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

Date:11 February 2015
Author:Religion Factor
All religions are equal
All religions are equal

In the first part of this blogTon Groeneweg  sketched out three existing problems with the notion of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), and how it is being used and promoted in the context of international platforms arising in its defence. He particularly pointed out the difficulties that emerge with the universality and neutrality to which a principle such as FoRB lays claim, and how this may contribute to existing oppositions and biases. In this second part, he takes up one of the problems identified in this respect, being the implicit concept of “religion” and “faith” as it figures within issues related to FoRB.

The forms and practices of faith promoted by FoRB are, by and large, ‘liberal’ forms of faith. That is, those who express a clear respect for individual freedom, moral autonomy, gender equality etc. Even more ‘fundamentalist’ forms of religion could potentially make an appeal to FoRB, as long as they do not clash with these principles. In other words, FoRB powerfully (if not exclusively) favors those forms of religion that respect the autonomy of the individual believer. That is, the believer who is not fully controlled by his or her faith tradition, but preserves a core of personal freedom and autonomy. Now it is not very difficult to recognize here the figure of the archetypical Protestant believer, who – at the last instance – only allows his or her own conscience to decide about the rightfulness of the beliefs he or she holds.[i] It is the autonomous space of the inner conscience that stands as the final arbiter in any matter of faith. Furthermore, it is this perception of faith as ultimately grounded in an inner, autonomous sphere of personal freedom that contributed to the rise of the principle of religious freedom in the first place. It is because each individual is responsible for his or her conscience alone (before God), that the state (or any outside agency) should in principle refrain from interfering with matters of faith.

Now, as Charles Taylor and others have argued, this perception of faith as ultimately grounded in an inner, autonomous sphere of personal freedom is perpetuated and extended into the secular world, if it is not an important driver of secularization itself.[ii] The reason why we consider ourselves as secular beings is precisely that we preserve a strong sense of autonomy and privacy, when it comes to our personal perceptions, whether they are labeled as ‘faith’ or otherwise. By the same token, anything explicitly figuring as ‘religious’ becomes in a way superfluous, non-essential. Another way of saying this is that religion is culturalized[iii] – it becomes a matter of personal background or preference, which particular religious beliefs or practices we adopt. They are not essential to our sense of being autonomous believers as such. This is, at least, how the secular world and all its encompassing institutions, including FoRB treaty bodies and platforms, consider faith. And the acceptance of that perception is precondition to the participation of faith practitioners in such platforms and bodies.

It is not hard to imagine that this is rather easier for those already belonging to the social and cultural traditions permanently tinged by this perception of faith, whose subjectivities and religious sensibilities are, in other words, co-shaped by these traditions, than it is for others. It is also clear who will be labeled as the most likely ‘offenders’ of FoRB, where they will be located, while others are, by all reasonable standards, ‘beyond suspicion’. In other words, it comes as no surprise that the international coalitions rising in defense of FoRB, tend to be dominated by the kind of moderate, civilized and rational behavior that has become the standard of international governance – while other forms of conduct, like religiously motivated dress codes, become the expression of a certain ‘cultural authenticity’ at best. And even there, some over-determined forms of attire, like the burqa, will not be that easily accepted.[iv]

The result of this is that the way the interreligious platforms rising in the defense FoRB operate, function and present themselves, tacitly feeds into existing tensions and biases surrounding religious controversies in the world today. They do not, of course, so much create these controversies themselves, which rest upon more explicit structures of injustice, inequality and prejudice, nor do they strengthen them consciously or on purpose. Rather on the contrary, they do their job for all the good reasons that are attached to such a lofty cause as FoRB. The problem is precisely that by occupying a presumably neutral ‘common ground’ in the name of freedom, tolerance and respect, they tacitly submit to the mechanism that inadvertently favors certain perceptions and practices of faith above others, while simultaneously dissimulating the fact that they do so under the veil of universality. It then becomes understandable, as so forcefully argued by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd,[v] that this adds fuel to existing polarizations, as others feeling already marginalized and oppressed by existing structures of dominance, might feel compelled to project themselves as the explicit opponents of principles such as FoRB, which are seen as primarily promoting Western secular interests and positions.[vi] As FoRB becomes part of a ‘package deal’ with other human rights in the name of a universal norm that conceals but does not transcend its hegemonic intentions, the total rejection of liberal principles becomes suddenly an option for dissent.

Is this, then, a plea to leave the principle of FoRB altogether, and stop advocating for it? Certainly not. The point is not even that we should start mitigating or compromising the universality of FoRB or other human rights principles, nor is it a claim to adopt a ‘relativist’ position of some sort. What we should do, however, is to start working and allow for more diverse and plural practices of human rights, in order to make them meet their universal aspirations. By way of conclusion, let me briefly sketch what this could imply, again through three points, loosely connected with the three points identified in the first part of this blog.

