Canada and the Future of Religious Freedom

Geoffrey Cameron and Eric Farr ask, is freedom of religion worth defending?
By: , /
January 16, 2013
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Geoff Cameron

PhD candidate, Trudeau Scholar and Principal Researcher with the Baha’i Community of Canada.

The announcement of the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has sparked a dynamic public conversation about the role of religion in foreign policy, and about the meaning of religious freedom. Some prominentvoices have even questioned the validity of religious freedom as an ideal worth defending at all. Now is the time to step back and look at the issues that have animated the international discourse on freedom of religion or belief and consider how these ideas should inform Canada’s foreign policy. 

The idea of religious freedom

Religious freedom has meant different things to different people, and has been employed to varying political ends, throughout the history of the concept. For the purpose of clarity, however, we look to the definition of freedom of religion or belief as expressed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The right to freedom of religion or belief is grounded in the inherent dignity of every person, and the concomitant respect for individual agency. A distinguishing feature of the human personality is our desire to pursue knowledge, explore new ideas, and seek meaning. To deny people the right to hold convictions about the world and allow those convictions to change their actions is to deprive them of a key element of their humanity.

The use of a human rights framework helps to build a shared understanding of religious freedom, which enables the development of institutions for its defence and protection. Therefore, throughout this essay, the terms “religious freedom” and “freedom of religion or belief” will be used interchangeably with the understanding that both terms refer to the human right described above.

Controversial areas: Teaching and conversion

The right of freedom of religion and belief is often considered most controversial when it comes to matters of teaching and conversion. However, it is these aspects of religious freedom that are most often restricted in states that persecute religious minorities. Many states still criminalize conversion from the majority or state religion to minority ones, labelling changes to one’s religion as “apostasy” (or opposing one’s former religion). The penalty can include execution. Such states also typically have a narrow definition of what constitutes a “religion,” or apply the right to teach or change religions preferentially, permitting the dominant or state religion to pursue missionary activities while prohibiting all other groups from doing the same. Ironically, this issue has historically received weak treatment by international human rights bodies.

In his most recent report to the UN Human Rights Council, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Heiner Bielefeldt warned, “the rights of converts or those trying non-coercively to convert others are sometimes questioned in principle.” While the use of material inducements and coercive means should be clearly rejected by religious organizations that support teaching work, we must also recognize that the right to teach and change one’s religion is protected within the broader human rights framework. One’s right to choose religious beliefs for oneself is a matter of freedom of conscience, and the ability to share religious teachings is protected by the right to freedom of expression.

The rights to teach and change religions should be defended in the context of an open public sphere, where people can freely express religious or secular views without the threat of legal charges of either apostasy or blasphemy. Public discourse should be open to all ideas, good and bad, and religion itself should be subjected to discussion and critical scrutiny within the public sphere, so long as criticism does not descend into incitement to hatred and violence.

The practice of religious freedom: More than “resistance”

For many societies, the pursuit of religious freedom will be a gradual and organic process, which may mean the continuation of some negative cultural patterns. Liberty means that people have to come to certain understandings themselves, without external coercion. So, while the exercise of freedom of religion or belief may bring forward cultural “baggage” that rubs against social norms, we must recognize that durable change happens over time through dialogue, engagement, and, for the most part, through choice and voluntary consent.

Indeed, the practice of advancing religious freedom is complex and multifaceted. It is an ideal that develops over time through dialogue between individuals, within communities, and at the institutional level of laws and policies. Individuals need to abandon pre-conceived ideas and inherited prejudices, and to adhere to a discourse ethic that allows other citizens to participate freely in the public sphere, regardless of their beliefs. It includes changes at the level of culture, where outdated taboos on religious diversity, conversion, and atheism are broken, and the status of women is elevated. And finally, institutions need to offer legal protections – including for those accused of blasphemy or apostasy – and a policy framework within which religious pluralism is supported. These are only a few examples to illustrate the complexity of the challenge.

This vision of religious freedom is one that clearly cannot be advanced by states alone. However, it also goes beyond Elizabeth Hurd’s proposal to “re-imagine” religious freedom as “a site of resistance” against religious and political authorities, or Natalie Brender’s call for the “creative disruption of established orthodoxies.” While the cause of religious freedom benefits from challenging the shibboleths of religious superiority, it is about more than an end to intolerance. In an academic article, Bielefeldt outlines the scope of the challenge:

The human right to freedom of religion or belief … takes diversity seriously. Diversity in the area of religion or belief cannot be marginalized as a mere variety of external rites, nor should denominations be treated as out-dated relics of the past, and the search for meaning should also not be denounced as just a waste of time and energy. Moreover, diversity is not only an irreversible fact, especially in the modern world; it can and should be appreciated as a manifestation of the potential of human responsibility and hence as something intrinsically positive [emphases his].

The pursuit of religious freedom suggests a constructive process concerned with the development of a society where diverse religions not only co-exist peacefully, but where their teachings serve as moral, ethical, and spiritual resources for the betterment of the world.

