Threats to Religious Liberty: Theocratic and Secular

TIME: 13:00 – 14:00, Tuesday 29th March, 2016

VENUE: The Henry Jackson Society, Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, London SW1P 4QP

SPEAKERS:  Professor Robert George, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Tom Wilson

Hello ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the offices of the Henry Jackson Society. My name is Tom Wilson and I am a research fellow here at the Centre of the New Middle East. And it is my privilege today to introduce to you Professor Robert George who is the chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and also the director of the James Maddison program on the American ideals and institutions at the Princeton University. And he is going to speak to us today about the question of religious freedom and the challenges it faces from both secularism and also from theocracy. And if I think professor George will speak for about 20 mins and then we will go through to a Q&A after that, so Professor George.

Professor Robert George

Thank you Tom and thanks you everyone for coming out this afternoon. This is the second time I have the honour of addressing the Henry Jackson society in my capacity as chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and I’m delighted to be here under the society’s auspices today. I salute the Henry Jackson society for honouring the legacy and holding aloft the flame of the eminent American statesmen Henry Jackson. Senator Jackson was constant and confident in his support for freedom and democracy, especially during the twilight struggle of the Cold War and so too are you. I haven’t the slightest doubt that Senator Jackson would be very proud indeed to have his name associated with this society. I also want to thank you Tom and the Henry Jackson society for the warm reception that you gave to my dear friend and commission colleague Catherina Lantos Swett when she spoke last year under these auspices. For four years now Doctor Lantos Swett and I have got back and forth in sharing the US Commission for International Religious freedom with each of us serving two terms. And for four years we have laboured arm in arm in the cause of religious liberty. Under the authorising statute of Commission of International Religious Freedom, commissioners can serve no more than four years. So Doctor Lantos Swett and I are now both completing our terms of service. I know I speak for her as well as for myself when I say that long after we leave the commission we will remain uncompromising advocates of the values of freedom and democracy that we share with each other and with the members of this society.

My topic this afternoon is ‘Threats to Religious Liberty: Theocratic and Secular’. My assumption here is based on the famous admonition from the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu: ‘Know thine enemy and know thyself’. The better we know and understand two things: what religious freedom is, what we stand for, who we are and who its enemies are, the better we will be able to defend this bedrock of liberty. Sometimes it’s odd, but sometimes, at least in the United States, it’s regarded as somehow in poor taste, to state that we have enemies. Well we do. There are enemies of freedom and democracy – people who deeply believe that freedom and democracy are not the way to go and people who are prepared to undermine freedom and compromise democracy where it exists. I don’t see anything at all to be gained in pretending that such people are not the enemies of freedom and democracy, and therefore, our enemies. And we must stand as firmly for our values and principles as they stand against them.

And so in accordance with that assumption I will begin my remarks by describing what religious liberty is. What it is that we who are advocates of religious liberty stand for, and so in a sense saying who we are. The right to religious liberty is a far more encompassing human right than some people commonly note and, thus, the stakes for defending it are very high. Even in my own country, even at the highest levels of government in my own country sometimes people talk as though religious freedom, merely, is the right to worship. Now that is a very important and indeed central component of the human right to religious liberty. One might even say that it’s at the core of the right to religious liberty, but there is much more to religious liberty than that as I will try to explain in a moment. And we go very badly astray when we suppose that the right to worship basically is all there is to religious liberty.

So following my description of religious freedom I will focus on the threats or dangers typically emerging from different ends of the spectrum, as title of my remarks indicates and then finally I’ll touch upon on the special threat arising today from forces of violent religious extremism.

So what is religious freedom? It’s a broad, inclusive right, sweeping in scope, embracing thought, ideas, belief, convictions and behaviour. And by behaviour I mean worship, but not just worship, also the right to step forward into the public square and by with others of different views for the allegiance of ones fellow citizens. The right to advocate ones religiously informed beliefs peacefully, without threats, ones religiously informed convictions about matters of justice and the common good. In my own country we often point to religious people who led the struggle for the abolition of slavery. The same, of course, is true in your country with figures such as Wilberforce, or those who led the fight to protect women and child labourers at the end of the nineteenth and early, beginning of the twentieth century, during that period of the industrial revolution. Or those, such as, the reverent Martin Luther King, who led the civil rights struggle to undo the injustices that had arisen in the wake of the abolition of slavery. King was not shy to speak as a Christian, as a Baptist minister in the public square, advocating his principles, pertaining to matters of justice and the common good. Moreover, religious freedom is as deep as it is broad, honouring and upholding the duties if conscience, especially a conscience informed by a sense of transcendent obligation. I will a little later refer to the great British theologian and a man of letters John Henry Newman, who in his letter to the Duke of Norfolk in the 1870s declared, entirely rightly, in my view, that conscience is not simply the permissions department. Conscience is not the right to do as you please, no matter what you please, whit whomever you please, whenever you please, whatever you please, but rather conscience is a stern monitor. Those are Newman’s words: ‘a stern monitor’. Conscience speaks in the language of though shalt not or though shalt, imposing duties and not simply licensing behaviour. And respect for conscience is respect for people’s right to, within the bounds of justice and the common good, act on the basis of their sense of transcendent obligation.

