India has been inviting jealousy-induced criticism from the Western media relating to its quality of democracy while it has been steadily emerging as a key player in the global stage on its civilisational strength and values. An oft-repeated allegation has been that religious freedom is not protected in the country in obvious reference to religious minorities, more specifically, two communities.
This allegation has been ‘used’ repetitively and undeservedly. Not only has that maligned India’s global image unfairly, but sadly, it succeeded in brainwashing sections of educated Indians themselves. They too are joining in the Western cacophony without an understanding of and insight into relevant issues. It is time to investigate this phenomenon- without bias, ill-will or rancour of any kind.
At the outset, fundamental questions need to be asked about the appropriateness of prevalent Western criteria of ‘religious freedom’. It is crucial to examine this not as a standalone issue but in relation to overall human rights. We need to recognise that the right to religious freedom is a subset of overall human rights. While criticising India, the West obfuscates this relationship.
As we shall see through the discussions in the rest of the Article, there are conspicuous contradictions with regard to these two rights in the Western approach. They seem to promise equality in terms of ‘overall human rights’ but discriminate against human beings in terms of their religious rights.
Religious freedom and rights
Two prominent institutions the West recognises as the ‘Guardian Angels’ of Religious Freedom are: The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. and the second: United States Commission On International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Both of them, in turn, rely on the standards of religious freedom laid down by the Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
We may look at the preamble of the UDHR (which should have an overarching influence upon all constituent Articles of the document) before taking up one of them separately, viz., Article 18, for closer examination.
The preamble, significantly, starts with the following words: ‘Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienablerights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world;..’ (emphases added)
The simple and obvious implication of these words are that ‘inherent dignity’ and ‘equal rights’ enshrined in this document must be available to every human being in every country cutting across the religious spectrum, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, or any other.
Based on the above, we propose to flag a critical question here as to what conditions are necessary to ensure dignity and full spectrum human rights in equal measure to the followers of the world’s two diverse religious groups viz., non-proselytising and proselytising, living together in a given country. This question assumes great importance because the philosophy behind ‘proselytisation’ arises out of an innate sense of moral superiority of one religion over another which militates against the idea of equality and is hurtful to the dignity of the latter. Further, the act of proselytisation, more so when done in organised and institutional manner, violates the rights of followers of victim religions in many ways- social, cultural, economic and political and thus these activities are violative of the principle of ‘equality’ to ‘all members of the human family’ as enshrined in the preamble.
We may revisit this question and its plausible answers in more details later. Meanwhile, let us enter deeper into the issue of religious freedom per se in the form it has been enunciated in Article 18 of UDHR.
The following is an excerpt from Article 18: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Prima facie, these are noble thoughts. Ethically speaking one should be free to change his faith, provided that is driven by his inner urge and conviction. But there are overwhelming evidence in world history that majority of religious conversions were done by sword, allurement, deception, and other morally repugnant ways. From the standpoint of followers of non-proselytising religions, therefore, it may be argued that in the name of freedom to change one’s religion or belief, Article 18 legitimises religious conversion through international laws or standards.
If that is not the intention, the question still remains whether more than the right to every human to ‘practise one’s religion’, the Article seeks to protect the right to ‘change one’s religion or belief’? It may not be a mere coincidence but a thoughtful design that the right ‘to change one’s religion’ is placed before the right ‘to practice one’s religion’ in the Article. This question assumes importance because the world is yet to go a long way to guarantee people of all faiths the right to freely practise their religion in several countries, especially many Islamic countries. Evidences are aplenty where practising one’s religion is violated or suppressed in those countries with impunity. Right to change one’s faith, without ensuring that everyone can practice his or her faith is like putting the cart before the horse. It is preposterous. Further, if all religions are good, as seemed to be the assumptions or pretension of the makers of these standards, why this stress on changing one’s religion?
Whether or not these words of Article 18 constitute a tacit endorsement for religious conversion, the Article innately discriminates between proselytising and non-proselytising religions because it envisages equal rights to both without providing any checks and balances against proselytisation. It may be argued that the process and practice of proselytisation itself is a violation of the right of one by another religion. This was discussed earlier.
With the advantage of the above elaboration, let us enter delve further into Article 18:
It talks about the freedom to ‘manifest’ one’s religion or belief ‘in public’, ‘in community with others’ in ‘teaching, practice, worship and observance’. While practice, worship and observance of one’s religious practices are not contentious, things like ‘teaching’ or ‘preaching’ can become problematic because of the sensitive nature of the contents of the scriptures, which become core tenets of teaching or preaching by some specific religions. The problem mainly arises due to the fact that the perceptions of what are taught by them in the minds of followers and outsiders are widely divergent.
