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A Global Phenomenon

Questions of how the human rights movement should engage with religious communities are particularly difficult because they occur in a highly volatile context marked by the rise of “fundamentalism,” religious extremism, the fusion between religion and ethnic identity in many armed conflicts,5 and the worldwide impact of terrorism in the name of God and responses to it.

The rolling news flows in the global village have given these phenomena increased visibility and potency. Attacks against Christians in Pakistan or against Muslims in India, new incidents of anti-Semitism in Western Europe, and hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. or Europe immediately take on a global dimension. The worldwide ripples of the “headscarf” controversy in France—street demonstrations in Arab countries, diplomatic disavowal, and even crude pressure through the abduction in Iraq of two French journalists6—have vividly underscored the sensitivity of religious issues in the global village.

Religion indeed plays a pervasive and often powerful role in global affairs. Problems of a religious nature often implicate international security as much as they do human rights. In a trend reminiscent of King Louis XIV’s 1649 proclamation declaring French protection of the Maronite community in Lebanon, or of the 19th century European powers’ “humanitarian interventions” against the Ottoman Empire to “protect persecuted Christians,” religious freedom and the fate of religious minorities have assumed an increasingly prominent place in international diplomacy.

In 1998, under pressure from Christian groups and representatives of a number of other faiths, the U.S. Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act. The law established an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department and an independent, bipartisan Commission on International Religious Freedom, and tasked them with monitoring and reporting on the incidence of religious persecution around the world. Based on the annual reporting of these bodies, the U.S. president can take diplomatic and economic measures against “countries of particular concern,” making one particular right—freedom of religion—a unique yardstick of foreign relations.

The religious/human rights equation and its role in global politics are made still more complex due to major differences among democracies concerning the place of religion in public life. The gap between a “post-religious Europe” and the United States is particularly significant and not without consequences for the priorities and approaches of the international human rights movement. A 2002 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life concluded that, among wealthy nations, the United States stands alone in its embrace of religion. Fifty-nine percent of the U.S. population surveyed stated that religion played an important role in their life, against 30 percent in Canada, 33 percent in Great Britain, 21 percent in Germany, and 11 percent in France.7

The differences extend to the very definition of religion itself. In France, Belgium, Germany, and Argentina, for example, some religious groups that are considered legitimate religious denominations in the United States have been denounced as “sects” or “psychological cults,” as a threat to the foundations of democratic freedom, and, as a result, subjected to what the groups see as unwarranted discrimination or harassment. Such differences, mostly raised within the context of OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) meetings, have been approached with great unease by the various components of the international human rights movement.

[5] See Harold R. Isaacs, Idols of the Tribe, Group Identity and Political Change (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989).

[6] The group that abducted Georges Malbrunot, Christian Chesnot, and their Syrian driver initially sought repeal of the French law on conspicuous religious signs.

[7] “Among Wealthy Nations…U.S. Stands Alone in its Embrace of Religion,” The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, December 19, 2002, p. 2.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005