The extent to which Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB) should be promoted and protected as a foreign policy goal is becoming an increasing focus across numerous industrialized countries. While it has long been a priority for the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union have also recently increased their efforts to place more emphasis on this right in their engagements abroad.[i] Yet this newfound enthusiasm for FoRB is arguably being undermined by concurrent developments in the domestic public spheres of these countries.
The murder of Lee Rigby in the UK in 2013, the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this year, and the Copenhagen café shooting that has occurred only in the last few days, have all contributed to renewed fears of public displays and professions of religious belief, with governments being called on to implement even more strict regulations around the visibility of religion in the public sphere, both online and offline.[ii]
What are we to think when a government seeks to promote greater freedom of religion and belief in other countries while at the same time restricting freedom of religion and belief within their own borders? Such competing tendencies seem counter-intuitive and counter-productive. Surely, if FoRB really is the same universal right for everyone the world over, our commitment to it should be the same, regardless of whether we are considering the situation in our own country or whether we are looking elsewhere? In theory, yes, but in reality this is far from the case.
A key factor affecting government approaches to FoRB in domestic and foreign policies is that, in the post 9/11 and Global War on Terror context, anything related to “religion”, including FoRB, has become inextricably bound up with “national security”. The link between “religion” and “security” is by no means a new development. Security and secularization have arguably been bound together through the common assumption that the modern nation-state emerged as a response to the so-called “Wars of Religion” of the sixteenth century.[iii] In this narrative, religion, we are told, is inherently dangerous, violent and irrational, leading to insecurity and chaos when it is not controlled by a secular state.This definition of religion creates the necessary justification for privatizing it and excluding it from the public sphere through government imposed measures and controls.[iv] This is the secular logic that underpins the arrangement of religion’s relationship with politics within the internal, domestic public spheres of most industrialized, so-called “Western” countries. At the same time, however, since the late 1990s, and especially since the events of 9/11, the promotion of FoRB has become a central pillar of US and increasingly UK and EU foreign policy, underpinned in part by the belief that greater religious freedom abroad will contribute to increased security at home.
In both domestic and foreign policy, state intervention with regard to Freedom of Religion is justified in part in terms of national security. Making FoRB part of foreign policy efforts inevitably means that it is inextricably bound up with the goals and priorities of the nation-state, and given priority only insofar as it supports the broader security aims and goals of the state. As such, it is little wonder that efforts to promote FoRB abroad are often greeted with skepticism and cynicism, as a “cover” for renewed imperial efforts by “the West” and/or for the promotion of Christianity. Until FoRB is delinked from national security and until there is consistency across domestic and foreign policies on these issues, its status as a universal right, rather than a tool of national security agendas, will always remain in question.
[ii] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/16/opinion/after-paris-attacks-wrong-responses-to-charlie-hebdo.html?_r=0 This is only the latest in a series of measures taken by some governments in the EU to restrict the public display of religious symbols and the presence of religious argumentation and profession in public debates, the most severe of which is arguably the 2004 ban on religious symbols in France.
[iii] Mavelli, L. 2011. “Security and Secularization in International Relations” European Journal of International Relations 18(1): 177-199
[iv] Wilson, E.K. 2012. After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan,
Dr Erin Wilson is Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen. Her research focuses on the intersection of religion with various dimensions of politics and public life, at the local, national and global levels. She has published on religion and global justice, globalization, active citizenship and the politics of asylum. Her current research interests include the relationship between religion and political apologies, climate change and political activism in an increasingly post-secular age.