Doctor Lantos Swett when she spoke to you, said that religious freedom means the right, and I’m quoting her: ‘the right of all human beings to think as they please, believe or not believe. The right of religious freedom is a right of unbelievers as well as believers. Believe or not believe as their conscience leads and to live out their beliefs openly, peacefully and without fear.’ When it comes to the peaceful exercise of religion or belief, no government or group, or individual, no mob, no gang has the right to compel others to act against their conscience or restrain them from answering its call. I conceive of religion itself, speaking broadly, (and we now that there are many many different religions, many different doctrines, many different scriptures, many different understandings of authority, many different conceptions of where the fullness of religious truth lies and so forth)… But religion broadly, as I understand it, really means the raising of the fundamental questions, the great existential questions: where did we come from, where are we going, why (if there is a reason why) are we here, what is our destiny, what is the source of our dignity, is there a transcendent more than merely human meaning, the source of meaning and value or not, is there a law higher than the law of the state, higher than what philosopher of law called the positive law, under which the positive law of any state stands in judgment (what King called the law of God or what Aquinas called the eternal law) or not. And then raising, but not only raising, but acting on, judging the truth of these matters and then trying to live one’s life with authenticity and integrity in light of one’s view and one’s best judgements as to where the truth of these questions is. One might be led to the conclusion of mother Teresa of Calcutta, or one might be led to the conclusions of Richard Dawkins or perhaps, to put the matter at a little higher level, the conclusion of Albert Camus. And yet in doing that, in raising great existential questions, in doing ones best honestly to answer them, in living with authenticity and integrity in view of one’s best answers and not just being a phoney, not pretending to believe for personal advantage even if one does not believe, or pretending not to believe if personal advantage would favour not believing, as it does in many sectors of our society, certainly the one in which I live and work. Living with authenticity and integrity – that for me is the core of religion. And that is what the right to religious freedom protects.

Support for religious freedom stands then in opposition to every form of coercion or restraint on people’s ability to carry out that quest. To ask the great questions, to answer them as best as one can. To live with authenticity and integrity with others, perhaps in a community of faith, a Jewish or Christian or Muslim, or other community of faith in which ones beliefs are shared by others, where one seeks to honour god in communion with others. Rather than imposing beliefs, religious freedom is about protecting people’s right to believe and to remain true to their deepest convictions. Now, of course, religious freedom, thus conceived, like many other human rights, not all but many others, does have its limits. You noticed that when I speak of the right to religious freedom I’m constantly saying ‘peacefully’, constantly saying ‘within the bounds of justice and the common good’. Because we all know that one may sincerely be led (from my point of view, profoundly misguidedly) but sincerely be led to commit grave injustices or to do grave evils in the name of religion. Sometimes it’s a pretext when people do that. Sometimes their motives are not religious, but they paste religion on top of them. But sometimes their motives are indeed sincerely religious. But those of us who recognise the principles of justice and the common good, won’t disagree with me, will disagree at the edges as to what they mean, but we those who recognise them, realise that we cannot simply tolerate violence or injustice, even when carried out sincerely on the basis of religion. And part of what my talk to you today about is precisely that.

