Rising Populism Threatens International Religious Freedom

This is part one of a series exploring how rising hostilities will impact international religious freedom in 2017.

Traditionally, when the international religious freedom (IRF) community surveys the global landscape of religious persecution, hotspots tend to be in failing states or autocratic ones, or in immature democracies. The latest report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), for example, lists countries ranging from North Korea to Egypt to Cuba where religious freedom is under serious threat, whether from government action or government inaction/acceptance. As we look ahead to the rest of 2017, however, I’d suggest that one of the biggest dangers to religious freedom is right here in the West – the wave of populism that began with Brexit and Donald Trump and may soon surge across Europe.

‘Populism’ can mean many things, as this article by The Economist explains well. Yes, there’s plenty of irony in The Economist explaining populism: at a basic level, populism usually refers to movements where the ‘common people’ rise up against the political and economic elite. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? In this article, I identify populism as a threat because we are seeing a wave of ‘exclusive populism,’ one in which the common people generally don’t include racial or religious minorities.

Endless pages have been written about the legitimate economic and anti-establishment concerns of Trump (and Brexit) voters. However, it’s difficult to deny that these campaigns both fueled and were fueled by exclusionary rhetoric, not to mention anti-immigrant, anti-minority policy proposals. Both facets of these campaigns endanger religious freedom, whether through direct ‘government restrictions’ or indirect ‘social hostilities’ (terms defined by the Pew Research Center).

Across the Atlantic, exclusive populism has been a noteworthy force in politics for years, largely in tandem with backlash against deeper international integration through the European Union (E.U.). Such movements have for the most part, however, remained fringe groups, whether they have operated independently or within the far-right wings of conservative coalitions. But party leaders across Europe are hoping that 2017 will offer a new window of opportunity after populist success in the U.K. and U.S.

At least three major national elections will take place in Europe this year. First up is the Netherlands, which will hold a general election on Wednesday, March 15. Geert Wilders and his far-right Party for Freedom are leading the polls in that country. (The latest polls show the Party essentially tied with the prime minister’s Liberals). Wilders, chiefly appealing to cultural objectives, aims to close all mosques, ban the Quran, and close Dutch borders to asylum seekers and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. He has also stated regularly that “Dutch values are based on Christianity, on Judaism, on humanism. Islam and freedom are not compatible.” Even if Wilders ‘wins’ the election, he would have to form a governing coalition with other parties to become the Netherlands’ prime minister – a less likely scenario. But he, and others, argue that such a victory would still be significant, for Europe as well as the Netherlands.

France is next in line; the French will vote for president on April 23, and then again on May 7, when the top two candidates from the first round will face off. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front (FN) party, is expected  to advance to the runoff, although most experts deem it unlikely she will win the presidency (they are careful to call anything certain, however, after witnessing Trump’s victory). Le Pen is not as overtly anti-Muslim as Wilders, and has sought to “soften” the FN’s image after taking control of it from her father in 2011. Nonetheless, the party remains staunchly nationalist and anti-immigrant, and Le Pen compared Muslims praying in the street to Nazi occupiers in a 2010 speech. A Le Pen victory would also have serious consequences for the E.U., as she has promised to hold a referendum on a potential ‘Frexit,’ which would remove one of the Union’s key founding member states.

Exclusive populism stands in stark contrast with Jesus’s admonition in the Good Samaritan...

Finally, Germany will hold its federal election on September 24; voters will choose members of the German Bundestag (parliament) and determine the country’s Chancellor. The largest far-right party in the country, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) led by Frauke Petry, has been polling around 10 percent, and is expected to win its first seats in the Bundestag; it already has representatives in 10 out of 16 German states. The AfD emerged nearly four years ago and originally focused on economic issues, particularly resistance to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ‘bailouts’ of other E.U. countries. The party soon took up anti-immigrant and nationalist positions, and made these central to its platform after the refugee crisis of fall 2015. Still, a complete takeover by the far-right in Germany is much less likely than in other European countries: the nation’s Nazi history is highly sensitive, causing elected officials on both the right and left to speak cautiously about national identity.

While the Dutch, French, and German elections are the big votes to watch in 2017, they’re not the only ones. In Italy, following the recent resignation of the prime minister, a ‘snap’ election could be held before the next scheduled election in May 2018. Both the anti-establishment Five-Star movement and the anti-immigrant Northern League are significant political forces in that country. Other national elections with potential populist dynamics will take place in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Norway (which is not an E.U. member) before next spring.

For Christians in America, it might be tempting to shrug off the threat of rising populism in the West. After all, we’re typically part of the ‘common people’ defined by these groups; how concerned should we be about the rights of Muslims and other minorities? A similar line of questioning was posed to Jesus himself. In Luke chapter 10, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. In his book “On God’s Side,” Jim Wallis explains that the lawyer was seeking to “justify” himself by narrowly defining who his neighbor was. But Jesus thwarts such efforts:

Jesus obliterates all our notions of acceptable boundaries between neighbors. If our boundaries are drawn narrowly enough, we can avoid the costs of loving the ‘neighbors’ who stand outside of them. But again, Jesus says no to that because there are no ‘nonneighbors’ in this world. All of God’s children are our neighbors, and that radical concept is absolutely essential the idea of the common good.

Exclusive populism stands in stark contrast with Jesus’s admonition in the Good Samaritan: it seeks to exclude, demonize, and marginalize outsiders, while abdicating responsibility for their dignity or livelihoods. Moreover, as Professor Paul Rowe warned in Capital Commentary a year ago, it is ultimately untenable: “Freedom is indivisible. Targeting one group with tyrannical impunity inevitably diminishes us all; it threatens the pursuit of public justice.” Indeed, a much better approach for Christians is to seek principled pluralism.

As in the U.S. and the U.K., far-right populist success in Europe would likely make the region far more hostile to religious and ethnic minorities – vulnerable people that followers of Christ must consider our neighbors. Furthermore, transatlantic leadership on this issue would suffer; while far from perfect, the U.S. and Europe have long been champions for human rights around the globe, and the best examples of how pluralist societies should function. Elsewhere in the world, nations that uphold religious freedom and other fundamental rights are the exception, not the norm. If our countries withdraw from the world stage – another key tenet of most populist parties – the outlook for international religious freedom could be very dire.

-Michael Searway is a Congressional and Transatlantic Relations Fellow with the Institute for Global Engagement.