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‘All religions are equal, but some religions are more equal than others’ Part One

Date:09 February 2015
Author:Religion Factor
Freedom of Religion or Belief
Freedom of Religion or Belief

This phrase catches a key problem with the concept of ‘Freedom of Religion or Belief’, and how it is practiced and promoted in the world today. Just as in Animal Farm, George Orwell’s famous animal utopia, it suggests that power may cloak itself in the language of equality, and create, in fact, entirely the opposite. In today’s post, Ton Groeneweg explores some of the mechanisms behind this lure as it operates with regard to such a benign and apparently neutral principle as freedom of religion.

There has been a modest yet significant resurrection of the principle of Freedom of Religion or Belief, or ‘FoRB’ as it is currently abbreviated (and henceforth applied here), in recent years. Although it was already firmly anchored in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and consecutively reiterated and expanded in a range of UN Declarations, it is quite recent that it has been (re)adopted as an explicit focus and instrument of foreign policy, most explicitly by the US, Canada and the EU.[i] In the slipstream of these state and multi-state initiatives, and partially driven by the current crisis in the Middle East, several international platforms have likewise embraced FoRB as an explicit focus of their policy and lobby interventions. Most noteworthy is the initiative by a group of international parliamentarians, that signed a Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief in Oslo on November 8, 2014, during an event co-organized by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the All Parties Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief from Britain.[ii] This initiative was strongly criticized by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scholar from the US who has done extensive work on the international politics surrounding Freedom of Religion, and a modest debate emerged around the pros and cons of this initiative.[iii] We will come back to some of its arguments below. A less prominent but no less significant initiative was taken by the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom (EIFRF), “a truly multi-faith group of organizations and individuals,” at the level of the EU. It addressed a letter to the European Council in November 2014 that was very explicit about the target of its defence of FoRB.[iv] It calls upon the European Council “to set immediate and long-term goals for intervention in the Syrian-Iraqi conflict – to protect Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities”. It also pinpoints as the “primary perpetrators” of the atrocities happening in Syria and Iraq “the self-styled ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra), and similar extremist groups”. Typically enough, there is no mention anywhere in the letter of the role of the Syrian regime in wielding terror of a possibly ‘similar’ kind on its population, nor of the role that international actors, in particular the US, played in destabilizing the region by their military interventions in the first place. Furthermore, it is implied in the letter that the vague category of “similar extremist groups” draws its ‘similarity’ probably from the common inspiration of such groups by an extremist form of Islam.[v] This example, coupled with the general tenor of global discourses that interlink religion (in particular Islam) with irrationalism, violence and terror,[vi] suggests that, although all religions might have their occasional skirmishes with FoRB now and then, it is in particular one religion, namely Islam, which today seems to give most reason for concern. Within the present political climate, we already appear to have lost something of the equal treatment that FoRB was precisely intended to promote. If we are willing to acknowledge (and all FoRB declarations are hastily ready to do so), that there is nothing inherently present in any faith tradition that stands at odds with principles of religious freedom, we might wonder which mechanisms drive one particular religion inadvertently into the position of global adversary. We might even start to wonder, as in fact Hurd argues, if the way FoRB is being framed and promoted in the world today, might have something to do with this.[vii]

One thing that FoRB forcefully does, to begin with, is distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion. As apparently major stakeholders in the defense of FoRB, representatives of various religious traditions are among the key participants of both platforms mentioned above. There are quite a few Muslims among them, but these Muslims are, of course, ‘good Muslims’ in a similar way as defined by Mahmood Mamdami in his famous book.[viii] They adhere to the principle of FoRB for allreligions, align with other principles such as respect for the individual person, also of other faiths, for gender equality and principles of non-violence. And they are most probably not wearing burqas. ‘Bad Muslims’ are the opposite of all this. Of course this argument extends to other religions as well. It is worth noting already at this point, that rather ‘secular’ principles are used to draw the dividing line between what is considered as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion. Principles of equality, respect and gender sensitivity might have their own stand and equivalent in various faith principles, but they are certainly not religious principles per se. Quite the contrary: the fact that they are able to draw the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion, implies that they are outside of any particular faith tradition, presumably neutral – in other words: secular. It is the secular language based on what we could broadly define as ‘universally human’ values, which readily offers itself here as the arbiter and the defining category for what forms of religion are in line with FoRB, and which are not. Secondly, by the same token and through a mechanism we will further explore below, the ‘secular’ principles elevate themselves into a position of neutrality, indeed ‘universality’, that can no longer be challenged from the position of any particular faith practice or tradition. And thirdly, the more any faith practice adapts to these secular principles, the more it will be considered ‘worthy’ and qualified to be a true defender of FoRB. So much for the principle of equality: all religions are equal, as long asthey adhere to certain standards of what is tacitly understood as universally human, conceived from a secular point of view.