Religious freedom applies to the holders of all religious beliefs, it is not the providence of just Christians or just Jews or just Muslims, or all beliefs about religious questions. And so again the right of the unbeliever is part of what is protected when we speak of the basic human right to religious freedom. The right of the Dawkins or the right of the Camus is protected as much as the right of the believing Christian or the believing Jew or the believing Muslim or the Hindu or the Buddhist or the Confucian or the Baha’i or the Jain or the Sikh. Thus, my Commission, the United State Commission of the International Religious Freedom defends the rights of members of every religious group in the world to practice their faith. We advocate within the United States government on behalf of everyone from the Anglicans at the ‘a’ to the Zoroastrians at the ‘z’. That’s our mission. We give no preference to any particular religion, because we believe that the right to religious liberty is the right held equally by all. There is no greater right, we don’t say that the truer the religion the greater the right and then allocate our attention to the right on the basis of our own articular personal belief about the truth of our religion. No, rather, we believe that all members of the human family have a fundamental and equal right to religious freedom. Besides protecting every shade of belief, freedom of religion is itself a conviction unbounded by geography or culture or nation. Rather than being the exclusive preserve of any one people it is the universal value, endorsed by nearly all countries in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which the world community overwhelmingly adopted, as you know, in the 1948, as well as in subsequent agreements. So I am among those, who stand strongly against the proposition that we are sometimes confronted with, claiming that religious freedom is simply an imposition by Western Christians on the rest of the World, it’s a local western or Christian value that we are seeking unjustly to impose on people who do not accept it. To me religious freedom is a fundamental human right which we can only discern, not only by appeal to religious faith (I myself happen to be a Christian, a Catholic) but also by the exercise of our, what the great philosopher John Rawls called the common human reason. We can rationally defend this basic human right. Article 18, again, ratified by people of many different nations, cultures, and faiths, reads as follows (this will be familiar language, I’m sure, to everyone in this room): ‘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 of others and in public, as well as, private to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’ Do you see how sweeping the right, even as articulated in the 1948 and ratified by so many nations, how sweeping and all-encompassing the right is. And notice that it’s not only the right of the individual acting on its own, but the right of individual either alone or in community with others. Notice, that it’s not simply a right to practice one’s faith in private, in a private home, let’s say a Filipino guest worker in Saudi Arabia in a private home (the Saudi government tells us that they are ok with that) but there’s more than that. It’s a right actually not honoured by the Saudi government, not to single out the Saudi’s, there are many violators. It’s the right that includes the right to worship in private so the Saudi policy of prosecuting people for carrying a Bible in public or worshipping in public or advocating religious ideas, contrary to those of the Saudi regime in public. The idea that that could be a crime is itself contrary to the basic human right of religious freedom because the right is not merely a right to worship, or to worship in private. It’s a right to enter the public square clothed in ones convictions, in one’s faith.

Now like every other human right, religious freedom is no mere imposition of one cultural practice or tradition on others. As I said, rather it’s a birth right of every member of the human family. That’s what it means to say something is a human right. Whether it’s the right to freedom of expression, the right of freedom to association, the right to the freedom of the press, the media, or the rights against, for example, the unreasonable arbitrary arrest. These are universal human rights not local customs or traditions. And finally religious freedom is broad and deep enough to merit a seat at the table alongside such obviously valid and important concerns as economic and security matters in any nation’s foreign policy deliberations and it’s an acknowledgement of that moral fact that religious freedom has that kind of standing that led the congress of the United States in 1998 to create the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom as a sort of internal lobby. Really, between us in this room, a gadfly, to pressure any administration, whether it’s leftward tending or rightward tending, whether republican or democratic, in our politics, any administration to pressure to lobby that administration in favour of religious freedom. You can always count if the United States is like any other nation and I imagine it is, you can always count on their being a very active, very influential lobby on behalf economic matters, on behalf of trade. They will be there. There will rightly be a powerful lobby in support of geostrategic and military and security concerns. They will be there, as the foreign policy of any nation is shaped, that interest will be represented. But there will not necessarily be a guarantee that a lobby in favour of fundamental human rights, such as religious liberty will be there. And the 1998 act creating the commission was motivated by the concern to have religious freedom at the table, when our foreign policy is being created.

The reason is clear, the country’s interests cannot readily be separated from its values, even if figures, such as Henry Kissinger, who is ordinarily being associated with the school of thought in foreign relations theory, called realism, even Kissinger, I heard him say this himself, acknowledges that you can’t have a conception of a country’s interests that is somehow swinging free of that country’s values. So if you are a nation, as we in United States hope we are a nation, that is committed to certain fundamental liberties and rights then those values will necessarily and rightly shape the concepts of our interests. The interests that we wish to protect and advance in our foreign relations. Since a nation’s values reflect its identity, a separation of interests and values is hard to achieve, let alone, desirable to pursue. Moreover, we should not assume that there is any automatic trade-off between religious freedom and economic and security concerns. These sets of concerns can work together and indeed, I think, very often do work together in the real world. Numerous scholarly studies, especially those conducted by the Pew foundation in the United States, show that countries that honour and uphold religious freedom really do tend to be more secure and more stable and more prosperous that those that don’t. Now of course as in any social scientific work it’s difficult to deal with the variety of variables, sometimes it is hard to know what’s cause and what’s the effect, but we at least know this much. There is a strong correlation and association between respect for religious freedom and other fundamental human rights and stability and prosperity.

So what have the threats to religious freedom been? What are they now across the world? Well there’s an obvious threat of theocracy. Broadly speaking theocracy obtains, when representatives purporting to act on behalf of one particular religion or religious interpretation commandeer the state and force people to bend their knee to its dictates. In Europe, for example, much of Christendom’s history at least till modern times, was dominated by at least some forms of theocracy or elements of theocracy. For many centuries people across Europe were subject to punishment for deviation from religious doctrines or laws. Jews or members of minority faiths within Christianity were often persecuted, not always, not always severely, but it was there and it was common. From the Catholic Inquisition to the Protestant John Calvin’s dictatorship in Geneva people were accused, tried, convicted, imprisoned and even executed for embracing and promoting doctrines and practices deemed too radical by church authorities. The history of these things is very complex, they shouldn’t be oversimplified, but there is no question that the element of theocratic imposition was there.

