Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948) on religion says: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes...freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.' The drafters hoped the UDHR would quickly be followed by a more detailed listing of rights in a legally binding form, but it was not until 1966 that two international human rights' covenants - the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)- were adopted. Almost a full decade later, the covenants finally came into force in some countries.
The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief was passed in 1981 because the General Assembly was rightly concerned about continuing discrimination based on beliefs. It provides for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and seeks to ensure that no-one should be discriminated against because of their beliefs. The General Assembly reaffirmed this Declaration in December 1997 in a resolution that focuses on encouraging states to provide within their legal systems genuine freedom of thought, conscience and religion and effective redress against violations. The U.N. has to date not been able to codify the Declaration into a more effective instrument.
The protection of human dignity in general, including religious freedom, is indisputably better in nations where there are independent judicial systems, including effective human rights commissions. Canada has been a leader in upholding the rights promoted in the UDHR. Canadians overwhelmingly appear to support international efforts aimed at protecting human rights by establishing genuine judicial independence.
A half-century later, most of the world's governments have committed themselves through international agreements to protect religious freedom for all their nationals. The gap between promise and performance unfortunately remains large for believers in many lands, who find that their right to religious freedom is observed more in the breach, or not at all, by their governments.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan admirably sought to make human rights central to all UN programming: "...I believe human rights are the core of our sacred bond with peoples of the United Nations." He spoke not only of advancing rights but of punishing those who abuse them, "We should leave no one in doubt that for the mass murderers, the 'ethnic cleansers', those guilty of gross and shocking violations of human rights, impunity is not acceptable. The United Nations will never be their refuge, its Charter never the source of justification. They are our enemies, regardless of race, religion or nation, and only in their defeat can we redeem the promise of this great organization."
In the 1990s, hundreds of Edmontonians of differing faiths gathered at city hall to protest the "ethnic cleansing" and other persecution of our Muslim sisters and brothers in Bosnia. A few years later, many of us did the same thing at the legislative assembly in Edmonton to denounce the then serious mistreatment of the Christian community in Pakistan. Why don't we all protest whenever any faith community is being persecuted anywhere? One ready answer is that currently we would be doing so virtually weekly if not daily.
The first half of the 20th century saw slaughter, cruelty, enslavement and torture on a scale that the world had probably never before seen. Untold millions of human beings died at the hands of totalitarian enemies of all religions, such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Much of the violence was aimed at women, men and children whose only "failing" was practising a religious faith. The same pattern prevails from many of the remaining authoritarian/totalitarian governments across the world today.
One of the miracles of the last century was the failure of the words of Marx, Hegel, Huxley, Nietzsche, Russell, Shaw, Sartre and others to drive God from human consciousness. Belief in God has continued among most of humanity across the earth and is now strongly growing in many communities.
Religion and Social Harmony
Intolerant people sometimes abuse religion to justify crimes against other people and humanity in general. Harvey Milk once argued: "More people have been slaughtered in the name of religion than any other single reason." Since WW2, as many persons as perished in the Holocaust have died around the world in other genocides.
In my opinion, using religion as cover for evil stems often from the notion that religions are exclusive. Religious extremists deny the rights of others whose beliefs or non-beliefs are different from, or less intense than, their own. This is offensive to both the principles of the UDHR and the basic foundation of all religions, which is love for all humanity.
The Qur'an, for example, declares that: "if anyone saves a person it will be as if he has saved the whole of humanity". In Hinduism, we are called to live "beyond the reach of I and mine"; in Buddhism, we are asked to "practise compassion." The Sikh scripture advises us that "God's bounties are common to all. It is we who have created divisions. "
Religious freedom is about acknowledging and respecting the rights of others to choose and practise a different belief. If we could only grant such freedom to one another, harmony among religions would become reality. I'll attempt briefly to deal with building harmony among the three Abrahamic religions.
Several years ago, those who attended a seminar at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa were told that one of the major causes of violence in the Middle East is the widespread view that Jews and Muslims do not worship the same God. This misunderstanding, the speaker explained, encourages members of both faith communities to dehumanize and thus to demonize followers of the other faith. When added to other regional issues, the result of this ongoing miscommunication is retaliatory murders, bloodshed and mayhem, often involving children and their mothers.
In reality, we Muslims, Christians and Jews worship the same God, albeit in different ways and with differing emphasis. Each of our great monotheistic faiths believes that life has profound value and meaning. The widespread ignorance about each other's beliefs is a continuing major obstacle to mutual respect and building harmony. All of us must work harder in this new century to eliminate this knowledge deficit and to continue our search for shared tenets.
