an award-wining female robotics team but lost her father in a jihadist bomb attack; and Omar Mohammed, an Iraqi citizen-journalist who documented life when Mosul was overrun by the terrorists of Islamic State. But over the years, the Forum has hosted many speakers who are inspired by religion to battle tyranny, such as the Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire. As Thor Halvorssen, the founder of OFF, puts it: “Religion is an excuse for many human rights violations, but belief in a merciful God is also a key component in the narrative of survival for many human rights defenders.” In a new feature of the Forum, there was much public and private talk this year of spirituality in the broadest sense: of the need for victims of cruelty, and the people who help them, to find the serenity and self-awareness required to heal invisible wounds. One participant was Amandine Hoche, a French human-rights campaigner who, after traumatic experiences in Afghanistan, developed a set of spiritual exercises called “inner peace conference” which she offers to refugees and aid workers in violent places.
When contemplating the rougher parts of the world, Europe’s secular and religious human-rights advocates find it relatively easy, at least some of the time, to make common cause. Norway’s Lutheran church, for example, urges its members to join arms with broader human-rights lobbies against all forms of persecution. That coincidence of purpose arises because some faith-related oppression and violence, up to and including genocide, is so manifestly horrific that any decent person would join the cry of outrage.
In American domestic politics, by contrast, the very concept of “religious freedom” is highly contentious and the rancour never stops growing. This year, for example, the Trump administration advanced its own definition of liberty by announcing a new section of the Health and Human Services Department that would protect health-care workers who declined to perform certain services (like birth-control and abortion) on grounds of conscience. For secular human-rights advocates, this was an an unacceptable assault on the rights of women and LGBT people who were likely to affected.
America’s bioethical arguments also spill over into foreign policy. To the satisfaction of religious conservatives and to the horror of liberal humanists, one of the Trump administration’s first acts was to reinstate a rule that denied funding to global family-planning organisations that offer abortion-related services. But in the advocacy of religious freedom round the world (or at any rate, in the denunciation of extreme forms of persecution) there had hitherto been a degree of consensus across the American ideological spectrum. That was partly because of the bureaucratic arrangements set up by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which gives a watchdog brief both to America’s State Department and another agency, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, whose membership is determined by both Congress and the White House. Both agencies produce elaborate annual reports which document religious persecution and name certain countries as egregious violators. The sheer nerdishness of the process protects it, to some extent, from ideological interference.
The State Department released its report last week, drawing particular attention to religious persecution in Eritrea, Myanmar and Saudi Arabia, which “imprisons, lashes and fines individuals for apostasy, blasphemy and insulting the state’s interpretation of Islam”. The USCIRF generally takes a somewhat more stringent view than the State Department, suggesting a longer list of countries which deserve to be called out for persecution. But between them, the two agencies do a useful job of generating information about the scale of faith-related persecution across the world. A range of distinguished liberal and conservative figures from the worlds of law, academia and religion have lent their expertise to the USCIRF.
Just in the past few weeks, though, the level of ideological tetchiness around the commission has been rising. That is because Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has appointed to its ranks the contentious figure of Tony Perkins, the evangelical Christian president of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobby group. To admirers, Mr Perkins is a bold campaigner for hard-pressed Christians; to critics, he is a foe of social progress with frighteningly harsh views on gender, sexuality and Islam. (He has said, for example, that “those who practise Islam in its entirety” don’t deserve the same constitutional freedoms as other Americans.)
In its 20 years of existence, the USCIRF has developed quite a powerful institutional culture of its own, into which commissioners of liberal and conservative persuasions have been absorbed. It remains to be seen whether that esprit de corps can absorb such a sharp-edged personality as Mr Perkins.
If that proves impossible, something will have been lost. There has been something admirable about the spectacle of distinguished Americans, both liberal and conservative, raising their voices in favour of Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Pakistani Christians and Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses: not in a sectarian spirit, but in defence of universal principles.