Over the past few centuries we have seen a couple of key developments in the West responding to that unhappy legacy. First here in England and in continental Europe, and also in America religious authorities have rediscovered deep and rich spiritual resources within their traditions from the church’s natural law tradition to the very words of the Bible which honour the freedom of conscience. And indeed as Newman once said, speaking of following one’s conscience is not only a human right, but is itself a duty. So a figure like Newman can become, although a Catholic cardinal, a figure like Newman can become and powerful voice from a powerful strong tradition of faith on behalf of the rights of conscience and religious freedom. Seen in this light to deny anyone the freedom of religion is to commit not only a crime against the human right, but a sin, a crime against god. In other words, what we’ve seen is a blossoming of a powerful and abiding respect for religious freedom coming from certain faith traditions themselves.

Second we have also seen, starting with the French revolution, a strong reaction that went far beyond an opposition to theocracy. In its least malignant current forms we see today even in democratic Europe how certain activities such as proposed or existing bans on religious dress, ritual circumcision and slaughter, and hate speech laws limit the ability of individuals to honour and practice or express their religious beliefs. We have serious problems in some continental European countries with Jews and some Muslims being imposed upon in a very damaging way, by laws that forbid, say, infant male circumcision or kosher or halal slaughter.

We have also seen far more radical reactions against religion, not just theocracy, but religion itself. In some circles it has come to be regarded as an enemy to be defeated, and thing to be disparaged and even repressed or driven to the margins of public life. Now in the last century this reaction hardened into an inescapably modern and terrifying idea. The idea of totalitarianism, to replace religion with secular, at least in the first instance, with secular ideologies that take over the totality of life and society. What defines totalitarianism is a series of shockingly unprecedented demands which may be summarised as follows:

  • Give fanatical leaders and movements absolute and permanent authority;
  • Make these leaders and their followers into virtual gods charged with seizing control of history;
  • And transforming humanity itself in their image-making a new man, a new communist man, a new Übermensch, a superman;
  • Release these leaders and their followers from accountability to every law and institution, belief and custom moral norm;
  • and precept they are the law, their arbitrary dictates are the law transcending any moral norm that may have been recognised prior to their rise to power;
  • grant these leaders and their followers complete control of any facet of human existence, from outward conduct to the innermost workings of conscience so that brain washing and thought control become part of the mission of the state.

For a better part of the century this evil, freedom-destroying force advanced by wearing various masks and hijacking key vehicles in its attempt to subjugate the world. In the thirties and forties it threatened humanity through Nazism and other forms of fascism, which exploited the concept of race and the ideology of nationalism. After World War two with Nazism defeated totalitarianism posed its greatest threat through communism which hijacked the concept of class and class consciousness and people’s legitimate strivings for social justice, especially in the wake of the industrial revolution. By the close of the twentieth century these movement had committed every crime under the sun, triggering the deaths of perhaps nearly tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of human beings. They also waged war against conscience leaving behind a situation where to this day 75% of the worlds people live in countries that are hostile, whose regimes are hostile or at best indifferent, to religious freedom. In the cases of indifference permitting private actors, or thugs or mobs or terrorists to act with impunity against the religious freedom rights of minorities.

We see full evidence of their horrific footprint in places like North Korea, one of the worst tyrannies in history where religious freedom is non-existent and entire families are arrested, sent to labour camps, and tortured or executed for their faith. We see it in places like Eritrea, called the North Korea of Africa, where secular military dictatorship controls every aspect of life, including religion, imprisoning and physically abusing thousands of people, mostly evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants and Jehovah’s witnesses. We see it in places like China, where the government continues its barbaric treatment, mistreatment of Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims and the rapidly growing Catholic and Protestant communities. As well as Falun Gong, members who face long jail terms, forced renunciations of faith and torture in detention. China’s economic significance, the need, the felt need for countries including my own to have good relationships especially for trade reasons, as well as geostrategic reasons with China has led, at least in the United States, to a tendency to look the other way, to avert one’s gaze when it comes to the atrocities that continue to be committed by the Chinese regime against believers across the spectrum of faiths in China.

