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Global Religion – A Perfect Storm, by the Numbers

By Paul Chaffee


The “Islamic State” flag – Photo: Wikipedia

The “Islamic State” flag – Photo: Wikipedia

Religiously related beheadings broadcast this summer over the internet snapped the world to attention, initiating a dark new chapter in global religious relationships. We might call this a tragic aberration if the madness were confined to Iraq/Syria, or if religious freedom was not diminishing globally even as religiously related conflict is accelerating. But this new level of violence could push us to a tipping point. Humankind’s best hope may be the willingness of peacemakers, religious and secular, to join hands strategically to end absolutist violence, wherever it’s found.

The atrocities of the ‘Islamic State’ (IS), as it wants to be called, are couched in the conviction that their faith, in all its details, is the only truth, and those who refuse to convert deserve death. The IS is an equal-opportunity aggressor, exemplifying the antithesis of the inclusive, pluralistic vision of interfaith culture, which they scorn. The silver liningin this stark reality may be the rest of the world gradually comprehending how vital mutual respect of ‘the other’ really is for humankind.

By the numbers, we’re a long way from such a hopeful outcome. Early this year the Pew Research Center published “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High,” an extended report of where we’ve come since 2007, written by Angelina Theodorou. Here are a few of the details:

  • Outbreaks of religiously related terrorist violence have doubled, going from one country in ten to one in five.
  • Women are harassed for their dress in 32 percent of all countries.
  • Half of all African countries suffered sectarian violence in 2012, which news stories suggest continues to escalate.
  • More recently, one can note, China is increasingly repressive of its Uighar Muslims and its growing Christian population, and Hindu-Muslim as well as Buddhist-Muslim relations remain on tenterhooks in South and Southeast Asia.

The report concludes that “Roughly three-quarters of the global population lives where overall levels of religious restriction or hostilities were high or very high in 2012,” a statistic consigning billions of faith practitioners from all traditions to conflict and oppression over what they believe. Countries with “very high social hostilities involving religion” that year included Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Kenya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestinian territories, Russia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, and Yemen. The video on the right is a two-minute summary of what Pew reported last January.

In March, Pew went on to report that 17 nations, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa, have religious police enforcing particular religious norms, a guarantee of religious oppression, particularly of minority traditions in any population.

Then in May, Pew released “Which countries still outlaw apostasy and blasphemy?“ Apostasy means leaving your faith or converting. Last spring, for instance, Meriam Ibrahim, daughter of a Muslim father, but a Christian, married to a Christian, faced execution for apostasy in Sudan. Weeks of intense international pressure led to her successful immigration to the U.S. Today 11 percent of the world’s nations have laws penalizing apostasy.

By the numbers, blasphemy is much more widespread; nearly a quarter of all countries have blasphemy laws, including a number of nations in Europe and the Americas. Jail time is often the penalty for defaming someone else’s religion. In some countries, though, blasphemy (typically tried in ‘he said’ – ‘no I didn’t’ courtrooms) is a capital crime, including the IS.

Underlining the Pew research, on July 28 the U.S. Congress received the International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 from the State Department. The opening paragraph of the executive summary states:

In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs. Out of fear or by force, entire neighborhoods are emptying of residents. Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map. In conflict zones, in particular, this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.

IS troops rolling into Syria’s Raqqa province. – Photo: World Tribune

IS troops rolling into Syria’s Raqqa province. – Photo: World Tribune

In surveying dozens of sources for this story, the one I can’t get out of my mind is an extraordinary 42-minute documentary produced by a group of young journalists with the moniker Vice News. Vice News focuses on important under-reported international stories. They reached out to Islamic State News and were exclusively allowed to bring their cameras and questions into Raqqa, a Syrian province taken over by IS last month on a river that feeds both Syria and Iraq. The documentary crew visited IS schools, mosques, festivals, markets, prisons, and battles in Raqqa.

What chilled me was not so much the violence, however horrifying, but the spirit behind it, the celebratory, joyful conviction we hear over and over that they are the exclusive holders of truth and will come after anyone who disagrees with a sword.

Being convinced that you possess the only way to God infects most religious traditions one way or another. But in this new IS community, young andold, rich and poor, powerful or imprisoned, are seriously bent on destroying anyone who disagrees. To be sure, the documentarians went only where Islamic News took them. The children, though passionate, sound rehearsed. None of that mitigates how, one after another, these fanatics beam with enthusiastic joy at the prospect of killing for God’s sake.

Responding to IS

The crisis in Syria/Iraq called the world to attention, and a variety of multistate, interfaith, military, political, and economic activities opposing IS are emerging. Among religious leaders, Pope Francis was the one of the first to weigh in on the tragedy. On an airplane returning from Korea on August 18, he told reporters, “In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’”

He went on, “One nation alone cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor. After World War II, the idea of the United Nations came about: It’s there that you must discuss ‘Is there an unjust aggression? It seems so. How should we stop it?’ Just this. Nothing more.”

Others are supporting a similar approach. The Christian Post reported that “A coalition of Christian and Muslim charities have released a joint statement welcoming international action against ISIS” through the United Nations. On August 28 the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy hosted a distinguished panel at the National Press Club on the subject of “ISIS, Radicalization, and the Politics of Violence and Alienation.” If you want to quickly learn more about what is happening in Iraq, Syria, and spreading to countries like Nigeria, here is an excellent summary of the panel’s wisdom. Or watch the whole presentation here, broadcast by C-Span.

Equally valuable, check out the 11 documentaries Huffington Post made available addressing the IS and its history. (The first on the list is the Vice News video discussed above.)

Beyond the Tragedy in Iraq/Syria

The larger question, of course, concerns the three-quarters of all human beings facing religious restrictions and repression in an increasingly conflicted world. Most of these brutal situations have no voice, get little if any press, and often are abetted with racism and homophobia, sometimes by religious leaders themselves. Last month in Uganda, where religious leaders have loudly denounced homosexuality, six LGBTQ Ugandans were reportedly stoned to death.

Let us remember though, how many millions more are working in thousands of efforts to promote religious freedom and engender peace and respect for each one of us. In this time of crisis, we must ask ourselves how to respond, how to make more of a difference, how to turn the tide with non-violence. There are hundreds of answers to these questions. Here are some suggestions for starting the discussion.

  • We must refuse the temptation of despair, remembering the remarkable religious leaders from all our traditions who have stood up to injustice with courage and spiritual imagination.
  • We need to be better educated. Read the Pew research and dig deeper. Study how your own tradition promotes pluralism and inclusivism, non-violence and peacemaking. Figure out how your own volunteering, engaging, and donating can be a step, however modest, in the direction of peace and respect for all.
  • We need to be activists, willing to take a stand not just with ‘statements’ and programs but with real networked involvement in peacemaking.
  • The crises around us mean shedding our disagreements about little things so we can collaborate on big things. Like hunger, poverty, violence, and developing mutual respect. Peace organizations, religious and secular, need to take hands. Concerned businesspeople and legislators and professionals need to contribute their talents collaboratively. We’re all in one boat today, and a storm is blowing.

There is nothing like a crisis – an earthquake or big fire or hurricane – to make us ‘brothers and sisters’ with everyone in sight. The world is in a tangle of religious crises today, and for God’s sake and our own, we need to back-shelf our differences and take on the big issues. We need to reach out to the billions practicing faiths based on peace, justice, and love, but who are suffering for it. And those of us, a minority, who enjoy relative safety, comfort, and freedom of expression and religion, including non-believers, will do well to become activists for a better world.