There is another important area of misunderstanding among all three religions: the numerous differences of viewpoints within each of them. No one has written about this more perceptively than Karen Armstrong in her book, The Battle for God, which examines why fundamentalism has grown in all three faiths. The Arab-Israeli conflict is one example she cites. It began as a secularist dispute on both sides, but today is seen through an almost exclusively faith prism by both. In the late 1970's, each of the three faiths saw fundamentalism among its followers take centre stage.
How many Canadians know that about 50,000 Spanish Jews were welcomed by the Muslim Ottoman Empire when they were expelled from Spain after 1492? Centuries later, notes Armstrong, reform Judaism, especially in the U.S. after 1870, was progressive, liberal and disposed to privatize faith. Many believers in traditional Judaism felt themselves besieged; some even refused to participate in secular education or to participate in modern communities.
Many of the non-Jews who led the movement to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, she asserts, were in fact atheists, who failed to understand that the land they sought for the Jews was occupied by 750,000 Palestinian Arabs, who would be expelled from their homes in 1948. Religious Jews countered that secular nationalism in the Middle East or anywhere is usually a recipe for disaster. As mentioned earlier, the past century is full of horrific acts committed by secular totalitarians.
The Battle for God notes that in the 16th century, Muslims constituted approximately one third of the world's population. Three new Muslim empires were founded in that century alone: the Ottoman, the Safavid and the Moghul, with all three providing a cultural renewal comparable to that provided by, for example, the Italian Renaissance.
According to Armstrong and many other commentators, fundamentalist Muslims around the world are today deeply concerned about two features of Western society:
- the separation of religion from government/politics; and
- the lack of Shariah law in their own communities in countries which are governed by laws other than the laws of Islam.
The rise of Christian fundamentalism, says Armstrong, parallels that of the two other religions, although I'll only mention a couple of features she cites of the American experience with it.
The 1787 constitution of the Unites States does not mention God at all; the First Amendment formally separated religion from the state. By the middle of the 19th century, however, most Americans had become Christian. The American Evangelicals, who seek a "righteous empire" based on Godly, not Enlightenment, concepts, became increasingly influential in the early part of the 20th century.
As Armstrong puts it, fundamentalism in all three faiths "exists in a symbiotic relationship with an aggressive liberalism or secularism, and under attack, increasingly becomes more extreme, bitter and excessive." During the 1960's and the 1970's in the U.S., faced with such an ethos, Protestant fundamentalists grew more vocal. One of their major concerns was that the First Amendment was to protect religion from the state, not vice versa.
Post September 11
The author's conclusion in Battle for God is that fundamentalists in all three religions have succeeded in rescuing their respective faiths from attempts to privatize or to suppress each of them. Fundamentalism is now part of the modern world, she concludes, and is here to stay.
Armstrong: "…the liberal myth that humanity is progressing to an ever more enlightened and tolerant state looks as fantastic as any of the other millennial myths we have considered in this book. Without the constraints of a higher mystical truth, reason can on occasion become demonic and count views that are as great, if not greater, than any of the atrocities perpetrated by fundamentalists."
Armstrong wrote her book before the events of September 11th, but some of the related points she makes still seem valid. First, liberals and fundamentalists in all three faiths must build bridges and attempt to avoid future confrontations. Each side must try to understand what motivates the other. Fundamentalists must develop a more compassionate assessment of their opponents to be true to their religion's traditions. Secularists, says Armstrong, "must be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its best, and address themselves more emphatically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbours experience and which no society can safely ignore."
I'd argue that believers of all three Abrahamic religions, each holding that humankind is no mere molecular accident, should work together towards agreement on a host of issues, including the unacceptable growing inequality of world incomes, the need to protect the natural environment, human dignity, and the necessity for peace and genuine harmony among all peoples and nations.
Finally, a quote from a speech by His Highness, the Aga Khan, given in India a number of years ago: "In the troubled times in which we live, it is important to remember, and honour, a vision of a pluralistic society. Tolerance, openness and understanding towards other people's cultures, social structures, values and faiths are now essential to the very survival of an interdependent world. Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for progress and development; it is vital to our existence.
I close with a brief word of prayer: God of mercy; as we gather to celebrate your gift of love we recall with sorrow the times when we forget you and are divided one from the other. How often our thoughts, our words, and our actions, have betrayed the goodness you have shown to us. Forgive us, merciful God. Teach us how to mend what we have broken. Guide us to heal the wounded relationships that separate us from you and from one another.