And today alas the same totalitarian impulses hijack religion as its latest vehicle. From ISIL in Iraq and Syria to the theocratic regime in Iran from Al-Qaeda to Boko Haram to the Taliban. These new totalitarians pose a similar threat around the world, displaying contempt for the rule of law and for any distinction between combatants and non-combatants in the conduct of war. They target civilians and commit mass torture and murder precisely as the Nazis and communists did. From the Afghanistan one species of the new totalitarians launched the 9/11 attacks and seek to regain power and destroy every human right from religious freedom to the rights of women. In Iran another species of new totalitarians runs the government, detaining, torturing and murdering religious minority members, including Baha’is and Christians who dare to embrace their beliefs that contradict their draconian interpretation of Shia Islam. As well as targeting Shia reformers whilst supporting terrorist groups beyond their borders. In Iraq and Syria yet another species of the new totalitarian, the so-called Islamic State indiscriminately slaughters men women and children and threatens the lives and liberties of religious minorities and most of the Muslim majority. In Nigeria Boko Haram which has sworn allegiance to the Islamic state commits mass murder against Christians and fellow Muslims who reject their particular interpretation of Islam. In Pakistan the Taliban and like-minded groups have assassinated leaders and target both Muslims and religious minorities who dare to object to their beliefs. In Saudi Arabia the ban on all public religious expression besides extremist interpretations of Sunni Islam remain in effect and for decades this extremism has been exported across the globe unleashing murder and mayhem. Many observes presume that these movements and their leaders simply represent Islam or Islam on steroids. Some even claim they represent the true Islam, which at least for those of us who are working for the religious freedom in the United States presents a problem, a serious problem, causing many people to disregard the rights of Muslims. And I think this is a very grave mistake.

Now granted the history of nearly every religion, includes periods of despotism and bloodshed, granted every religion has had to go through periods of reform and clarification of some of its beliefs and ideas, granted so many Muslim reformers have stated repeatedly, Islam is no exception. But no religion, including Islam, historically has ever stood on principle as the Nazis and communists did and as the Islamic State does today, for what amounts to sheer unadulterated nihilism. No world religion ever granted any human being group or government the permanent right and principle to flaunt any law break any rule or any atrocity at will with no restraint, moral or otherwise. Moreover, no representative of pre-totalitarian versions of Islam, such as the Islamic state, would ever utter the words of Bin Laden, not long after the 9/11: ‘We love death.’ These chilling words hark on back to the mottos of Benito Mussolini’s fascist party in Italy Viva la morte, which means precisely the same thing, of course, in Italian. And no historic representative of Islam would dare to utter the words about the Muslim faith spoken by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran: ‘The government is authorised unilaterally to abolish its lawful accords with the people’ by which he meant that ‘the requirements of government supersede every tenet, including even those of praying, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca.’

So there’s a sense in which life and death struggle in which we are now engaged is not that of one religion against another, or religion against humanity. Rather, it’s what our struggle against Nazism and Communism was, a struggle against totalitarianism, which in this cases ceases upon religious faith just as the secularist totalitarianisms of the last century ceased upon nationalism and class consciousness. Even when the new totalitarianisms assume genuine theocratic dimensions they ultimately go far beyond historical theocracy in opposition to all forms of human freedom, including religious freedom. In its attempts to play god. And in its attempts to play God and in unlimited and unprecedented demand on the individual.

So how do we combat these threats to religious liberty and other fundamental freedoms? First and foremost we have to be prepared to use every form of leverage we have against offending regimes. Our commission recommends designating nations that are the worst offenders against religious freedoms, as what we in the United States according to our law call countries of particular concern. It’s rather anodyne language. We use the acronym or a set of letters CPCs. When accepted, our designations trigger a menu of possible trade and financial sanctions and diplomatic actions to be carried out by the president and secretary of state. It’s a way that the internal lobby for religious freedom that we represent in the United States puts pressure on our own government to take action against offenders against religious freedom in the execution of our foreign policy. Of course in the case of the Islamic State and other terrorist organisations it would be sheer fantasy to believe we can establish conditions for religious freedom without some form of physical action to halt the mass violence and the mayhem. But ultimately what we need is to counter not only the governments and non-state actors that threaten the religious freedom, but the ideas that animate them and win people to their cause. The frightening phenomenon of successful recruitment even in the West among Muslims and in some cases converts to Islam of the Islamic state.

We have a saying: you can’t beat something with nothing. So we need to combat bad ideas with good ones. Destructive and violent ideas with constructive and peaceful ones. And I want to stress, this is a job, not only, or even primarily for governments. Though governments certainly have a role to play, we can’t push everything off onto the governments. It’s not going to work. In this war of ideas the governments can only do so much. The job really is a job for everyone, including very importantly those within the great faiths, including Islam, who believe in peace and freedom. This war of ideas has got to be fought within the religions. I would even venture to say (not all of my colleagues in the commission would agree with this, but I will say it because it is my own view) primarily within the faiths. More can be done from within the faiths than can be done by governments, certainly in the war of ideas. Although governments have a role to play. We need to have voices in every sector of society and representing the widest possible range of traditions strongly affirming the right to religious freedom. In its robust sense, including, very importantly, the right to change religions, which state after state after state after state signed on to when they signed the universal declaration which included the article 18, expressly recognising, as central the right to religious freedom, the right to change one’s religion or to abandon religious faith altogether. And we need to have people working across the board to build institutions supportive of religious liberty and other fundamental freedoms in society. In many cases this takes profound courage and people who exemplify such courage should be supported by all of us and really emulated by all of us. Where totalitarian ideas and ideologies hold sway, be they theocratic or secularist, whether we’re talking about Saudi Arabia or China religious freedom is not just the victim it’s also the potential antidote. In societies in which belief in religious freedom is successfully cultivated totalitarianism of any stripe will have far less appeal, even in times of economic or other forms of social stress.

