Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief was officially created 2014, through the contribution of 30 international agencies, and spearheaded by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. The basis of this decision was the perceived need to reinforce Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In the arena of political science, this ‘need’ was viewed by intellectuals to be in parallel with preventing the actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is an extremist religiously oriented group that encompasses a mission designed to destroy secular state management, as well as religious freedoms that do not align with fundamentalist Islam. Consequently, to these state actions, there has been an emergence of ongoing debates between proponents and opponents of religious freedom advocacy in foreign and domestic policy. The foundation of these debates stems from the risk that in narrowing our focus on religion in such a way, there may be adverse effects. Hurd (2014), is one of the most prominent and strongest voices on the political stage regarding this topic. She suggests that the Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief will not result in its desired effect – which is intended to keep ISIS from feeling as if they can impose a universal religious value system on countries with diverse populations. Hurd (2014) argues the implantation of this charter will spark the opposite effect, in that this attitude will entrench a response of negativity towards Islam as a whole. She continues to elaborate on how it will mask other factors that lead to social tension and conflict, and in turn provide the incentive to ISIS to differentiate themselves from other value systems by enforcing religion values that do not align with ISIS’ point of view, for better or for worse.
On the counter side of this argument, Philpott (2014) believes there is a strong need for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be highlighted especially during a time where there is such a significant focus on Islamic religion and rule. He states that, “religious freedom is a universal principle that safeguards the dignity of the human person with respect to his or her religious beliefs and pursuits”. Here he suggests that there is a need to recognize the importance of the preservation of diversity and that in enacting this Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief, countries will commit themselves to route out religiously repressive policies so that all religious activities will be equally supported. Philpott’s (2014) argument supports the fact that there have been times throughout history where the suppression of religious beliefs and pursuits has led to significant social and political chaos. He cites the secular focus of the Shah’s Iran which led to the revolution in 1979 as a prime example of what happens when there is an over denial of the role of religion in people’s lives.
Philpott’s (2014) claims suggest that what Hurd (2014) is arguing is false; that her suggestion that this focus on religion could be costly is likely not going to be borne out by people’s actual behaviours and interests, and therefore there is a need for religious protection at all levels of governance, from the international to the local. It is easy for me to understand Philpott’s (2014) argument, but even this realist point of view can be countered by some of the core arguments that Hurd (2014) makes. Hurd (2014) states that she is concerned that the force of the Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief will not result in positive outcomes. She believes that its framework is not to preserve diversity at all, but rather to impose a Western, Christian, American counterbalance to ISIS that will act to invigorate ISIS’ ideological stance against the West. She also suggests that the Charter is not a clear-cut decision between religious freedom and religious violence at stake. If we give all people freedom of religion, the result will not be a sudden cessation of violence in places such as Syria.
When concluding her final thoughts, Hurd (2014) states that “If a solution exists, it lies beyond religious freedom, and with the people of the region”. In this respect, she may be right. What we are dealing with in terms of ISIS’ global reach and continued effect around the world, is not an argument over the primacy of one religion or another. In fact, it may be argued that the role and rise of ISIS, at its centre, really has nothing to do with religion at all. Islam is not ISIS; ISIS is a political and military organization that has chosen a unique mission. If the goal of the charter is to address the ISIS crisis, then stating that all people have rights is really not going to help solve anything. At the heart of all conflict, one could argue, is need. ISIS operates in countries where there is intensive need: countries where desertification, drought, food security, and poverty are common factors. ISIS takes advantage of vulnerable populations that are desperate for any solution. However, it can be understood that the foundation of ISIS sits on the concept of power and the action of retaining such power, rather than an organization designed solely to push forward an agenda of religious Muslim thought. From this thought it is near impossible to address religious freedom without addressing all of the underlying factors that lead to extremism of any kind – an act that is never going to have the effect that policymakers have intended. While Hurd’s (2014) arguments may be dismissive of the overarching role of religions in people’s lives, Philpott’s (2014) arguments were portrayed as naive to the reality of consequential effects of charged religious freedom to all. The most salient point is to look at the crises that ISIS have perpetuated.
There is a need to address all of the underlying factors that have led to these kinds of conflicts, and to seek out the reason that religion has been used as a weapon rather than as the beacon of hope that it is supposed to provide people in need. In this way, Hurd’s (2014) arguments are entirely relevant to finding a solution to what ISIS has wrought, and cannot be set aside in the way that Philpott (2014) believes. We cannot, as a world, ignore the role of religion in conflict, but at the same time we cannot see our way through to find a long-term solution without addressing the underlying causes of conflict: namely poverty and desperation, and the power dynamics that affect the way that these cycles of challenge are addressed.
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