Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bakshi: Where Religion Meets Politics

There is no doubt that religion and politics make for a potent mix and the recent UN resolution, condemning the ‘defamation of religion’ has created quite a stir in the international community. In the following article Gitanjali Bakshi analyzes the possible implications of this resolution and what it could mean for the on-going debate on religion and politics.

Where Religion Meets Politics…

By Gitanjali Bakshi

There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions" – Dr. Hans Kung

In 1992 Samuel Huntington claimed that culture and religion would be the primary source of conflict in the ‘post cold-war era’. Some have argued against his theory -- stating that modern wars are as much a product of limited resources as they are a ‘Clash of Civilizations’. Others contest that civilizations have clashed and will clash for eons to come, and that Huntington was simply stating an age old fact rather than a new phenomenon.

Nevertheless, on the 26th of March 2009, a resolution passed by the Human Rights Council, condemning the ‘defamation of religion’, spoke to the very essence of Huntington’s assertion. This resolution is significant because it has once again emphasized the importance of religious debate within the international political arena. With both strong supporters and strong detractors, the resolution is forcing policymakers to deal with the proverbial elephant in the room: religion.

Pakistan and the 22 other states that advocated a resolution against the ‘defamation of religion’, claim that individuals have faced intolerance, discrimination and even acts of violence as a result of certain stigmas about their religious beliefs. In particular, they agree that in recent years there has been a vilification of Islam -- that the religion has often been associated with terrorism, extremism and human rights abuses and that this vilification has led to an irrational fear or even hatred against Muslims, often called ‘Islamophobia’. The resolution, supporters say, is an effort to curb the harmful consequences of this unwarranted slander against any one religion. These 23 advocates speak to an individual’s inalienable right to practice their religion without prejudice, without condemnation.

On the other hand, opponents of the resolution, claim that it is a “shot across the bow of free speech” – one of the central tenets of the Human Rights Charter. They are concerned that the resolution is simply a ruse to stifle debate and inquiry in countries that already suffer from poor human rights records and even poorer press freedoms. The 11 states that voted against the resolution argue that religion must be questioned in order to reform and that individuals must enjoy their right to communicate their opinions freely. A decision to punish those responsible for expressing their beliefs is a decision to steal from human beings one of their most unassailable rights: the right to speak up against what we perceive as unjust or wrong, the right to our own convictions.

While both sides have valid points and both highlight certain undeniable realities, the answer lies somewhere in between.

While engaging in dialogue, we must be careful with our words, we must weigh our thoughts and we must, as much as possible, refrain from the harshest of judgment. Along with freedoms come responsibilities. Unrestrained freedom of one individual can quite possibly mean the curtailment of freedom for another. This is why President Obama has highlighted that it is important to engage the Muslim world and not just criticize them; because the foundation of any dialogue, and especially inter-faith dialogue, must include a certain level of receptivity and respect.

At the same time, saying that religious ideas must be ‘respected’ does not mean that they should go unchallenged. Religion is redundant if it cannot adapt to time and circumstance. The only reason why religion has been subject to reform over the ages is because it has been scrutinized and examined. If we didn’t have the right to question religion, we would not be able to speak up against archaic and cruel practices like sati, witch-hunts and female genital mutilation. These laws are an affront to the most basic human rights of freedom, justice and peace and we must be able to express our collective voice against them.

These guidelines are of course applicable to both opponents and advocates of the resolution against the ‘defamation of religion’. All institutions of governance must undergo change and reform in accordance with their sufficiency in the time and circumstances that we live in. Similarly, religions must award respect to the beliefs of others, if they want respect in return.

But above all, leaving both sides of the debate behind, the recent resolution on the ‘defamation of religion’ has emphasized that -- in a world where we grapple with modern theories like the ‘Clash of Civilizations’, in a world where Political Islam is becoming a clear and undeniable reality and in a world where cartoons criticizing a particular faith can create world wide civil protest -- we can no longer segregate religious debate from political debate.


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