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Charlie Hebdo and the price of freedom denied: Studies find independent courts and civility best protect liberties, lessen conflict

Islam is not the reason nations restrict religious freedom.

Nor are open and free elections guarantors of such liberties, a major new study suggests.

What does predict the protection of religious freedom is a free and independent judiciary, according to the study by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Southeastern Louisiana University.

An independent judiciary is critical to protecting religious freedoms

This is not a new idea. Almost 200 years ago, French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the potential “tyranny of the majority.”

It remains a valid threat, however.

“Our strong and consistent findings on the importance of an independent judiciary help to explain why constitutional clauses on religious freedom so frequently become empty promises,” study authors Roger Finke and Robert Martin noted in the latest issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

“Without an independent judiciary, the legislative will of the majority and the actions of rulers can routinely ignore or simply overrule constitutional promises,” they added.

Government favoritism of a particular ideology — religious or secular — as well as cultural pressures against minority belief systems also make it more difficult for any society to protect religious freedoms, the study found.

Events in Europe have drawn renewed attention to the costs and difficulties of defending civil liberties.

In a setting already made volatile by anti-immigration movements specifically targeting Islam, France’s worst terrorist attack in decades was carried out earlier this month by radical Muslim gunmen announcing they were seeking revenge for a French newspaper’s cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad.

Twelve people were killed in the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices, leading to a backlash of firebombings and shots fired at mosques throughout France.

What the new research suggests is that promoting freedom is less about any belief system or form of government than a commitment for nations to follow through on their constitutional promises to uphold religious freedoms.

“It’s clearly a lesson for everyone,” said Finke, a leading international researcher on religious freedom and co-author with Brian Grim of “The Price of Freedom Denied.” “It’s not just about Islam. It’s about something bigger. It’s about something that occurs in secular and other religious majority nations.”

Protecting liberties

Governments make no shortage of promises about protecting religious freedom. Some nine in 10 nations offer legal assurances of religious freedom.

Yet more than six in seven nations have laws restricting religious practice. A similar percentage have documented cases of people being physically abused or displaced from their homes because of religious persecution, studies have found.

In their research on the origins of religious restrictions, Finke and Martin analyzed data from several major sources.

Among them: The International Religious Freedom Reports issued by the U.S. State Department, the Government Restrictions Index of the Association of Religion Data Archives, the Cingranelli-Richards Human Rights Data Project, the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators and Jonathan Fox’s Religion and State project.

The sole positive predictor of fewer religious restrictions was an independent court system.

“Religious freedoms depend on an independent judiciary for protection, rather than on a voting majority or the effectiveness of the government,” Finke and Martin noted.

“Because religious minorities are the most frequent targets of state restrictions, the courts and not the ballot box provide a haven from legislative and executive restrictions on religion.”

Some predominantly Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran have among the highest government restrictions on religion. Yet what was not significant in predicting religious freedom was the percentage of a nation’s population that is Muslim, the analysis of several global data sources revealed.

In looking for causes of restrictions on basic liberties, Finke and Martin said, attention turns away from any one faith “to the relationship religion has with the state and larger culture.”

The court of public opinion matters.

Increasing conflict

In a separate global study of religiously motivated violence, Pennsylvania State University researchers Finke and Jaime Harris found that social restrictions on religion, even more than government restrictions, held the most direct and powerful relationship with conflict and violence.

In the latest study, Finke and Martin also found that the pressures “imposed by social movements, the cultural elite, religious organizations, and clerical edicts are powerful forces promoting increased state restrictions on religious freedoms.”

The public is not always interested in defending minority rights. In a 2010 University of Munster study, more than four in five French respondents expressed respect for freedom of belief, but more than half said practicing the Islamic faith must be severely restricted.

Laws providing freedom of expression give publications such as Charlie Hebdo the right to ridicule a revered figure of a minority faith. But if those freedoms are not equally extended to the groups being offended, the research suggests this may lead to a downward cycle of conflict and the increased likelihood of violence.

What can help Muslim- and non-Muslim nations alike avoid paying the high price of freedoms denied, Finke and Martin state, are efforts at “assessing the independence of national judiciaries, identifying cultural pressures for increasing restrictions and understanding the relations between religion and state.”

And perhaps heeding the warning of de Tocqueville:

“If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the omnipotence of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation, and oblige them to have recourse to physical force. Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism.”


Image by Benjism89 CC BY-SA 3.0

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