Reflections on US concern for religious liberty

Frankly Speaking
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Proclaimed in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had outlawed religion as a ground for any kind of discrimination between individuals and groups in the enjoyment of human rights. Yet in the coming years religious intolerance showed its ugly face in many parts of the world.

Alarmed by the growing trend of inequalities and inequities emanating from religious prejudices worldwide, the United Nations proclaimed in 1981 a Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Finding that even this proclamation of the world body could not turn the tide, the United States awakened to the need for taking upon itself the responsibility of controlling the unfortunate trend through its foreign policy and global-development efforts made in terms of its international economic-aid laws like the Foreign Assistance Act 1961 and the International Financial Institutions Act 1977. Distressed with the continuing state of affairs on religious-liberty front, in 1998 the US armed itself with an International Religious Freedom Act. Soon its designated agencies began doling out, year after year, reports on the state of religious freedom and tolerance worldwide. The concern shown for the fast declining extent and scope of religious liberty around the globe by a country whose Constitution, notably, binds it to a ‘wall of separation’ between religion and State has indeed been laudable.

The modalities adopted by the concerned US agencies for procuring annual reports on the state of religious liberty and tolerance in various countries have not, however, been free from flaws and loopholes. Experience indicates that these modalities need to be reviewed and restructured. The contents, coverage and tenor of the reports too require a careful reconsideration. Local inputs from within the countries reported on, furnished by misinformed or prejudiced sources as these may sometimes be, are often inaccurate and one-sided. In the long run they undermine the credibility of the reports and provoke denial or adverse comments by the affected countries.

In the 2005 report on India, for instance, I had noticed some factual inaccuracies, besides an irritatingly large number of short paragraphs listing isolated incidents of communal violence occurring in certain parts of the country. It had also made some uncharitable remarks, quite unwarranted by the purposes of such reports, about the country’s judiciary. During one of my visits to the US later I had brought this to the knowledge of friends there who, I expected, could convey it to the agencies and individuals responsible for procuring such reports. No corrective action was, however, taken either through the next report or otherwise. There is indeed need to ensure that each of the reports published by the US agencies is foolproof, drawn on inputs procured from unquestionably reliable sources and unbiased quarters.

Increasing religious intolerance in certain parts of the world has of late been transforming itself into a derisive defamation of religion. This rabble-rousing phenomenon is packed with much more serious consequences than those flowing from religion-based discrimination. Caricaturing chosen faiths, their founders and holy books has become a favourite pastime of some people in certain western countries, and their volatile activities are being ignored or even defended in the name of freedom of speech and expression.

Time and again efforts have been made at the international level for the adoption of a UN instrument against defamation of religion, but nothing has yet come out of these concerns of a sizable number of member states. In these circumstances the US will do well to re-examine its stand on the scope and extent of freedom of speech and expand its concept of religious intolerance to cover the growing trend of defamation of religion. All religious faiths should be treated and acclaimed as humanity’s common heritage and their honour protected by all those means as are currently adopted to combat religious intolerance.

Intolerance indeed breeds more intolerance. Some recent happenings on the US soil – of course handiwork of non-state actors - have provoked chain reactions in certain countries. This unfortunate development too merits a serious consideration by the country’s powers that be. A leading nation that aspires to control religious intolerance and discrimination around the world through the medium of its foreign policies and economic aid programmes must also devise means to put its own house in order. It will surely fortify the US efforts for protection of religious freedom and tolerance across the world.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 October 2012 on page no. 11

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