  • It remains important to consider that no mechanism of international justice or human rights promotion remains aloof from the power mechanisms that inform our present world order, that co-determine agendas and their ways of implementation – even (or precisely) in defense of ‘universal principles’. Principles may be universally worth defending, their actual defense never is. This also holds for what counts and is adopted as universal – and by whom. We have no mechanism that can claim to define what is ‘universal’ from anything but a particularized point of view. What this argues for is a heightened sense of alertness to the power positions from which ‘universal principles’ are being promoted, in particular those coming from our own sphere of concern and interest. A certain precaution would be suitable, whenever the ‘universal’ is called upon as justification. The worst thing we could do is consider ourselves beyond or free of the machinations of power. Yet this is exactly what tends to happen when we flock to the defense of the ‘universality’ of FoRB and other human rights.
  • A rigorous and potentially liberating form of self-scrutiny could be to further explore how our own sense of selfhood, including our most intimate beliefs, perceptions and desires, is informed by an experience of self that is founded on a secularized version of the Protestant experience of faith, and its strong stress on autonomy. Although not the explicit topic of this blog, it could very well be argued that, for example, the gender and sexual norms that we are often so passionate about, not least in the context of religious controversies, are entangled in very similar dynamics as addressed above. There is a weird twist, to give a hint where this could lead, in the perception that rigorous Islamic dress codes for women are seen as a sign of oppression, presumably imposed by a religious patriarchical norm, while no less rigorous regimes of female conformation to ‘liberal’ norms of appearance and conduct, are considered a matter of choice for women, if not a proof of their autonomy. By the same token, this twist hides the continuing submission of women to male dominated structures in liberal societies, while denying that women in Islamic contexts possess anything like agency at all.[vii] If we could particularize some of the gender and sexual norms that we so intimately adhere to, we could perhaps also open ourselves to another understanding and handling of practices that are now merely discarded as deficient, even in terms of FoRB.
  • We could also strive to take the idea of religious identity figuring in the debate on FoRB out of the realm of culture, and bring it back to the level of politics. FoRB is not a matter of merely allowing different faith traditions to entertain their cultural particularities within a secured privatized realm, firmly guarded by the rule of secular law. It concerns profound convictions and decisions about the way religion, and which forms of religion, are allowed to engage with the public sphere. Such a ‘re-politicization’ could perhaps start, as suggested above, by showing how the secular realm, with all its presumed ‘neutral’ institutions, is itself pervaded by the faith perceptions and practices of a secularized version of Western Christendom. The secular realm is only seeminglyfree of cultural and religious norms, and of the interference with matters of faith. We could then, perhaps, also come to realize that it is not as self-evident as it seems, to demand from minorities in Europe to submit themselves to the regime of ‘secular values’. As the cultural patterns, preferences and self-experiences of the dominant majority traditions in our societies have externalized themselves in these values and the institutions based on them, they maintain a strong grip on cultural hegemony. In order to create more just and equitable surroundings, the particular forms and practices of secularism itself should be open to other experiences and traditions. Again, this is not a matter of rejecting secularism as such, but of rightfully questioning the way it is practiced in the name of an equality it constantly tramples in its practical applications. In other words, not opposing the secular regime as such, but exposing its false pretentions of neutrality.

This re-politicization of the questions related to FoRB, could also mean a re-location of the platforms operating in its name, and perhaps the start of a different form of advocacy for it. In particular one that no longer anxiously maintains a position of neutrality and equality as its prime source of legitimacy. Interfaith platforms advocating for religious freedom are not benign enclaves of harmonious co-existence in an otherwise corrupted and antagonistic world. They are themselves, internally and externally, entwined in the complex and diffuse power relations within the system of international liberal governance. Depending on the composition of the platform, and the socio-political location of its participants, they hold different positions with regard to these structures of power. Instead of dissimulating this in the aura of equality, they should try to bring this more explicitly within the realm of their analysis and political advocacy.

To acknowledge this, and to seek for ways to utilize this recognition as a potential to change the consistent inequalities and forms of marginalization thriving beneath the language of universality, would make them into truly meaningful advocates of FoRB. In particular in the present context of Europe, they would do well in leaving their presumed position of neutrality behind and start propagating a climate for full social, cultural and political participation of religious minorities, whose integration is now hampered rather than facilitated by the urge to secularize. Arguably, all religions are equal in their occasional discomfort with the dominance of secular worldviews, to which they are all somehow subjected, although, as I have suggested, definitely not all in equal manner. Rather than suppressing or sublimating this discomfort by becoming mere advocates for reigning liberal norms, religious actors and indeed all those interested in issues related to public religion and FoRB could nourish and cultivate it, as a potential source for greater equality and liberation.

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] Classically formulated by John Locke in his ‘Letter Concerning Toleration’ of 1689: “every man’s soul belongs unto himself”. Quoted after Wendy Brown, ‘Regulating Aversion’, p. 31 (see note ix in first part of this blog).

[ii] Taylor’s famous definition of the ‘buffered self’ largely coincides with this perception. See e.g. his ‘Introduction’ to ‘A Secular Age’ (see note xi in first part of this blog).

[iii] See Wendy Brown, ‘Regulating Aversion’ (see note ix in first part of this blog), in particular Chapter 1: ‘Tolerance as a Discourse of Depoliticization’.

[iv] Precisely, as I will argue below, because their over-determination is of a  political  nature, transgressing secular norms, not contained within the privatized sphere of culture.

[v] See note iv in the first part of this blog.

[vi] Such a logic is clearly visible e.g. in Indonesia, where notions as ‘secularism’ and ‘liberalism’ are seen as ‘Western diseases’ by certain factions, affecting the purity of an authentic Islamic culture. See Ward Berenschot: ‘Engaging the faithful: Pluralism, civil society and religious identity in Indonesia. An exploratory study for Mensen met een Missie’(2010). Of course such dynamics are always intertwined with much more complex and localized issues.

[vii] Wresting a notion of female agency from its exclusive liberal interpretation, is of course one of the most powerful arguments in Saba Mahmood’s ‘Politics of Piety’ (see note ix in first part of this blog)


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