Who better to discuss religious freedom than the man tasked with promoting and defending it for the United Nations?

Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Photo courtesy United Nations - Geneva via Flickr


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I caught up with Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, on the eve of his first official visit to Jordan last week. Speaking from the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany where he’s also a human rights professor, Bielefeldt discussed the fundamentals of religious freedom, how it fits together with other rights, some of the worst offenders around the world and the state of religious liberty in the Middle East.

The conversation started with a simple but loaded question: What is religious freedom? Bielefeldt acknowledged that defining it can be a tricky and often political endeavor — governments, scholars, people of faith and those of none sometimes tailor its definitions to suit their own interests.

He sees religious freedom first and foremost as a human right that protects human beings rather than one that protects particular belief systems:

“Religious freedom is as universal as any other human right and as liberal as freedom of expression. It protects a broad range of human freedoms like the search for meaning, the freedom to leave or change communities, to adopt a new faith, to spread one’s beliefs and to establish educational institutions. Like every other right to freedom, it’s about the right to equality.”

But religious liberty often comes into conflict with other rights, like when it’s summoned up to suppress free speech or to oppress women and sexual minorities. Bielefeldt said these examples are “problematic invocations” rather than legitimate uses of religious freedom.

Beyond such “subversion”, Bielefeldt identified three major obstacles to religious freedom around the world today:

“One of the biggest obstacles is hatred, collective manifestations of hatred caused by aggravating societal circumstances. Another big problem is that, increasingly, people think freedom of religion or belief might be superfluous or not a human right at all. Another big issue is the situation of religious minorities worldwide. Some minorities are harassed, stigmatized and treated as though they do not belong to the nation.”

In determining the worst state offenders of religious freedom, Bielefeldt thinks it wise to distinguish systematic state discrimination from society-based hostilities, citing China as an example of the former and Nigeria the latter:

“In China, it seems the general population doesn’t care so much [about religion]. It’s really restrictive government policies that threaten religious freedom. We see that with the Falun Gong in Tibet, Protestants and Catholics, the non-recognition of churches. Freedom of belief is facilitated by state administration. Unless the state registers a group, it is illegal. That goes against the spirit of human rights. Here it’s not the society really, but rather the state apparatus exercising oppression.

“In Nigeria, it’s totally different. There, Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group, is terrorizing Christians, but also many Muslims. State institutions can’t provide protection. It’s a totally different pattern.”

Bielefeldt said the Middle East, and Egypt specifically, are home to both systems of oppression and a host of other complicating factors:

“What we’re seeing now throughout the region is an enormous politicization of religion, especially of Islam. It’s a huge and complicated conflict that cannot simply be spelled out as Muslims vs. Christians. That would be too easy. In Egypt, there are Muslims and Christians on both sides of the political debate.

“Christians are now an easy target group for people to vent their frustrations. It’s about the identity of the country, about creating a new Egypt. Religion is a big part of that, but it’s not the only thing. One shouldn’t leave out unemployment, the desperate situation of youth, and disenchantment with the West and Western development strategies that have failed. It’s a complicated picture. Religion is a big part of it, but it’s not the key to understanding absolutely everything.”

On the international scale and particularly at the United Nations, Bielefeldt said the state and reputation of religious freedom have changed significantly in the past decade or so, notably around the discussion of religious defamation. Starting in the late 1990s, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, a group of 57 states that bills itself as the “collective voice of the Muslim world,” pushed for U.N. resolutions to prohibit such defamation.

Bielefeldt said these resolutions “cast a shadow” on religious freedom:

“The defamation of religions issue was articulated as a dichotomy of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, which is totally wrong in my opinion. Freedom of expression is often seen as totally liberal, you can be provocative with it. But the perception of freedom of religion is that there is a stop sign. You can only go so far. That has contributed to the dubious reputation of freedom of religion as being somewhat less liberal, which is unfair and unjust. It is as liberal a right as any but has this perception that it somehow doesn’t fit.”

Red lines between religious liberty and freedom of expression surfaced amid these defamation debates when illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad, published in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, resulted in violent protests around the world. These demonstrations in 2005 and 2006 were led by some Muslims who deemed the depictions blasphemous and offensive. Bielefeldt said the fact that global media organizations reprinted the cartoons amid threats of violence “made it clear that there is no such right as the right to be free from criticism.”

A U.N. Human Rights Council resolution in 2011 “put aside the discussion on religious defamation,” according to Bielefeldt, by considering and protecting both free speech and religious freedom.

Bielefeldt is currently finishing a report on gender relations and religious freedom, in part to further emphasize his assertion that religious freedom should not be viewed as a right in isolation:

“In this report, I’m speaking out against fragmentation, the idea that human rights should focus on gender or religion. Some people think it’s an alternative, an either/or of anti-discrimination. I don’t share this view. I believe all human rights are interrelated in a positive sense.”