Now, of course, all of this could be quite alright, if the principles applied in the promotion of FoRB to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ faith practices would indeed be truly universal. Yet it is precisely this that is increasingly being challenged.[ix] The universality or neutrality of FoRB is considered problematic for at least three reasons:

  • The international governance mechanisms, the perspectives and instruments through and from which FoRB is being promoted, are embedded in institutions predominantly shaped by the Western tradition of liberal democracy, that has now become the global standard. These institutions still tend to be dominated by Western perspectives and interests, even as this picture is becoming increasingly nuanced. Yet the reasons for policy making and interventions related to FoRB, tend to be mixed with other strategic interests of Western powers in particular, and of others occasionally. As FoRB is adopted as an element of foreign policy by the US, Canada and the EU, this at least suggests it is considered a useful instrument within their more general international policies. It cannot be denied that also other interests than mere respect for human rights are at stake in challenging FoRB issues around the world and determine the priority lists for potential action and intervention.[x] Although the reasons for this may be perfectly valid and understandable, it makes the application of FoRB less ‘neutral’ than it claims to be. In particular in the context of the Middle East, it adds to the already existing suspicion that it is particularly Islamic practices and regimes that are being targeted, and rather selectively at that.
  • The very concept and definition of ‘religion’ and ‘belief’ as subject of FoRB, is modeled on a particular understanding and practice of faith, heavily informed by the one that emerged from the Christian tradition. This not only has repercussions for what is being considered as falling within the range of FoRB, but also for what is most worthy of being defended by it. Thus FoRB tends to favor in particular those forms and practices of faith, that easily align with (or are appealing to) the kind of secular, privatized ways of believing practiced in the old Christian heartlands. As various scholars have convincingly argued, the specific concepts of faith and religion figuring as the model here, are based on the rather particular tradition of Western Protestantism, with its strong stress on individual freedom, inward forms of belief, and personal autonomy.[xi] This is by no means a model that holds for any faith tradition without further questioning. As it is this same model that is, by and large, being employed in the promotion of FoRB, it is clear that it cannot lay claim to ‘universality’ and ‘neutrality’ that easily.
  • The two previous points are, furthermore, caught up in a mechanism that hides the particularities of this perception of faith, and the power structures entwined with it, by adopting a language of universality. As it lays claim to a ‘universal’ and ‘neutral’ position, it raises itself above the suspicion of merely enforcing a particular view by being in a position of power. It does not need explicit power to sustain its claim, because it is able to ensure adherence to it by dispersing it through more subtle structures of international regulation and deliberation, including those of ‘civil society’ and a globalized ‘human rights culture’, that legitimize its proclaimed ‘neutrality’. The apparent absence of power is thus further proof of its ‘universality’.[xii] The privileged position of the specific secularized faith standard sketched above, is able to lay claim to this universality, precisely by dissimulating the particular social, political and historical conditions on which its situation of privilege rests. The ‘universal’ is modeled on the faith practices of those who best adapt to the liberal standards that inform this model from the beginning. In this light, the ‘neutrality’ of FoRB as a standard for religious behavior, becomes something like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

