The last month hasn't been a good one for religious tolerance.
As Egypt teetered on the edge of chaos following the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, unknown assailants killed a Coptic Christian priest in Sinai and Muslim extremists attacked churches in Minya and burned down Christian homes in Luxor.
In Pakistan on June 30, a suicide bomber killed 28 people, including three children, in an attack on Hazara Town, a Shiite area of the city of Quetta. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an extremist Sunni group, claimed responsibility for what was just the latest in a string of sectarian atrocities in Pakistan.
The U.N. human rights chief for Iraq, Francesco Motta, said on July 5 that Iraq's conflict was becoming more viciously sectarian than ever. Already this year, violent attacks — many with sectarian overtones — have killed some 3,000 Iraqi civilians, more than 100 in the first few days of July alone.
Vicious sectarianism is not solely afflicting Muslim countries — witness the attacks by monk-led Buddhists on Myanmar's Rohingya minority and the growing Islamophobia in Europe. But the trend is particularly prevalent — and alarming — in the Muslim world, affecting areas where people have lived together for centuries. The violence is tearing communities apart and fueling political instability and horrific rights abuses. And authoritarian governments are using it as a reason to resist popular demands for political rights.
Without question, Syria's civil war has helped fuel the sectarian tensions coursing through the region. The conflict initially pitted an army and government dominated by Syria's Alawite minority (an offshoot of Shiite Islam) against a popular protest movement. President Bashar Assad and his cronies exacerbated the sectarian divide by demonizing pro-democracy activists as extremists and jihadists. Now their bogeyman is becoming real. The uprising has morphed into an armed rebellion increasingly co-opted and dominated by armed Sunni Islamist groups, including foreign fighters, some with overtly sectarian agendas.
Powerful regional players are aligning themselves in Syria along sectarian lines. Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq support Assad, while a coalition of Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia backs the rebels. The Syrian conflict has become the latest killing ground in the long-running regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As political differences are increasingly framed in sectarian terms, there's a danger the blowback will engulf the entire region.
At this crucial juncture, regional leaders seem to be taking one of two approaches, both of them counterproductive. Either they are turning a blind eye to religiously inspired hate speech, or they are manipulating sectarianism to their advantage. In Cairo last month, then-President Morsi attended a rally at which Sunni preachers denounced Shiite Islam. Two weeks later, he failed to condemn the openly sectarian killings of four Egyptian Shiites in a village on the edge of Cairo.
The monarchy in Saudi Arabia, which has long cultivated a conservative and intolerant strain of Sunni Islam to prop up its political legitimacy, often plays the sectarian card to suppress its own Shiites, to deflect demands for democracy and human rights and to bolster its regional influence. Bahrain suppresses its Shiite majority, and stirs sectarianism locally, on grounds of countering a supposed threat from Iran. Some of the most vicious sectarian hate speech of all comes from radical Sunni preachers in the Persian Gulf, with Twitter and Facebook followers in the millions.
What can be done about it?
Suppressing the right to mock or insult another's religion is not the answer. When governments suppress hate speech, it is often to placate influential bigots claiming to represent the majority rather than to protect vulnerable minorities. Blasphemy prosecutions of members of minority faiths in Pakistan and Egypt are examples. The victims of laws punishing hate speech are often the very people who are the targets of the most dangerous hate speech. It would be better to abolish all laws criminalizing defamation of religion.
Still, when hate speech becomes a direct incitement to violence, suppressing it is necessary. In such cases governments have a responsibility to prosecute those responsible for both the incitement and the violence. But given the dangers of suppressing legitimate speech, especially in a region where authoritarian governments often jail and silence their critics, hate speech short of incitement should be met by condemnation and stigmatization rather than suppression.
Some leading figures have started to take a stand. In May, the former prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, and the former president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, appealed for an end to the deadly sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites and called on the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to set up a task force to address the issue. The organization itself launched a 10-year initiative in 2005 to address sectarian tensions within the Muslim world.
But supporting task forces, dialogue and reconciliation is not enough. More leaders should speak out forcefully, not just former presidents and prime ministers but those now in power, along with religious leaders, leaders of political parties and influential writers and broadcasters. States should stop persecuting, marginalizing or harassing their minorities (or suppressed majorities) and accept them as full and equal members of society.
The ugly sectarianism and religious intolerance we see today are in part a consequence of upheaval in states such as Syria and Iraq that have long traditions of religious diversity. They are also a product of resilient patterns of authoritarianism, discrimination and impunity. In the long term, the only solution can be political reform and the creation of state institutions to protect and promote respect for human rights, equality, inclusion and pluralism.
Tom Porteous is deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. Twitter: @tomporteous