Are attempts to promote worldwide religious freedom naive or necessary?

Wednesday, 12th March 2014
RUSI, 61 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2ET


“Inherently flawed”? Promoting global religious freedom


The promotion of worldwide religious freedom is “an inherently flawed project”, declared Elizabeth Shakman Hurd at the third Westminster Faith Debate of 2014.

Her warnings shaped the course of discussion on this important issue. Individual and collective religious freedom has only recently become a prominent public discourse, but is now very much on the international political agenda. Professor Linda Woodhead, opening the debate, began by pointing out that the US Department of State is leading a drive to promote and monitor the extent of religious freedom worldwide. At first glance this might seem a universally good thing. But critical questions need to be asked about this policy. What is religious freedom? Whose religious freedom is being promoted, and does this freedom conflict with other rights? Is this policy necessary worldwide, or is it rather naïve?

Tackling these questions were Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom; Alistair Burt, MP for North East Bedfordshire and a former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Jørgen Nielsen, recently retired Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Copenhagen; and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University in the USA, and current co-editor of a book entitled After Religious Freedom? Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at the University of Lancaster, and Charles Clarke, former Labour Home Secretary, chaired the debate.

Shakman Hurd began by arguing that leading the promotion of global religious freedom fits in with America’s self-image and its “myth of exceptionalism”. Yet this could have damaging consequences worldwide for society, for politics and for religion. Ardent promotion of religious freedom could lead to an overemphasis on religion as a legally recognised “identity marker” above other social categories and affiliations. This is dangerous because it “overcodes boundaries” between different groups based on religion, so individuals who do not fit clearly into rigid religious or non-religious categories become vulnerable to exclusion. This could also lead to a “confessionalization of politics” – in the USA, those religious communities which respond favourably to US government policy are more likely to benefit from legal protection of their religious freedom, while dissident religious groups are marginalised. For Shakman Hurd, it is naïve to see promotion of religious freedom as universally benevolent – it is quite possible that it “exacerbates the very problems it sets out to resolve.”

Her concerns were to some extent shared by Nielsen. He stressed that religious freedom is just one of a number of “interdependent freedoms”, and that privileging religious freedom sometimes leads to a subordination of other, theoretically equal freedoms. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights covers “belief” as well as “religion”, but the former is often made inferior to the latter. He pointed out that laws of blasphemy presented a clash of the freedom of religion with the freedom of expression, guarded by Article 19 of the Declaration. Later in the discussion a similar clash of freedoms was discussed in the Lautsi v. Italy case (2012), where a challenge had been made to the requirement in Italian law that crucifixes be placed in classrooms of state schools. Shakman Hurd said this case showed what happens when one group’s religious freedom violates another’s. Burt however felt Mrs Lautsi’s challenge was “barking”, insisting that at some point a pragmatic “judgement” needs to be made even in theoretically difficult cases.

Despite the reservations of the two academics about the wisdom of promoting religious freedom globally, the politicians, Berridge and Burt, insisted that governments have a responsibility to do so because it is a right applicable to all people, even the non-religious. Whereas Shakman Hurd argued that religious freedom campaigns can ironically lead to the marginalisation of those who do not fit into clear religious categories, Berridge stressed that it is precisely in order to protect such individuals from oppressive governments that the right of religious freedom must be promoted. She emphasised that that this is made even more important by the expanse of global technology, which is allowing individuals more than ever before to come into contact with new ideas, leading to shifts and “fluidity” in people’s beliefs. Burt agreed, insisting that a society which does not recognise the religious freedom of individuals and practice tolerance is “not a full society”.

The right to religious freedom can, however, be abused. While Burt defended as essential the right to private worship and prayer (what Woodhead termed a “minimalist” definition of religious freedom), he implied that in practice certain limitations may need to be placed on the extent of an individual’s religious freedom. This freedom is “not a get-out-of-gaol-free card” that can be used to justify practices that society deems “abhorrent”.

There was also some disagreement among the panel about whether particular social conflicts could justifiably be termed ‘religious’. Nielsen suggested that “nine out of ten cases it is not about religion at all”. Shakman Hurd suggested the oppression of the Rohingya Muslims by the Burmese government had been interpreted by the US State Department as a denial of their religious freedom, which problematically elevated the Rohingyas’ religious identity above their other identities, and overlooked the multiple complex factors involved. Berridge and Burt however warned against downplaying the role of religion in driving particular conflicts, and Berridge suggested that the West’s “shyness” in acknowledging that people like the Rohingya have been targeted for religious reasons has “left a lot of people vulnerable.”

Ultimately, whilst all agreed that religious freedom is a crucial individual and collective right, the panel disagreed on whether current strategies of promoting it are causing more good than harm. Shakman Hurd ended the discussion by suggesting an underlying question we need to ask is who decides what religion is. The answer may help us to assess the power plays involved in the advocacy of religious freedom.

Simon Perfect


  • Alistair Burt

    Alistair Burt is a Conservative Party Politician and MP for North East Bedfordshire.  He was...

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  • Charles Clarke

    Charles was Labour Member of Parliament for Norwich South, which he remained until May 1997 –...

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  • Elizabeth Berridge

    Baroness Berridge is chairman of the All Party Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief...

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  • Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

    Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University,...

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  • Jørgen Nielsen

    Jørgen S. Nielsen has recently retired as Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of...

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  • Linda Woodhead

    Linda is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University and Director of the Religion...

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  • Religious Freedom Introduction (

  • Presentation by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (9.13)

  • Presentation by Jørgen Nielsen

  • Presentation by Elizabeth Berridge

  • Presentation by Alistair Burt

  • Religious Freedom All Presentations (43.07)

  • Religious Freedom Panel Discussion (24.33)

  • Religious Freedom Audience Q&A (33.45)


One Response to Are attempts to promote worldwide religious freedom naive or necessary?

  1. […] this went down, so at least I’ve got a decent excuse. Thankfully the organizers posted some highlights from the […]

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