These three dimensions powerfully feed into each other, thus creating the deceitful mechanism of which the Orwellian phrase at the opening of this blog is the classic formulation. This mechanism clearly works in favor of certain forms and practices of religion, and of certain privileged defenders of it, while discarding others. Its delusive nature reveals itself by the fact that it particularly favors those who are already in a position to claim some form of neutrality, and can thus come to the defense of those in less favored positions. Hence it works very much like other structures of liberal governance, where dominant norms sustain and replicate themselves in and through the institutions created to uphold liberalism’s commitment to equality and neutrality.[xiii] It works very effectively in terms of a principle such as FoRB, which is so intimately geared towards balancing very particular private convictions with the general level of equality required by liberal standards. This also points towards the problem with the way FoRB is being promoted at the international level: it generates new subtle forms of inequality, under the guise of doing precisely the opposite. Thereby it potentially creates new forms of opposition and biases, adding fuel to already existing tensions. As such, this is a mechanism that has a further reach than issues of FoRB alone. I will elaborate on this in the second part of this blog.

Ton Groeneweg works as Policy Officer Religion & Development at Mensen met een Missie , and is a fellow of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen. His personal blog can be found at .

[i] In 1998 the US Congress adopted the International Religious Freedom Act, and consecutively an Office of International Religious Freedom was established, that brings out an annual report on the global state of religious freedom. In 2013, the Canadian government opened a similar ‘Office of Religious Freedom’, and in the same year, the EU Council adopted its ‘Guidelines on freedom of religion or belief’.

[ii] See:

[iii] See: Elizabeth Shakman Hurd: ‘International ‘Religious Freedom’ agenda will only embolden ISIS’, For some of the discussion on this issue, see the blog the Norwegian institute that hosted the meeting, where also another link to Elizabeth Hurd’s article can be found:

[iv] See:

[v] Countering the “monstrous ideology” of ISIS, and “to re-educate those indoctrinated by religious extremists”, is an important part of the recommendations in the letter.

[vi] See, for example, E.S. Hurd. 2012. “International Politics After Secularism”  Review of International Studies  38(5): 943-961; L. Mavelli. 2012.  Europe’s Encounter with Islam: The Secular and the Postsecular . London: Routledge; L. Mavelli. 2013. “Between Normalisation and Exception: The Securitisation of Islam and the Construction of the Secular Subject”  Millennium: Journal of International Studies . 41(2): 159-181; E.K. Wilson. 2012.  After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics . Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave

[vii] Most sharply phrased, perhaps, in Hurd’s initial wonder “whether it would be possible to imagine a more effective ISIS-recruitment tool than the image of a group of global parliamentarians, led by the US and the UK, poised to lead the way to civilization by instructing citizens of the Middle East on how to be religiously free”. See note iv above.

[viii] Mahmood Mamdani: ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror’. New York: 2004.

[ix] I am drawing on a variety of arguments here, already presented by others. Apart from Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, my main sources of inspiration are the work of Saba Mahmood (most notably her ‘Politics of Piety’ of 2006), Charles Hirschkind (in particular his ‘Ethics of Soundscape’ (2006)), and of course Talal Asad (e.g. ‘Formations of the Secular’ (2003)). Adding to this modest corpus, I’m including the powerful arguments brought to the fore by Wendy Brown, particularly in her ‘Regulating Aversion. Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire’ (Princeton: 2006).

[x] Thus the US International Religious Freedom Act contains an explicit waiver for the US president to divert from the application of the act if “the important national interest of the United States requires the exercise of such waiver authority”. See (section 407).

[xi] Most comprehensively, this has been argued by Charles Taylor in his monumental ‘A Secular Age’ (2007). Of course the argument of a convergence between the Protestant tradition and Western economic and political dominance, already goes back to Max Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ (1905). An important recent argument in this line from a more global perspective has been made by Tomoko Masuzawa, in her ‘The Invention of World Religions. Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism’ (2005).

[xii] This mechanism is an example of what Foucault has labeled as ‘governmentality’, the particular modern form of power, not resting on explicit use of force, but on more subtle mechanisms of self-regulation and internalization in liberal societies. Wendy Brown has convincingly used (and elaborated) this concept in her analysis of what she calls ‘liberal’ (or ‘secular’)  conceit , and of which my argument is a mere further example. Apart from the book mentioned in note ix above, see also: Wendy Brown, ‘Civilizational Delusions: Secularism, Tolerance, Equality’. In: Theory & Event: 2012, 15-2.

[xiii] See previous note.


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