Is embedding religious freedom in any society ever easy? Well of course our own experience in the West has answered that question – no. It’s demanding work and there’s no guarantee of success, I’m not one of those people who believes in an inevitability of history. History is far too contingent and impersonal for us to believe in such a thing. But the work needs to be done and at least some times it is successful. And of course we have no alternative. What are we going to do? Live permanently, continually forever with the toleration of the kinds of abuses against religious freedom that we see across the globe?

The challenge before us is a global one. One that must ultimately involve a permanent commitment among governments around the world to choose freedom over tyranny. So it is going to require also intergovernmental and interfaith cooperation on a massive scale. The faiths are going to work together and the governments are going to have to work together. And there’s really no choice about this. If we are going to have any hope of success that’s going to have to happen. The good news is that for us, on both sides of the Atlantic, leaders of nations and leaders of faith are rising often together to meet the challenge. European Union has issued strong guidelines for its diplomats for promoting freedom of religion or belief. It would be a good thing if diplomats in the West, including the United States knew more about the religion and about the religions of the nations to which they are envoys. But the commitment that governments and the European Union has made to promoting religious freedom in diplomacy is a good one. The UK’s foreign ministry and parliament have increased their focus. The Austrians, Dutch, Italians, Norwegians and Germans have also begun focusing specifically on international religious freedom in recent years. The European parliament has an inter-group on freedom of religion or belief. In November of 2014 The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom along with parliamentarians from Brazil, Norway, Turkey and the UK, as well as Canada helped to launch the inter-parliamentary platform for freedom of religion and belief at the Nobel peace centre in Oslo. More than 30 MPs signed charter for freedom of religion and belief, pledging to advance these values for all. Officials from the foreign ministries of the US and the UK as well as Canada began recently to coordinate joint efforts on religious freedom and efforts against violators of religious freedom. Evidently Canada is going to, under its new leadership, to eliminate the office of religious freedom that it had in its foreign ministry under terrific leader in this area, Ambassador Andrew Bennet. That I think is a very bad mistake on the part of Trudeau. And Dr Lantos Swett and I have made a specific appeal, published in one of the Toronto newspapers just last week, pleading to maintain that office.

And religious leaders too are doing their part. It’s very important that they do it. We need more of it, but some people have stepped forward. Here in the UK the eminent Rabbi Lord Johnathan Sacks has published a profoundly important book entitled ‘Not in God’s Name’, calling the leaders of the great monotheistic faiths to unite in the cause of religious freedom and toleration. And Rabbi Sacks has just been an example to other religious leaders of all faiths across the world. It’s a truly inspiring book. I was delighted to learn in the United States of his recognition by receiving, being named as the Templeton prize winner in religion. Pope Francis is consistently raising his voice against violence and oppression. Recently Muslim leaders from throughout the world gathered in Marrakesh to hammer out a statement calling upon Islamic nations to honour the rights of non-Muslims in their societies. This is a very important initiative, called Marrakesh declaration and it should be more widely known and promoted, so that people in your spheres of influence will know what’s happening. Encourage them. These are good people doing good things, doing important things, doing necessary things in the Islamic community. This cannot be substituted for. Christians and Jews cannot do this without supporting the Muslims community, without Muslim leaders taking the initiative as they did in Marrakesh. It’s my hope and my belief that in coming years we will hear more voices and witness more initiatives of this sort. I believe that world-wide movement is either now being born to insist that all, in all nations and cultures, the rights and duties of conscience be acknowledged, honoured and upheld.

With that, Tom, I would be happy to… (applause)

Tom Wilson

Thank you very much for that deeply thoughtful and illuminating presentation and I hope we will also be provocative in terms of the questions we may have. So we have some time for questions and if we just ask that people could state their names and any relevant affiliation.

I think there is a microphone going…

Tom Wilson

Great. There’s a gentleman just here.

Guest 1

My name is Stanley Grossman. I am in London for years, I am a member of the Democratic national committee and I want to make an observation and ask a question. The observation is that it’s been stated by polls, verified that in the United States you have a better chance of being elected president if you are a socialist, if you’re gay rather than being an atheist. Being an atheist is the lowest of the low in terms of any kind of political possibility. In his book ‘The End of Faith’ by Sam Harris, he argues that as long as deeply held religious beliefs are practiced in an extensive, sort of very hostile way, societies were in grave danger. And I think you’ve addressed this to some extent that to one point is the emphasis on the right to not have faith than to hold a particular minority view within a society.

