Cursing the Darkness, Lighting a Candle

Dr. Arvind Sharma on religious identity, soft power, and crafting a Canadian strategy for promoting religious pluralism in the developing world.
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July 18, 2013

Let’s start with religious identity as a component of individual identity. Does religion need to be specifically protected? Or do existing rights, such as freedom of expression, offer sufficient protection?

Religious freedom is a key idea, religious identity, too. Many argue, vigorously, that the best way of securing religious freedom is to treat it as a subcategory of freedom in general—that freedom of expression, association, and the other well established secular freedoms are enough to cover religious freedom.

Do you share this view?

I think we should take this view into account. But I also think that religious freedom may have to be dealt with on its own. The reason for that is religion makes a very serious claim on a person. Secular freedoms may not be able to be sensitive enough to that fact. There are other forces in society that make similarly serious claims­—the state, for example, which can call upon you to sacrifice your life in its defense. So there can be competing, major claims to which someone is servant. I think that unless you believe in an extreme version of secularism, one that doesn’t think religious identities matter, you have to accept that a force like religion can make a comprehensive claim on someone’s loyalty. Once you recognize that, you can understand why people feel the need to adjudicate among these claims.

Does practicing smart foreign policy therefore mean acknowledging the force of religion and seeking to promote and protect religious freedom?

There is an interesting idea that Robert A. Seipel, the first U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, has written about. During the early meetings of the American Office of International Religious freedom, they asked themselves, “Is our task to curse the darkness, or to light a candle?  The Office essentially decided to curse the darkness. But Ambassador Seipel has argued that there are other “soft power” ways to bring about the results we want and that it might be counterproductive to ‘name and shame.’ I think this is an important point. It’s rooted in the common sense idea that if we want to change the behavior of others, dictating the changes we want to see is not an effective mechanism.

What would a 'soft power' policy approach involve?

Using your own actions to demonstrate to states the inconsistencies in their policies rather than backing them against a wall. Showing rather than telling—it is a different kind of shaming. Your actions are likely to be more effective at inducing introspection than condemnations, and less likely to be seen as an imposition by those you wish would change their behaviour.

Also appealing to the values held by other traditions. When you appeal for religious freedom, you don’t always want to point to the United Nations Charter, or Canadian law, or secularist freedoms—you want to appeal on a basis that matters to the governments in question.

Are there other strategies for encouraging religious freedom that could supplement this approach?

Religious freedom involves two things: the minimization restrictions and the maximization of options to exercise your freedom. Attention is often focused on the minimization of restrictions, which may be justified given that this is where the most obvious concerns are. But it would be shortsighted to limit our vision just to that. We also need to allow people worldwide to maximize their options. Key to this is maximizing their opportunities to learn, so a strong case could be made that one of the tasks for agencies working on religious freedom should be supporting the study of world religions, encouraging the incorporation of this into the educational curriculum within Canada and in other countries.

So promoting religious literacy education is a means of maximizing options?

Without exposure to a variety of global traditions, you will know only about the tradition you were born into, the tradition you come to know through your friends and surroundings, or that which you may come to know from proselytization. But if you’re offered a course in world religions as part of your education, you can learn about many more options, equally presented. When that happens, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, and Christianity cease to be just names, and understandings of the traditions of others become rooted in reality rather than stereotype. You become familiar with the values, behaviors, and ideas world religions include and more open to engaging with the people who feel connected to them.

What about maximizing Canada’s ability to make a difference in the level of support for religious pluralism in the developing world specifically?

I think that in dealing with developing countries, it might be helpful to emphasize Canada’s conscious commitment to multiculturalism. I think this is one of the problems that the United States faces—it is monocultural and committed to a certain system of values. Canada has departed from that. We are distinct from the United States because our system of norms is rooted in multiculturalism. People living in developing countries may be more open to Canadian engagement if they are reminded of the way we value and implement pluralism here at home.