Perspectives Papers on Current Affairs
November 14, 2010
On the Violation of Religious Freedoms
Prof. Jonathan Fox
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Muslim protests against Western Christian violations of Muslim freedoms are clearly a case of people living in glass houses throwing stones. Any such violations pale in comparison to the pervasiveness and severity of violations of the religious freedom of Christians in Middle Eastern Muslim states.
The treatment of Muslim minorities in Western Christian states has become a high profile issue in world politics, yet the significantly poorer treatment of Christian minorities in Muslim states has not been given nearly as much attention. Two recent laws embody the nature of these issues in the West. First, a 2004 French law prohibited public school students and employees from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including headscarves, skullcaps and large crosses. While this law technically applies to all religions, Muslims perceive the law as directed primarily against the wearing of head-coverings by devout Muslim women. Second, in 2009 a Swiss referendum banned the building of minarets—the prayer towers that are an integral part of mosques.
Both of these laws have been accurately portrayed as restrictions on Muslim religious freedom. More importantly, these are not isolated incidents, with similar practices occurring in other Western democratic states. Yet, Muslim protests against these laws also represent an international double standard. Muslims across the world often take to the streets to protest such violations of religious freedom in the Christian world while at the same time Muslim states regularly engage in more pervasive and severe violations of the religious freedom of Christians. In order to demonstrate this I compare the treatment of Muslims in 26 Western democracies to the treatment of Christians in 17 Middle Eastern Muslim states. (Israel and Lebanon are not included due to substantial participation by non-Muslims in government).
The Religion and State Project
The Religion and State project (www.religionandstate.org), which collects information on state religion policy worldwide, has identified 29 types of restrictions placed by governments on either the religious practices or institutions of minority religions.
After examining this data, accusations that Western governments place constraints on Muslims appear to be accurate. Sixteen out of 26 Western democracies (61.5%) place at least one type of restriction on Muslim minorities and four (15.4%) of these states place five or more types of restrictions on them. In comparison, all 17 Middle Eastern states place restrictions on Christian minorities and all but two (88.2%)—Iraq and Syria—place five or more such limitations. Thus, the average Middle Eastern state places about five times as many types of restrictions on Christian minorities as does the average Western state on Muslim minorities.
Mosques, Minarets and Churches
The 2009 Swiss Minarets referendum did not occur in a vacuum. Calls for such bans had previously occurred and were rejected in the legislative bodies of several of Switzerland's cantons including Solothurn, Bern and Zurich. In practice, however, minarets could not be built because local governments denied building permits on technical and bureaucratic grounds.
This type of behavior is common in Western democracies. Local governments in Austria, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, Norway and Spain have all used similar tactics to restrict the building of mosques. Though, to be clear, in these countries some, not all, local governments engage in these practices and there is no country-wide ban on mosques. Switzerland remains unique among Western countries in that there is a national-level restriction on mosques though it limits only the construction of minarets, not that of the entire mosque.
The same cannot be said for the building and maintaining of churches in the Middle East. Ten of 17 Muslim-majority Middle Eastern states (58.8%) place some form of restriction on churches, most of which go well beyond local governments using these tactics to block construction. Saudi Arabia bans houses of worship of all religions other than Islam. In Egypt, which has one of the Middle East's largest indigenous Christian populations, Ministry of Interior regulations specify a set of 10 conditions that must be met for a new church to be built. For instance, a church may not be within 100 meters of a mosque and it must be approved by the neighboring Muslim community, essentially giving locals an absolute veto over church construction. In addition, any repairs to a church, no matter how minor, require the approval of the regional government and before 2005 such repairs required presidential approval. In Tunisia operational churches generally date back to the 19th century or earlier. The government has rarely permitted the building of a new church since then. While not all of the restrictions on churches in the Middle East are this severe, they are distinct from those in the West in that they are all based on national, rather than local, policy.
Head-Coverings and Bibles
The head-covering issue raised by France's 2004 law is becoming more pervasive across Europe. France's law is distinct from that of other European countries in that it was enacted nationally and consciously applied to all religions. In all other cases, the bans on head-coverings were by local or regional governments and apply specifically to Muslims. For example in 2003, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court upheld a state-level ban on headscarves for civil servants. By the end of 2008 at least eight of Germany's states had enacted such a ban. Similarly, several municipalities in Belgium including Antwerp and Brussels enacted bans on head-covering by municipal employees.
As Christians have no overt dress code it is hard to compare this issue directly to the policies of Middle Eastern states but it is arguable that the Bible, like a Muslim Woman's head-covering, is a potent religious symbol and a necessary possession for a practicing Christian. Six Middle Eastern states (35.3%) place restrictions on bibles. In most cases these are not outright bans on bibles but rather heavy regulation. For example, Kuwait officially bans the publishing of bibles but, in practice, allows recognized churches (as opposed to the many unrecognized churches) to print religious literature for their congregations and permits one company to import bibles. Sometimes these bans are unofficial yet pervasive. For example, Morocco has no law banning non-Muslim religious literature; however, in practice the government bars Arabic-language versions of the bible. Outright bans exist as well. For instance, in Saudi Arabia any non-Islamic religious literature is banned although foreigners may bring bibles with them for personal use.
Other Restrictions on Religious Freedom
While a total of 15 of the 29 types of religious discrimination tracked by the Religion and State project are present in at least one Western democracy, only three of them exist in more than two or three Western states. These include head-covering bans and limitations on mosques as discussed above. As well, many Western governments require all minority religions to register with the government in order to gain official recognition – not incumbent on the majority religion. In most cases this is a bureaucratic formality and failure to register does not influence freedom of religion but may influence a religion's ability to gain tax free status, open a bank account and rent or buy space.
In contrast, 27 of these types of discrimination exist in at least one Middle Eastern state and 18 exist in four or more states. While discussing all of these forms of discrimination is beyond the scope of this essay some examples highlight their seriousness. In 14 countries Christians are not allowed to proselytize and in 12 Muslims are restricted from converting to Christianity. In 11 countries, Christians attending public schools are required to take courses in Islam. In six countries Muslims are given preference in child custody arrangements upon divorce.
In sum, the record of Western democracies on religious freedom requires improvement, but these violations pale in comparison to the pervasiveness and severity of violations of the religious freedom of Christians in Middle Eastern Muslim states. Clearly, any violation of religious freedom is wrong. There is a worldwide consensus on this, at least in theory, enshrined in international treaties and evidenced by the fact that over 90% of the world's constitutions have religious freedom clauses—though these clauses in practice are often not fully observed.
That being said, Muslim protests against Western Christian violations of Muslim freedoms are clearly a case of people living in glass houses throwing stones. Many Western Christian states do need to clean house on this issue. However, when they do so, they should overtly link their actions to the necessity of providing religious freedom everywhere.
Prof. Jonathan Fox is a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies and lectures in the political science department at Bar-Ilan University.
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