Professor Robert George

Yeah, well I understand that… I’m not sure that atheism is the right word, but the poll seemed to indicate in the United States that there is an increase in the number of, not what they call the nons. (Not the nuns in the Catholic Church, but the nons – the non-religiously affiliated people). They may or may not be actual unbelievers, but they’re no religiously affiliated. And I think that will have a certain political impact, as any demographic change of that sort, the change in belief, indicates. I don’t know how far that’s going to go, because the United States continues to be quite a religious country, especially by comparison to some of the more secularised nations in Europe, especially the UK and faith is also… people feel freer to express faith. I don’t see evidence that we have a persecution of atheists. Certainly in the elite sectors of the culture you are safer being an atheist than being a devout Catholic or strong evangelical or an orthodox Jew. You are much less likely to be discriminated against in, say, academic hiring at Harvard or Stanford, where I teach, or somewhere like that. If you’re an atheist you’re less likely than if you are a devout Catholic or an evangelical protestant or an orthodox Jew. But I also think, it’s probably true what you say, that the majority of Americans would count it heavily against the candidate for presidency that he’s an atheist. And I have a, I just have a speculative, I didn’t get to polling that’s behind that, but just let me toss out a bit of speculation, about why I think that it’s probably the case. The United States, of course is a peculiar nation, because it is a nation founded on the idea. We call this American exceptionalism. What’s exceptional is that being American is not a matter of blood or soil. It’s the subscribe to a certain political creed that is summed up in the second sentence of the declaration of independence, which says: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights and among these are liberty and pursuit of happiness. Of course, this is the provision of the declaration that was quoted so frequently by Lincoln and quoted by Martin Luther King and so forth. And that stance for the proposition has historically been taken as the stance for the proposition that in American we believe in American creed. That out basic rights and liberties are not the gift of any merely human power or authority, not the gift of the president or a congress or a parliament or a king or anything like that, but rather our freedoms are the endowment of almighty God and therefore no human power had not given them, no human power can take them away, nor can any human power with impunity violate them. If you violate them you’re going not only against the rights of selves but against god. So I suspect that behind the reluctance of Americans to be led by atheists is the idea that an atheist can’t really believe that central proposition of the American creed. An atheist will have to believe that since our rights didn’t come from a transcendent power they must be just human creations and that leaves our rights in an insecure position.

Now what usually happens, say for example the Kennedy elections in the 1960, Kennedy’s Catholicism was a huge issue in an overwhelmingly, predominantly, historically protestant nation. What happens is somebody with a minority faith, and the same could be true of atheism or of the nons, becomes rather popular despite that and is able to give a kind of reassurance to people by his demeanour, by his advocacy, by what he stands for, by his political cause of concern, gives reassurance to people, their trust in him validates the acceptability of him being a Catholic. We had it more recently with Romney, who is a Mormon. Mormonism… Catholicism by the time of Kennedy, although a very small minority… by the time Kennedy came along was a large proportion of Catholics, about 20% of the country. Still a minority, a very substantial minority, but nevertheless a minority. Well with Mitt Romney Mormonism is less than 2% of the population, maybe even less than 1%, and there’s historically even more prejudice against Mormons, and yet Romney’s personality, his demeanour, his achievements, his obvious leadership ability made him a very credible candidate. Although he lost a comparatively close election, he didn’t lose because of his Mormonism. Americans were prepared to elect a Mormon. I don’t know if there are any Mormons in the audience. Mormon beliefs are very strange from the perspective of orthodox Christianity. So an orthodox, an evangelical Christian or a Catholic would find Mormonism much odder than he would find Islam or certainly Judaism. Nevertheless, this reassurance of Romney’s personality made it possible. I suspect that this will happen with a non. Or with an outright atheist. Where someone comes along whose obvious talents, whose obvious commitments to the kind of principles that Americans tend to believe in will reassure people and then the ice will be broken and somebody who is not explicitly connected with religion will be elected high in office.

Tom Wilson

We have a share of hands. Would you mind if we take questions perhaps two at the time. So there’s two here: the lady in the back and the gentleman over here.

Guest 2.

Are you doing any work in the American campuses? I believe that on the campuses there are a lot of attacks being made against certain religious groups.

