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Religious Freedom and Democracy as Fundamental Human Rights PDF Print E-mail

Adrian Karatnycky
Freedom House

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

I know that this conference is devoted to very important issues, and it is a great honor to address such a diverse and influential and distinguished audience. However, I have been admonished that, while we are dealing with eternal issues, the speeches should not be eternal, so I will try to confine my remarks to about 20 minutes. I promise you I will try to fit in what I have to say within that framework.

The right to freedom of religion is perhaps the oldest human right recognized internationally. In fact, this year is the 350th anniversary of a transnational or international document, the Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648, which accorded international protections to religious groupings. In the eighteenth century, the right of religious liberty added dynamism to the Commonwealth of Virginia ‘s Bill of Rights of 1776, the Austrian Act of Religious Tolerance of 1781, the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty of 1786, as well as a Prussian document called the Allgemeines Preussisches Landrecht of 1794.

It seems to me that the elaboration of international and national instruments protecting religious liberty has a long and storied history, but in truth, in the modern era, it is relatively weak. It is relatively weak in part, because international institutions shaped their human rights documents based on grand compromises with governments that were governed by ideologies preaching atheism. Therefore, even the wonderful Article 18, about which Bruce Casino spoke, is not simply a document about freedom of religion. It is a document that is encoded with other rights, including the right to freedom of conscience, thought, and the like. It seems to me that in an international community where religion plays such a central role in civilization, it ought to be accorded its own separate and proper place.

I would prefer to focus my remarks tonight in a way which I think is different from what you will be hearing in the rest of the several day’s convocations, by addressing an equally crucial issue: the nexus between religious belief, religious systems, and the expansion of human liberty and human rights that is occurring at the dawn of the new millennium. Certainly, that nexus is attracting a lot of attention. Over the last year no foreign policy issue related to human rights has achieved greater grass roots attention in the United States than this issue of religious liberty. It is at the root of the Wolfe-Specter bill that passed the US House of Representatives with nearly universal support among Republicans and vastly overwhelming supporting among Democrats, despite vigorous opposition from the Clinton Administration. There is also a growing awareness in the United States of the issue of religious persecution, of how wide spread it is, and how great a problem it is in countries like China, Tibet, Vietnam, and the Sudan.

This growing awareness suggests that in the United States and, I would suspect, throughout the democratic world, the suppression of religious freedom is increasingly viewed as an odious and intolerable violation of basic human rights. Because it has this kind of great resonance, there is great power vested in the people gathered in this room. I believe that the kinds of efforts that have been so successful in the United States can be replicated, because there is a general understanding among most people of good will—whether they are believers or not—of the importance of religious values and their place in a good society.

The nexus of religion and human freedom is also being developed among social and political scientists in the theory of an emerging potential clash of civilizations. A provocative thesis has been advanced by one of the members of the board of Freedom House, Professor Samuel Huntington. This relationship is at the center, as well, of some very serious thinking about economic growth, social progress and social development, and the nexus of religious belief in the work of very talented social scientists such as Francis Fukuyama, in the United States.

I, and many of the scholars in this audience, can, of course, trace the roots and basis for the beliefs in fundamental human rights to religious traditions. However, I would like to focus, instead, on how and where progress is occurring, and in which of the great civilizational expanses there has been, and is, the potential for democratic progress, and progress along the broad range of human rights.

Freedom House, the organization which I head, does a report card on the state of freedom each year. We look at those societies that have the political framework of democracy, that is, free and fair elections. We also examine and evaluate societies as to whether they are free, which means that there is a fairly broad range of rights that are enjoyed by citizens. Frequently, there are abridgments of the rights of minorities and other problems, but there are the mechanisms to solve these problems in a climate of the rule of law. We rate other countries as partly free, in which there are a number of rights, but also other kinds of problems: internal conflicts; sectarian conflicts that erupt into systemic patterns of violence; or societies in which there is an inordinate influence of the military. In addition, we rate societies that are not free, in which the broad range of rights is violated and breached.

It is interesting to look at the way the world is divided in terms of the level of freedom—free societies, partly free societies and unfree societies—within the context of traditional religious beliefs and religious belief systems. The correlation between aspects of religion, civilization, and democratic development, therefore, are the issues that I would like to bring to your attention.