While the teaching or preaching significantly influences the socio-economic-political behaviour of these groups, the knowledge of their contents is not publicly disseminated. The rest of the population mistakenly tends to attribute ‘idealistic’ and ‘politically correct’ common sets of values and virtues to scriptures of all religions across the board. Article 18 seems to be based on such erroneous assumptions. On ground, such asymmetry of knowledge relating to proselytising religions amongst the population in general, together with the sanctity provided by the above Article of UDHR, helps the process of religious conversion. This hypothesis of knowledge asymmetry relating to scriptures warrants further discussion.
Perception and Reality
Let us address the question as to whether the scriptural contents of all religions correspond to the generally held altruistic common human values across the board.
The evidences are dichotomous. Two Abrahamic faiths viz., Christianity and Islam, which went for widescale invasion and colonisation of countries across continents showed scant respect for the religions of the natives. On the contrary, they resorted to massive proselytisation by violating various kinds of human values commonly associated with the term’ religion’. History shows, in that process, the invaders and colonisers were extensively assisted by clergymen who, by using their knowledge of scriptures, gave the invaders a moral shield.
World history shows that Islam exterminated Zoroastrianism from Persia (Iran), Buddhism & Hinduism from Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia, several native religions of several countries of Africa, Christianity from Turkey, and Syria. Christianity, on its part, annihilated native religions from Pagan Europe and north Africa, vast swathes of South and North American continents as well as in Australia. Again, both Islam and Christianity battled each other at various parts of the world. While they fought crusades for nearly three centuries in Europe, the two faiths competed with each other to convert people of countries like Nigeria, Sudan, Philippines, Lebanon and more. These are only examples.
Such accounts of extensive proselytisation done mostly through persecution, inquisition, intimidation, jihad, allurement and so on with the sanction of religious heads, strongly suggest the presence of scriptural influence behind the trampling of human rights of followers of other faiths or religions. Thankfully, today there is no need to speculate and quibble about the actual scriptural contents of various faiths. They are very much verifiable by one and all.
It may be argued that the world has come a long way over the last two millennia, and scriptures have become redundant in the realm of inter-religious interactions. In other words, the hatred, violence, and intolerance attributable to scriptures of two major faiths of the world towards other religions have ceased to exist, and that justifies a ‘standard’ like the Article 18 in its present liberal form. What are facts on the ground?
As regards the Islamic faith, it is said by many scholars to have been tied irrevocably still to its ‘foundation moment’, meaning that nothing can be changed of the original holy book. As regards Christianity, there have been cases of growing numbers of its followers turning atheists in the West. However, the scriptures remain the same and also the adherence to them by many followers of the faith, especially in formerly colonised countries, including India.
Article 18 innately discriminates between proselytizing and non-proselytising religions because it envisages equal rights to both without providing checks and balances against proselytisation
Consequently, the competitive proselytisation of followers of non-Abrahamic faiths by the radicals of these two faiths using various unethical means continues unabated. India, with a huge population, has been a major victim of this process.
Religious Freedom – Myth or Feasible?
If the global community is genuinely interested in guaranteeing religious freedom to the world population across the religious spectrum, fundamental questions such as the one below must be asked: ‘is it possible at all for a country to simultaneously allow religious freedom to people of different religious faiths in terms of UDHR Article 18, if some faiths, driven by their scriptures and teachings, do not respect other religious faiths or they harbour an attitude of intolerance or hatred towards ‘other faiths’ and, further, resort to actively or passively (by silent assent or otherwise), proselytisation of people of those faiths by use of force, violence, allurement or deception?’
Under the curtain of Western style secularism pervasive in many of these countries, the tolerant and non-proselytising religions are being encouraged to gradually surrender their rights to freedom of religion in the name of one-sided tolerance. This has been happening because the fundamentalists of the proselytising religions, woke media, pseudo-secular intellectuals, and partisan bureaucracy acting under the directions of their vote-bank greedy political masters join hands and throttle the followers of the tolerant religions. Under such a combined onslaught, the victims keep losing their space as well as numbers to the aggressive religions.
The Way out
Does that mean it is impossible to guarantee religious freedom to people of all religious denominations across the world?
The answer is: it is not impossible!
However, there is a need for a paradigm shift in the world’s approach to the issue. The world population are much more aware about religious texts of all descriptions. Fake narratives equalising all religions and drawing false equivalences cannot be imposed upon people for the sake of helping proselytisation. These are no longer workable.
Probably, religious freedom can be realistically made available to all religious communities only so long as this is limited to ‘observing’ and ‘practising’ one’s faith in a manner that does not infringe upon the ‘rights’ of followers of other religion/s to practice their faith/s. As regards the right to change one’s faith or religion, this should, of course, be available to every human individually, but there must be effective safeguards against organised conversion of people of one religion by other religion/s. Right of teaching or preaching or similar things that can help proselytisation is likely to be resisted by civilisation-conscious people of countries who were earlier under colonial rules and remained under that spell for some more time, but no longer so
This merits serious consideration of framers of international standards on human rights. They must recognise that unless religious freedom is uniformly available to followers of all religions or faiths, there is no way to give a full spectrum of human rights to humans in the world. It was long neglected but cannot wait further.