Religious Freedom: One Notion Under God, Indivisible

A famous dictum attributed to Martin Niemoller, leader of the German Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, and often repeated in other contexts since, reflects the regret of those who do not stand up to discrimination and persecution. Niemoller was a native German, a conservative, and not a Jew. He opposed the Nazis, but he did not actively resist them until they sought to target the church of which he was a member. The version typically accepted as canon reads,

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

History records these events, but how easily we forget the central point of Niemoller’s story for us today: Freedom is indivisible. Targeting one group with tyrannical impunity inevitably diminishes us all; it threatens the pursuit of public justice.

Over the past two years, the nefarious deeds of the so-called Islamic State have focused many concerned Christians on the conflict between Islamist radicals and the minority religious groups of northern Iraq and Syria. There is every good reason to label the actions of Islamic State a genocide and to proceed accordingly.

However, there is a greater danger that our fear of the Islamic State and of the wide array of extremists now empowered by state failures in Syria, Yemen, and Libya turns into a fear of Muslims in general. Our determination to root out its chauvinistic and depraved ideology can easily turn into a determination to limit the freedoms of an entire religious group. While Christians in North America have grown increasingly suspicious of Islam because of the actions of some of its radical adherents, the mere existence of that kind of evil should not justify limiting our compassion for the wider group of which they are a part.

This point was driven home to me recently when I witnessed a friend who is a journalist and an Indian Christian, standing with other citizens in solidarity with the Muslim minority of India, now increasingly targeted by the radical nationalist fringe in that country. It reinforced a critical principle that the religious freedom of Christians in Iraq and Syria and the religious freedom of Muslims in non-Muslim societies are inherently linked. The principle of religious freedom is essential to the pursuit of any form of spirituality. It is also essential to all other freedoms.

One of the most pernicious threats to religious freedom today comes from nationalist, nativist, and monistic conceptions of the state. These efforts attempt to redefine what national belonging means while targeting those who might not hold closely to those conceptions. Throughout the world, suspicious nationalists reacting to the presence, migration, and growth of minority populations continue to pursue such tyrannical impunity, often with the full acquiescence of contented bystanders who refuse to speak out, or who vocally shout their approval. Convenient scapegoats are found in every society where the indivisibility of freedom continues to be ignored.

India is an instructive case in this regard. There, the minority groups in question are both Muslim and Christian (and in many cases they might also include Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, or even diverse groups of Hindus).

India: The Threat of Religious Nationalism

In May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), standard-bearer of Hindu nationalist ideology Hindutva, won a historic victory, claiming a majority of the seats in the lower house of India’s parliament, the Lok Sabha. The former Congress-led government of India had run out of ideas, and the vigorous leadership of Narendra Modi of the BJP appeared to be the way out of a long period of political stasis.

The BJP was the chief beneficiary of a tired and generally moribund Congress Party election campaign and an electoral system in which the winner takes all. Its rise to power has come as a result of decades of community organization at the grassroots level. Allied to the BJP are a number of locally driven activist organizations known as the sangh parivar.

Beginning in the 1920s, groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Organization, known by its acronym RSS) brought together young men who sought to reinvigorate Indians’ respect and love of country through boosting martial virtues and community organization. Organized in local chapters known as shakhas, the RSS created the basis for a political machine. Today, the RSS remains the backbone of the BJP and Hindutva, but even more radical groups such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, or VHP) and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, have become equally significant champions of the movement on the far right.

Patriotism for the Hindutva movement has always come at the expense of those who do not fit in with the movement’s veneration of traditional Hindu practice. Efforts to construct an India that included all of its citizens were always held suspect by the movement, and in 1948, an RSS activist named Nathuram Godse assassinated Mohandas K. Gandhi, so offended was he by Gandhi’s inclusive understanding of Indian identity.

The RSS and the BJP famously rose to power by stoking the fires of sectarianism in democratic India. In the 1980s, a court case that highlighted the differences in legal codes followed by Hindus and Muslims, and the campaign to demolish a mosque built on the legendary site of a Hindu shrine, galvanized many Indians behind the efforts of the sangh parivar.

Though the BJP’s popular election victory came as a result of its promise to bring modernization and globalization to India under Modi’s vaunted managerial expertise, its more sinister success has been in providing a new sense of impunity for the sangh parivar. Over the decades, the victory of the BJP in elections at the national and state levels has provided more and more opportunity for these activists to parlay vigilante activities into political power.

It has also led the movement toward greater radicalization, as internal protest within the sangh parivar led by ambitious young cadres has demanded greater and greater acts of independence from the movement’s leadership. Today’s Bajrang Dal seeks to demonstrate how it is the cutting edge of the wedge of Hindutvathrough attacks on minorities. One common strategy is to summon rioters to the homes of pastors at evangelical church meetings. Typically, these riots are used to demand enforcement of anti-conversion laws that provide grist for the mill of intolerance. Many of these riots turn violent.