Religions reflect fundamental beliefs and values, but I would argue—and the data show—that religions can rapidly adjust their attitudes toward politics and public policy. One trend is this correlation between political freedom and religious belief. Of the 191 countries that we rate, there are 81 countries that we judge to be free, that is, having a broad range of rights. Seventy-four of these are part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Only seven free countries are not majority Christian or traditionally Christian. Countries that are outside of that expanse are Mauritius, which has a substantial Christian and Hindu community. There are four countries without a Judeo-Christian tradition, where there is a very strong democratic climate of freedom. These include Taiwan, where of course, nearly half the population is Buddhist; Mongolia, which is traditionally Buddhist; Japan, which observes both Buddhist and Shinto traditions; and Mali, which is the only free predominately Muslim country in the world today.

The correlation between Christianity and freedom at the end of the twentieth century is very strong, according to our data. As I say, 74 of the 81 countries are predominately Christian. Just 11 of the 67 countries, that have the poorest record in terms of political rights and civil liberties, are Christian. By this indicator, predominately Christian countries, at this stage in human development, are about six times more likely to be free and democratic, as they are to be nondemocratic and suffer from serious abridgments in human rights. In the Islamic world, as I said, only one country, Mali, is free. Fourteen are placed at a kind of a middle level, and are rated as partly free, while 28 are not free. Of these 43 Muslim countries, six are electoral democracies: Albania, Bangladesh, Kurdistan, Mali, Pakistan and Turkey. These are countries with a reasonably competitive electoral process, including contending parties, but which have many restrictions, abridgments, and deep problems. Therefore, you could not say that they are fully free societies.

Some of this data may be disturbing to some people. I do not mean it to be offensive to anyone, because some of this data shows how mutable circumstances are, and how rapidly things can change. Just two decades ago, if I had been giving this same speech, I would have drawn an entirely different correlation about the state of affairs in predominately Catholic countries. Today, of the 49 majority Catholic countries, 47 are free and reasonably vibrant democracies. Two decades ago, before the papacy of John Paul II, 21 or 22 of the 44 majority Catholic countries at that time were democracies and free societies.

...What has proven true is that, as trends began to develop in Latin America, they influenced Catholic communities in Central Europe, who shared a common language of beliefs, a common vision of the world, and a common set of religious values. They influenced Catholics mobilizing for change, and inspired them in places like South Korea. There is a kind of harmony and harmonization of trends within these kinds of traditions, which is very important for all of us to understand.

Therefore, when I read the bleak statistics about the state of affairs in Islam, I think it has to be kept within the context that these sets of affairs are mutable, and fundamental change is possible. There are signs in recent years and days, of stirrings of democratic ferment, or at least the possibilities of pressure toward democratic change, and the opening up of democratic transitions in parts of the Islamic world.

Certainly, large segments of the Islamic world are experiencing a rising degree of civic activism. In Indonesia we see that secular Islamic leaders, like Ahmien Rais and Abdurrahman Wahid, who are neither religious leaders nor clerics, have played a crucial role in building an intelligent opposition to the Suharto tyranny, and pressing for liberalization and democratic political reform. In terrorist ravaged Algeria—despite the fact that elections are tainted, not fully free and fair, and dominated in great measure by the military—people have used the political process to register their objections to this butchery, and to use the process of democracy to resolve conflicts among themselves. In the areas governed by the Palestinian self-rule authority, a younger generation, deeply committed to democratic values, is emerging to take the place of veterans of the guerrilla movement that was the PLO. In similar ways, as a different generation has supplanted some of the people who were engaged in the activities of the military wing of the African National Congress, they are rising in prominence and paving a way to a more democratic transition within South Africa.

In Iran, a country in which Shi’ism has have often been equated with radical revolutionary politics, there are growing signs that there could be a return to its original fundamentalist tradition, which also believes in the proper division between the authority of the state and the mosque, the historic Shi’a tradition for over a millennium. It is really over the last 20 or 30 years, partly influenced by nationalist sentiments, that a departure into revolutionary politics has occurred. Newly elected President Mohammad Khatami, while an imperfect leader whose words cannot be taken at face value, is able to assert within the Iranian context, that democracy is one of the great contributions to Western civilization, and that it ought to be a part of Iranian society. This is a trend that deserves watching, and it suggests that, within this broad expanse of the Islamic world, there is some potential for change.

