Muslim-Majority Nations More Likely to Deny Religious Freedom

Even amid this widespread disregard for religious freedom, one group of countries stands out: Muslim-majority nations.
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Few nations keep their vows when it comes to religious freedom.

Churches are attacked on Christmas in India and Egypt. Religious believers in North Korea are tortured in prison camps. Hindus and Sikhs are harassed in Afghanistan.

"Despite routine constitutional promises to the contrary, religious freedoms are denied around the globe and violent persecution is pervasive," Brian Grim of the Pew Research Center and Roger Finke of Pennsylvania State University report in a new book.

Yet even amid this widespread disregard for religious freedom, one group of countries stands out: Muslim-majority nations.

"Religious persecution is not only more prevalent among Muslim-majority countries, but it also generally occurs at more severe levels," Grim and Finke write in The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.

More restrictions, more violence

Writing about Islam in today's politically charged climate is difficult, Grim and Finke admit. Many commentators, they say, tend to be either overly critical or timidly uncritical.

"We attempt to avoid either extreme by staying very close to our data," say Grim and Finke, who also is the director of the Association of Religion Data Archives.

The data, from an analysis of U.S. State Department religious freedom reports, is clear: "Religious persecution is more likely to occur in Muslim-majority countries than in other countries."

Among the researchers' findings:

• Seventy-eight percent of Muslim-majority countries, compared with 10 percent of Christian-majority countries and 43 percent of other nations, had high levels of government restrictions on religion.
• Violent religious persecution is present in every country with a Muslim majority with a population of more than 2 million.
• Sixty-two percent of Muslim-majority countries had at least moderate levels of persecution, with more than 200 people persecuted. In comparison, 28 percent of Christian-majority nations and 60 percent of other countries had similar levels of abuse.
• At the highest levels of persecution, 45 percent of Muslim-majority countries -- more than four times the percentage of Christian-majority countries -- were found to have more than a thousand people abused or displaced because of religion.

There are regional variations. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, only one of eight Muslim-majority countries had a moderate or high level of religious persecution.

However, one need only consider the role religion played in the Sudanese civil war or what Grim and Finke refer to as the "religious cleansing" of neighborhoods in Iraq based on Shiite-Sunni differences to understand the deadly toll religious persecution is exacting in Muslim-majority nations. Explore religious freedom in individual countries.

Promoting religious freedom

History plays a role in the debate over religious freedom in Muslim-majority nations, most of which by the early 20th century were administered by European nations.

In their relatively new experience in independence, many Muslim-majority nations today see sharia (Islamic) law as a way to safeguard society from corruption, social ills and colonial influences. Even a nation such as Turkey, which chose a secular form of government, is under increasing pressure from religious parties.

In their study, Grim and Finke found two-thirds of movements seeking the adoption of religious law were in Muslim-majority nations. Only 4 percent of such movements were in Christian-majority nations.

The issue moving forward, according to many observers, is how these nations will balance the right to religious freedom with competing political, cultural and religious movements.

There are signs of hope.

Most Muslim believers want religious principles and democratic values to coexist, John Esposito, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, said in a paper for the Association of Religion Data Archives. Esposito explored Gallup Poll data from 2001-2007, encompassing a survey sample including more than 90 percent of the world's Muslims.

Significant majorities of Muslims in many countries said religious leaders should play no direct role in legislation, foreign policy or restricting freedom of the press. Citizens in countries in which Muslims are a majority said they want greater political freedoms and rule of law, Esposito said.

What Grim and Finke have done in their book is provide a compelling argument that religious freedom serves to reduce conflict, while restricting religious freedom is a path to religious persecution and violence. The more severe the levels of religious restriction, the greater the risk of violent persecution.

One irony for Muslim-majority nations, many of whom defend legal restrictions under the premise of protecting the faith, is that the harshest religious persecution is often directed at other Muslims, such as the Ahmadiyya sect in Pakistan and Indonesia, Grim and Finke note. Their study also found governments in more than seven in 10 Muslim-majority countries harass Muslims, while Muslims are harassed in only three of 10 Christian-majority nations.

The message for all nations: Each act of religious persecution -- whether it is pressuring Muslims not to build mosques in America, laws imposing the death penalty for religious conversion in Afghanistan or the 2007 Christmas Day attack on Christian churches in Orissa, India -- can have far-reaching consequences.

Each of these countries, and most others throughout the world, have made promises to protect religious freedom. The Price of Freedom Denied demonstrates how high a stake all of us have in making sure those promises are kept.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

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