Bielefeldt is scheduled to issue preliminary findings from his current mission to Jordan on Sept. 10, with a full report slated for 2014.

10 Comments

  1. Earold Gunter

    Brian,
    Thanks for this very informative article. It is surprising, and relieving as well that the U.N. takes matters such as this into consideration. Oftentimes when dealing with issues which are very personal to you, it is difficult to realize that others are also dealing with the same issue.

    I believe Dr. Bielefeldt’s views on human freedoms, and the limitations imposed on those freedoms by those whose beliefs are driven by the need to feel that this life is not the only life, was concisely articulated when he said, ”But the perception of freedom of religion is that there is a stop sign.”

    The believers in a God, that are made up of many religions have always sought to “force” their beliefs upon everyone else. This has always been viewed by societies as “acceptable” behavior, although at times an annoyance, like when Jehovah Witnesses come to your home trying to talk to you about their religion. However, the same criterion does not apply to those with non-religious views. Non-believers have at worst been made criminals through laws, and at least ostracized by society if their views are espoused publically, or even privately.

    Non-believers have been walking on eggshells for far too long not speaking up against irrational, illogical religious beliefs. The religious dominated societies they live in have systematically taken away their basic human freedoms by enacting laws, based on their religious beliefs, or creating a social taboo about speaking out against them.

    It is far past the time when humans should stop reacting to the fear of the unknown by creating stories designed just to make them feel better.

    Live life, love people, without the promise of the carrot or the threat of the stick.

    Good day!

  2. Charles Randall Paul

    I applaud the clear distinctions made in the interview.

    I also agree that most cultures find it difficult to appreciate equally those who tell hopeful (Plato called them ‘likely’) stories and those who tell a story that grown-ups shouldn’t tell stories. The problem is teleological humans desire to live for a purpose that is ratified socially as noble AND hope inspiring. When agnostic skeptics go door to door or blog to blog with their admonition, ‘Live life, love people’ and do it because I say so and for no grand purpose, they are at a disadvantage compared to hopeful teleological story tellers. There is always an implied carrot or stick to all human interaction too. Live life and love people to be happy (carrot) and if you don’t you will be unhappy (stick).

    Thanks for the article and the response.
    C. Randall Paul
    Foundation for Religious Diplomacy

  3. Earold Gunter

    Mr. Paul,
    My closing phrase “Live life, love people” is THE purpose for existence in my humble opinion, and is indeed a very grand one. The phrase is not intended to be an admonishment or a command for anyone, but if you feel it is to you, you may want to ask yourself why you feel that way.

    It is merely a phrase intended to provoke thought, especially from believers who may very well act in this manner, but do so only for eternal reward, and escape of eternal punishment. I know humans do not need these “incentives’ to act in a loving manner towards fellow humans as there are many of us who don’t believe in a life after this one, but still choose to act in this manner.

    Religion or perhaps more specifically the belief in a life available in bliss or torment eternally after this one only serves to falsely incentivize what human should naturally want to do anyway. This is very similar to the fable of Santa Clause, which is used by many parents to give incentive to children to behave. I think the creatures of nature live in harmony without having to believe in an afterlife, and we should be able to as well.

    I had an opportunity to visit your foundation web site where your goal is for religious people to live in “peaceful tension”. This reminds me of the childhood of a friend who grew up with an alcoholic parent, where peace was only had by keeping his mouth shut, and tension was the normal atmosphere. This wasn’t a good way to live his childhood, and it should not be the ultimate goal of human kind.

    You seek to end the violence brought about by people with disagreements of belief, and I seek to do the same by ending those beliefs. I choose to speak out against religious beliefs, or as you stated it “go door to door or blog to blog” (kind of creeps me out you know I do this), as I don’t have a foundation or web site to post my opinions, so I speak out where I can reach believers.

    You see, it is only belief in religion, or utter madness that drives someone to strap a bomb to their body, detonate it killing themselves and others, or hijack a plane and fly it into a building killing themselves and others, or be part of a group of people who scream foul, hurtful, vicious things at grieving parents who are trying to bury a loved one who has died in war, or be a representative of a group who tells people in a third world country where sexually transmitted disease is devastating their population that THE God says wearing a condom will result in an eternity in hell.

    My goal is much simpler, just peace, no tension. Mankind living with mankind in a manner that allows all to live life to the fullest extent possible.

    Although I don’t believe that what you are trying to achieve is possible, and I think it falls woefully short of what mankind deserves, I applaud your recognition that difference of religious beliefs have resulted in violence in our world. I also applaud your attempt to mitigate it, albeit from inside the irrational bubble it resides.

    Live life, love people, without the promise of the carrot or the threat of the stick.

    Good day!

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