Even in Lebanon, that united country, there is growing pressure and great interest in participating in municipal elections. While it would be naive to say that all these are harbingers of a great shift within this civilization, they certainly bear watching. This is particularly so if we keep in mind that these major landmark shifts toward greater freedom and greater democracy tend to occur within the context of civilizations that speak in a way that transnationally links them to common sets of values.

Since this conference is focused on Europe, and takes place at the intersection where East and West were split, it is worth devoting some attention to the divide that continues to bedevil this new, more unified Europe after the Wall’s fall. The collapse of communism has already had a profound effect on the human liberty of many people. Religious life, it seems to me, is a more vibrant part of many of these societies, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Christian democratic movements, for example, have been on the rise in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania. They have found a way to speak to the public in ways that maintain cohesiveness among the anticommunist forces. They have been able—with the exception of Slovakia, and possibly, they will succeed in Slovakia as well—to displace the ex-communist or the post-communist political forces within those countries. It is a very important trend, and one in which, in many of these movements, political leaders are motivated by deeply held religious beliefs. Similar trends can be found, to a degree, in the Baltic States, but I think a more complicated situation exists in the former Soviet Union.

While religious values are in ferment, and there is a spiritual hunger among many people in these societies, there is not the same kind of dynamism of religious revival in countries like Russia and Ukraine. I think that, in part, their political difficulties, and their difficulties in making an economic transition, are linked to a kind of spiritual vacuum that still exists. This is why it is particularly disheartening that, rather than injecting a more dynamic and competitive environment—not a Babel, but a dialogue of different religious beliefs and choices—the Russian Duma and the Russian authorities have chosen to impose a very restrictive religious law. The law has not yet been applied in a broadly repressive way, but it has great potential for this. That kind of shortsightedness may be found among many American social scientists, who fail to grasp the harmonic link between democratic values and a sense of the spirit, and even the link between a vibrant market place and a spiritual awakening among people.

Much of the economic progress in Latin America and East Asia in recent years, particularly in Korea, has been accomplished with the dynamic rise of new religious denominations. The belief in a strong market economy has been linked to the growth of evangelical Christianity, which has been in a competitive status with the existing established religions. This has created societies that are more dynamic and, I would argue, more open because of that process.

Having described these trends, let me say that in Washington, and I expect in parts of the West and Western Europe, few policy makers look at the world through the prism of religious influences and religious values. Many, particularly in the media and the policy elite, feel uncomfortable with the voice of religious values in the public square. Somehow they regard it as divisive in America, particularly in our multidenominational and multiethnic setting, but increasingly so in the multiethnic and multireligious settings of Europe. Our media extols the virtues of secularism and would prefer, as I have said, to see religion removed from a place in the public square. The injection of religion and religiously inspired moral values into the political discourse continues to be met with cries of the threats of fundamentalism and renewed calls for the strict separation of church and state. I think that policy makers need a more sophisticated understanding of the role of religion.

In some ways, ironically, fundamentalist religions are the least likely to preach direct engagement in religious life. But, it seems to me, the religious community also has to understand this harmonic relationship between religious values and the democratic global revolution that has been going on for the last two or three decades and which has not yet, I believe, run out of steam. Clearly, many religious groups are only now re-emerging from the yoke of aggressively atheistic states that have held them down in many places. There is an opportunity for the flowering of religious beliefs in large parts of the world that had been cut off both from proselytizing and from internal religious life. Yet, to pursue the expansion of religious life and values requires a democratic context of respect for human rights. It is a difficult thing for religious leaders to handle, but the proper balance of understanding is that their own interests, and their opportunity to preach in an open way, is directly linked to the progress that their societies make toward democratic transition.

In conclusion, I would say that there should also be a concomitant or simultaneous understanding that democracies require religion. They desperately need the injection of moral judgment as a crucial component of the democratic crucible. Without it, you emerge in an antiseptic and immoral world in which democracy becomes the equivalent of license. Effective democracies and truly free societies are strongest when they have citizens who have a strong internal moral compass. This is the best guarantee of keeping the state out of what should be the proper preserve of culture, belief, religion and individual choice.

If the project of expanding democracy and human rights to the far reaches of our increasingly interrelated world is to be successful, it will happen through the cooperation of the very people who are gathered in this room. The great wave of the expansion of democratic liberty and freedom that has occurred since the 1970s is directly related to the positive influences of religious leaders and religious beliefs. Religion has played and will continue to play a central role in the process that is the heart and soul of the human thirst for freedom and dignity.