The BJP has also long considered Muslims in India as perceived threats to the Hindu heritage of the country. The BJP leadership often derided the Congress Party government as the “Delhi Sultanate,” implicating it in a long history of bowing to Muslim dominance that dates back to the Mughal era. Anti-Muslim riots arose out of Hindu religious processions known as rath yatras. Largescale intercommunal violence arises out of rumors of miscegenation, cow slaughter, and property disputes. Most famously, Narendra Modi’s own government in the state of Gujarat was faulted for standing by as riots engulfed the state in 2002.

While the sangh parivar has long engaged in these vigilante tactics, under the BJP, it has enjoyed a far greater level of impunity. This is partly because the BJP and the movement have shared ideological goals, but it also stands as a testament to the way that the radical fringe drives the movement. Having succeeded dramatically in the elections of 2014, the BJP went on to fare poorly in many 2015 state elections, leading some to argue that its cadres were sending the party leadership an implicit message that if it did not support their tactics, it would pay a price.

This past summer I visited India and heard firsthand from Christian and Muslim activists about a growing and systematic attempt to target minority groups in that society. Christians in particular mentioned that there had been a dramatic increase in the number of attacks on their communities, especially in states run by the BJP and its allies, such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The Kandhamal district of the state of Odisha has been ground zero for many of these attacks as well, in a number of very violent incidents stretching back at least as far as the dramatic immolation of a foreign Christian worker and his family in 1999. The Evangelical Fellowship of India has recently released a report documenting these and other concerns which is available here.

Closer to Home

It is regrettable to see the expansion of such anti-religious vigilantism rooted in nationalism in a mature democracy such as India. The BJP government of Narendra Modi, elected in a landslide in May 2014, rode on the hopes of many Indians that their country had entered the modern age, with a leader who would get things done. The long term success of the BJP comes thanks to the very religious freedom that has been a hallmark of Indian democracy.

In February 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke a long silence on the issue of religious tolerance, stating that his government “will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly.” These words are a good start. Unfortunately, Modi went on to assert that religious freedom should be free of “coercion and undue influence” over the choice to retain or adopt the religion of one’s choice, code words that have often been used by the vigilante fringe to intimidate those who might choose to convert.

But the phenomenon of dividing religious freedoms is by no means limited to India. The approach taken by the BJP in India echoes the rise of conservative politics that are no longer rooted in the expansion of neoclassical or neoliberal economics or the limitation of expansionist government but instead promote a politics of division, resentment, and spite.

The influx of refugees into Europe over the past three years has emboldened nationalist movements of the right who seek to limit the continued integration of their societies. Reactionism has led to the growing popularity of the nationalist fringe, such as the French National Front, the Alternative for Germany, or the Hungarian Jobbik. Such movements deftly appropriate Christianity as a leitmotif. Of course the same danger has appeared in US politics, where plenty of Christians have embraced the nationalist, immigrant-baiting rhetoric propounded by Donald Trump in his presidential bid.

In my home country of Canada, the former Conservative government sponsored the creation of an office of international religious freedom but later accused Muslim citizens who deigned to wear a veil at citizenship ceremonies as somehow less Canadian for their choice of dress. The hypocrisy of this stance may well have contributed to the Conservative Party’s election loss in October 2015. Their Liberal Party replacements appear bent on ignoring the importance of religious freedom in world affairs in spite of the dramatic spread of religious intolerance. Neither one seems to have learned the message about the indivisibility of religious freedom.

Faced with questioning by Pilate as to whether he posed some sort of nationalist threat to the Roman Empire, Jesus was unequivocal. “My kingdom is not of this world; if it were, my disciples would be fighting,” he said (John 18:36). It would be wise for Christians to heed those words. Christianity coexists uneasily with nationalism but thrives in the midst of free societies. The kingdom of God is not brought about through national identification with religion – nor with the eviction of one religion or another.

The widely touted resurgence of religion in the 1980s and 1990s came as a result of the decline of ideological and nationalistic notions of belonging. Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah argue in their groundbreaking 2011 book God’s Century that government’s ability to create an autonomous sphere for religious belief has allowed political theologies and religious movements to thrive. What is more, this is far and away a good thing: freedom of religion gives religious people “the capacity to perform a range of positive functions in society.” Today’s religious movements that seek to increase their influence by oppressing those of other religious faiths are engaging in self-defeating efforts that will only ultimately serve the enemies of religion.

The message is this: religious freedom matters. It matters for Christians in the United States, the Middle East, and India every bit as much as it matters for Muslims in each of those parts of the world. It matters for the shakhas of the RSS as much as it does for the Christian activists working to minister to the poor and downtrodden of Indian society.

Nations are constructed upon notions: they may include or they may divide. One notion that has done the most to unite warring factions, divisive ethnicities, and polarized ideologies since the dawn of the international state system is freedom of religious belief. It is one notion that must remain indivisible, if it is to have any meaning at all.

-- Paul S. Rowe is Professor of Political and International Studies at Trinity Western University.