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East or West: Talk is cheap when it comes to religious freedoms

Overthrowing an autocratic regime is just the first step.

Now the leaders of popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere face the challenging task of protecting hard-won freedoms in the face of diverse demands from political, regional, secular and religious constituencies.

When it comes to guaranteeing freedom of religion, the lesson from extensive global research is that it matters much less what nations say in their constitutions than what they are prepared to do to enforce those laws.

In a world plagued by religious persecution and conflict, more than nine in 10 nations with populations of more than 2 million provide for religious freedom in their constitutions. Yet such protections alone do not predict whether there will be government restrictions on religion, say sociologists Roger Finke and Robert Martin of Pennsylvania State University.

What does matter is if nations have an independent judiciary that can support those freedoms despite political and social pressures, Finke and Martin reported at the recent annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Las Vegas.

That is the case whether the majority belief system is Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or state-sponsored atheism. Just how widespread the threats to religious freedom are throughout the world also were made clear at the sociology gathering in a separate study of attitudes toward Islam in five Western European nations.

More than half of the respondents from the former East Germany and France said practicing the Islamic faith must be severely restricted. So did more than a third of the respondents from Denmark, the Netherlands and the former West Germany. Portugal was notably more accepting, but still one in five respondents advocated severe restrictions, Alexander Yendell of the University of Munster in Germany reported.

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Free to be like me

What the almost universal lip service to religious freedom often means in practice is that people should be free to play by the rules of the group in power.

Know Nothing politicians and Protestant leaders such as Lyman Beecher vilified U.S. Catholics in the 19th century for posing a threat to democracy by establishing their own schools. That the public school system was, in practice, a Protestant school system, was not questioned.

Researchers also discovered contradictions in the notion of religious freedom in theory and practice in the 2010 University of Munster study of more than 1,000 respondents from five Western European nations.

Consider these findings:

• More than four in five respondents from all countries expressed respect for freedom of belief, and at least three quarters from each country agreed with the statement “We must respect all religions.”
• Less than half of the respondents from Germany, Denmark and France approve of the construction of minarets. Only in Denmark and the Netherlands did a slim majority believe girls should be allowed to wear a head scarf to school if it is part of their religious tradition. In France, where the practice is prohibited, fewer than 10 percent supported the right of students to wear head scarves.
• The idea that “Muslims must adapt to our culture” was backed by majorities from 73 percent of respondents in Portugal to 90 percent of respondents in the Netherlands.

In their study on global religious freedom, Martin and Finke found that a perceived threat from a different culture was a major factor in predicting government restrictions on religion. Nations sharing at least one border with a country with a different “civilization,” — think Pakistan and India, for example — tend to have greater restrictions.

Other statistically significant predictors of repression include state favoritism of one belief system and the presence of religious social movements that seek religious hegemony or campaign against other traditions, said Martin and Finke, who also is director of the Association of Religion Data Archives and president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

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Getting to know you

There is hope for change.

Even if you do not start out loving them, getting to know your neighbor goes a long way to limiting prejudice, research has found.

The University of Munster study indicated that having personal contact with Muslims was strongly related to favorable attitudes toward Islam in every country. For example, in the former West Germany, 38 percent of respondents who reported a lot of contact with Muslims reported very positive attitudes; only 1 percent of respondents who had no contact held very positive attitudes toward Muslims.

In the 2002-2003 Religion and Diversity Survey, 90 percent of respondents said they would welcome Christians becoming a stronger presence in the United States, but less than six in 10 said they would be as supportive of Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims.

Yet when people met across faith lines, the experiences were mostly positive, according to the U.S. survey. About two-thirds of respondents said their contacts with Muslims were mostly pleasant; 6 percent said they were mostly unpleasant. Three-quarters said their contacts with Buddhists were mostly pleasant, with 3 percent saying they were mostly unpleasant.

The problem is contact is still limited. In the Religion and Diversity Survey, less than a quarter of respondents said they have had more than a little contact with Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims.

In the European study, less than 10 percent of the respondents said they had a lot of contact with Muslims. As a seeming consequence, the study showed what comes to many of their minds when they think of Islam are discrimination against women, fanaticism and, somewhat ironically, narrow-mindedness. What does not come to their minds are notions of Muslims as peaceful and tolerant.

Repression based on ignorance is a universal barrier to freedom.

It is not just in Egypt and Libya, but it is in nations from the United States to France that the time to start talking to one another to preserve religious freedom and reduce religious conflict and persecution is right now.


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