Moving forward: A focus on universal norms and human dignity

Heiner Bielefeldt has expressed concern about attempts to muddy the waters around freedom of religion by creating conceptual confusion about the term. He writes: “freedom of religion or belief is under pressure … on the conceptual level, with a danger that its very nature as a human right may get blurred.” Bielefeldt notes that a number of recent proposals have been presented in UN forums, “which clearly contradict normative universalism by limiting freedom of religion to the followers of a predefined list of traditional religions while implicitly excluding members of other religions.” He gives as examples a number of UN resolutions that condemn particular “phobias,” such as “Christianophobia,” “Islamophobia,” and anti-Semitism. This list, he argues, excludes a number of persecuted religions, not to mention non-theists, atheists, and agnostics. While it would be impossible to create an exhaustive list of persecuted religions, Bielefeldt argues instead that attention should be focused on strengthening the status and legal standing of the universal right.

Challenges to freedom of religion or belief have also been made through an international effort to advance the idea of “defamation of religions” through the UN Human Rights Council, and elsewhere in the UN system. Since 1999, a number of states have promoted this idea, which would restrict free speech and religious freedom in the name of combating religious intolerance. It justifies the actions of governments that punish blasphemy or ban the public criticism of religion, and it protects the collective rights of the majority at the expense of individuals and minorities.

Asma Jahangir, the former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, spoke out forcefully on the topic, saying, “the recognition, respect and practice of religious pluralism … encompasses criticism, discussion and questioning of each other’s values.” In other words, the practice of religion concerns more than private belief, and, as in the public sphere, its teachings and practices must be subjected to scrutiny and discussion. An important dimension of religious pluralism is public deliberation on matters of common values and principles. Since 2008, the number of votes in favour of the “defamation of religions” resolution has steadily decreased. Language has gradually shifted towards “combating incitement to hatred,” a more precise and coherent approach to the central issue. The “defamation of religions” case illustrates the necessity of multilateral action to protect an international legal framework that supports freedom of religion – the type of action that Canada should continue to support.

Policy, knowledge, and learning about religion

Shortly after 9/11, leading international-relations scholar Robert Keohane declared, “all mainstream theories of world politics are relentlessly secular with respect to motivation. They ignore the impact of religion, despite the fact that the world-shaking political movements have so often been fueled by religious fervor.” Keohane’s former colleague at Harvard, J. Bryan Hehir, further argued, “the practice of world politics, particularly interstate diplomacy, [has] … treated religion as inconsequential, a reality that could be ignored by scholars or diplomats without any diminishment of their understanding of the world.” Scholarship in the field of religion and international affairs has recently witnessed a renaissance, to which someofthebiggestnames in the field have contributed, including Canada’s own Janice Stein. The “return of religion” in political science has, however, yet to be reflected in the training and development of diplomats by many countries.

A foreign ministry that prioritizes the challenge of religious freedom needs to first take religions seriously, as systems of knowledge, belief, and practice. We should consider education and training of our foreign-service officers, aid workers, immigration program managers, and soldiers in the subject of religion to be as important as learning foreign languages. Our international public servants need to understand and respect the role of religion in societies in order to navigate the social and cultural intricacies that are informed by religion. They should not promote the rights or teachings of one religion over others. On the contrary, any indication of religious preference should be studiously avoided. However, comprehensive knowledge of different religious teachings and practices will help public servants to advance freedom of religion with intelligent, methodical, and far-sighted strategies.

The Office of Religious Freedom could make a substantial contribution to Canadian foreign policy by serving as a knowledge and policy hub on matters of religion and human rights. Instead of concentrating in one place the good work already underway to defend human rights in multilateral and bilateral settings, the office could help to clarify how issues of religious freedom intersect with any number of foreign-policy priorities. It could produce regional analyses of religious freedom, develop a network of external experts, explain the application of religious freedom to other government priorities, convene seminars and lectures, develop and deliver training programs, and provide relevant advice to other government departments and private companies. Such an approach would avoid the possibility of the office becoming a place to which all issues of religious freedom are directed – an approach that would threaten to marginalize such concerns, isolating them from their broader context.

When the ambassador is appointed, he or she will be faced with a skeptical Canadian public and a weak international human rights framework around religious freedom. The ambassador will need to explain, clearly and consistently, what Canada means when it says it will promote religious freedom. The most urgent and vexing issues around freedom of religion or belief arise at the level of fundamental human rights, and it is in this area that Canada can make a significant contribution, by helping to strengthen universal norms and practices that support religious freedom for everyone.

Parts of this essay draw from the submission of the Baha’i Community of Canada on the Office of Religious Freedom, however, this essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Baha’i Community of Canada. On January 21st at 9:00 est, OpenCanada.org will be hosting an online discussion on freedom of religion or belief and the future of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom, featuring United Nations Special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt and others.