Douglas Todd: The cure for religious extremism

Not sure how to achieve this “cure:”

What do the World Cup in Qatar, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, American gay, lesbian and transgendered people, Quebec’s government, Canada’s Indigenous residential schools, and India and China have in common?

They have all been embroiled in recent battles over religious freedom, a subject that can make a lot of eyes glaze over in secularized societies. That is unfortunate, because religious freedom is the remedy to extremism.

The ideal of religious freedom has taken on an especially sour taste in North America because it has been weaponized by some conservative Christians and others to defend their “freedom” to discriminate against gays, lesbians and transgendered people.

While this is a one-sided misuse of the concept, it shouldn’t take away from the value of religious freedom, which many maintain is the foundation of all human rights. That is even while it’s largely misunderstood in the West.

There is no ambiguity, however, in regard to the brutal way tens of millions of Muslims, Christians, Falun Gong members and Baha’i are subjected to harassment, imprisonment, forced labour and worse in Hindu-majority India, Buddhist Myanmar, Shia Iran, and atheist China.

Indeed, six of 10 of the world’s most populous countries — China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan and Nigeria — are home to severe religious extremism, says Brett Scharffs, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies and a renowned specialist on religious freedom.

The four countries that round out the world’s 10 largest — the U.S., Brazil, Bangladesh and Mexico — are also on downward trajectories, says Scharffs. The U.S., for instance, has been battered by more massacres at churches, synagogues and mosques, which are also often targeted for vandalism and arson.

In Canada, a gunman killed six people at a Quebec mosque in 2017. And in 2021, scores of Catholic and other churches in Canada were vandalized or burnt to the ground. These attacks occurred following misleading media reports of the discovery of “mass graves” of children next to the sites of former Indigenous residential schools, which were federally funded and church-run.

It’s not too hard to point to where religious freedom is threatened — including via Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is dangerously backing Vladimir Putin’s attempt to erase the preferences of Ukrainian Orthodox people, who want to be independent of Moscow’s oppressive Orthodox leaders.

The concept of religious freedom was also central to a more nuanced issue: Western complaints about anti-homosexual laws in Qatar during the World Cup soccer spectacle.

While it is entirely legitimate to criticize the leaders of countries hosting major global events, Scharffs wonders whether the army of Western critics of Qatar were harder on the Muslim-majority country than on homophobic Putin when he hosted the World Cup in 2018. And when China held last year’s Winter Olympics, Scharffs believes it got off lightly for persecuting Uyghur Muslims and Christians.

Normally, in Canada, religious freedom also tends to play out subtly, since the nation is not yet as polarized as many others, even while some seem to want to make it so.

Many English-speaking Canadians accuse Quebec’s popular governing party of bigotry, Islamophobia and even racism for its 2019 religious neutrality law, Bill 21, which bans public employees in positions of authority from wearing visible religious symbols on the job. But do many fail to understand the French concept of “laicite”?

This week, politicians in Quebec’s Assembly called for the dismissal of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new appointee, Amira Elghawaby, as Canada’s representative on combatting Islamophobia, since she had earlier claimed “the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law but by anti-Muslim sentiment.” She apologized late Wednesday.

Quebec points to how laicite attempts to keep religion out of public affairs, while enshrining the right to believe or not believe. It’s restrictions apply to not only the Muslim hijab, but also the Jewish kippa, Christian cross, and Sikh turban.

Laicite does not tend to get a tolerant hearing in Anglo-American cultures such as Canada, which, as Scharffs says, are arguably the most “permissive” in regard to public religious symbols. Scharffs took note at a conference when French intellectuals unanimously defended laicite in the name of women’s rights. “They had a strong sense that women wearing a hijab was not a sincere expression of autonomy, but was the result of coercion on the part of husbands, fathers and brothers.”

And while Scharffs, a law professor at Brigham Young University, says it is true that women are generally compelled to wear headscarves in many Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia, he says in North America the hijab is more an expression of choice. While Scharffs understands Quebec’s attempt to make secularism the over-riding public system, he prefers a more pluralistic position, which allows space for the expression of multiple religious worldviews.

When it comes to the over-heated U.S., Scharffs worries the populist religious right and populist secular left are becoming more extremist, showing little concern for each others’ freedoms. Conservative Christian nationalists, for instance, don’t care about the freedom of minority faiths. And many proponents of identity politics, whether on gender or sexual orientation, are determined to shut down the speech of religious people. That is even while both sides claim they support the principle of non-discrimination.

“The trouble is LGBQT people are scared. And religious people are scared,” said Scharffs. “I see much of today’s polarization driven by fear.”

No wonder the ideal of religious freedom is threatened.

Source: Douglas Todd: The cure for religious extremism

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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