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Religion and the Human Rights Movement
by Jean-Paul Marthoz and Joseph Saunders1

Is there a schism between the human rights movement and religious communities? Essential disagreements appear increasingly to pit secular human rights activists against individuals and groups acting from religious motives. The list of contentious issues is growing: on issues such as reproductive rights, gay marriage, the fight against HIV/AIDS, and blasphemy laws, human rights activists and religious groups often find themselves on opposing sides. As illustrated by the Muslim headscarf debate in France and Turkey, controversies linked to religion also have confused many in the human rights movement and even led some activists to express strong reservations about certain public expressions of religious conscience.

Western Europe, the most secularized continent in the world, has been in the eye of the storm. The controversy that hit the European Union in October 2004 around the proposed appointment to the European Commission of Italian conservative Catholic Rocco Buttiglione illustrates some of the issues at stake. Unperturbed by the furor he was arousing, the candidate for Commissioner on Justice, Freedom, and Security—who in that function would have been in charge of fighting discrimination—affirmed in front of bewildered members of the European Parliament that “homosexuality is a sin” and that “the family exists to allow women to have children and be protected by their husbands.” Although he insisted that he would nonetheless uphold the equality of all citizens, he was invited to withdraw his candidacy by the Commission’s president-elect.

In November 2004 the religiously inspired murder of Theo Van Gogh, a well-known Dutch journalist and filmmaker who two months earlier had released a controversial film on violence against women in Islamic societies, triggered an infamous cycle of violence, leading to the burning of mosques and Christian churches. These traumatic events in a country that prides itself for its tolerance placed the issue of religion, and more particularly Islam, in the center of public controversy. While many Dutch people of all faiths and communities demonstrated against revenge attacks and discrimination, one prominent official responded with a suggestion to revive, in the name of coexistence, a 1932 blasphemy law. 

[1]Jean-Paul Marthoz is international media director at Human Rights Watch; Joseph Saunders is deputy program director.

index  |  next>>January 2005