Professor Robert George

Attacks on campuses. Absolutely. We have a big problem. We have a big problem. A lot of anti-Israel sentiment translates, especially on the left in the United States, and the left dominates the academic situation in the United States. I don’t want to (inaudible) everyone on the left, because it’s not everyone on the left. But some on the left have a strong anti-Israel position and it’s not just… It goes over the line. It becomes not just antipathy towards Jewish state, but towards Jewish people themselves. It expresses itself in suspicion of people who are Jewish. For example, we had an outrageous case in, I believe, one of the California universities of a young woman who was simply running for offi… Our universities have student governments. They don’t have very much power, to tell you the truth, but they run some of the student affairs on campuses. And some of the aspiring politicians, you know, the future Bill Clintons or George Bushes of the campuses often aspire to be president or vice-president or hold some office in the student government. The young woman was seeking office, and this is all about, you know ah… which rock & roll star to invite to give a concert on campus, or who the graduation speaker will be. These are the kinds of things… Well the issue becomes all about Israel. And suspicion about whether this woman (who has a Jewish name!) should be trusted with the presidency of the student government because of her pro-Israel potential. Because she has a Jewish name, she might be Jewish, and if she’s Jewish she might be pro-Israel and that’s a problem. And you see this not just on the campuses. I only say, criticism of the Israeli government is perfectly legitimate. And it’s wrong to say that all criticism of the Jewish, the Israeli government is rooted in anti-Semitism or the ancient percept the anti-Jewish hatred. That’s not true. And yet it is also not true to say none of it is. Anybody who has been observing it realises that in some cases it really does shade over into the ancient curse. And Jews themselves for being Jews are held suspect. And that’s just wrong and it has to be called out. And you see it sometimes, for example, when Israel, whatever it’s the merits or otherwise its policies, Israel is held to a standard to which other nations, including other nations in the region, nations to which US are allied, are not held. And when you see those kinds of double standards you cannot help, but ask the question: What’s behind it? One of those states is Jewish and the others are not. And the ones that are being held to higher standard is the Jewish state. So we have it… I think it would be a mistake, to say we don’t have a problem.

You wanted a second question there, but I answered, I met the answer to two…

Guest 3

Say, I’m feeling quite guilty now, can you take a second one after me?

Guest 4

I’m feeling even more guilty because I have to squeeze two very quick questions.

Professor Robert George

I’ll try to remember them.

Guest 4

The first one is a very short answer. You quoted the international commission, but it was founded by congress in the United States.

Professor Robert George

Yes, it’s the Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Guest 4

So I wanted to know to what extent has it become international and to what extent are there similar organisations to yours in other countries.

And the second question very quickly, you didn’t touch on it much and there is a whole question on religious education and the rights of parents to bring their children up in religious schools. I could talk a lot on that, but I won’t help myself.

Professor Robert George


Guest 3

Thank you, thank you very much. I’m Lawrence Kingsley I’m a Jew and I have a question. Where there is no religious freedom, can the application of force in order to impose religious freedom be justified by religion itself? Or to put it another way, would it be a just war?

Professor Robert George

The answer… I’ll take them in reverse order. The answer to the last question is, I believe, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Anyone who has studied the just war tradition understands that there are principles, long articulated although developed over the years and into the twentieth century, especially by the Catholic popes. There’s a long tradition and everyone who understands it knows that there are certain criteria that must be met when it comes to the question of whether go to war. War must be defensive. There must be someone you’re defending. There can’t be aggressive war or offensive war. And then questions about criteria for the carrying out the war. For example the principle of non-combatant immunity. That even in carrying out a just war, where it is justified as a just entry into the war, the targeting of non-combatants is off balance. It’s immoral to directly target non-combatants.

Guest 3

But it would be an offensive war to impose religious freedom on the state that is not threatening religious freedom in…

Professor Robert George

I think not in principle. I think that you could fight a defensive war defending the victims of religious persecution against the persecution. So the war against the Islamic state would, in principle, be justified. So the questions to me in a case like that are the prudence of going to war. Not the morality of going to war, the prudence of going to war. You shouldn’t go to war when you cannot win the war, when you can’t prevail or if you’re going to make the situation very much worse. And that’s a prudential judgement and the statement’s got to make that judgement and sometime she’s gonna get it right and sometimes he’s going to get it wrong. But I don’t think you can rule it out. It is the job of popes. Just again to take one religious leader. It’s the job of popes to say: don’t go to war, find another way. That’s the job of the pope. Now sometimes the statesman, even a catholic statesman has to say: we can’t find another way, and therefore, in order to … stop the oppression or the violence or the invasion we have to go to war. But when it comes to the Islamic State even pope Francis, who has a reputation across the world as the man of the peace and whose job it is to say ‘find another way’, has acknowledged that it may be necessary to use force against the Islamic State, which is beheading innocent people, enslaving innocent people, raping women, treating women as sex slaves. Baghdadi himself treating women as sex slaves. So it may be necessary. There’s a prudential judgement that has to be made about whether it can be carried out and whether it will do more harm than good. My own inclination is to say, force must be used against the Islamic state. I’m sorry to say it, I am a man of peace myself, but I think that this oppression… the victims of this oppression need to be protected.

On your questions. First, we are the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. We are not the international commission. But what we’ve done in the last four years to a greater extent that we’ve done in our earlier history, to a far greater extent, is try and build alliances with similar organisations like the Association of parliamentarians in Europe for the religious freedom or like the Canadian office. We are reaching out throughout the world more than we had and we’re also promoting the establishment of institutions within governments like our commission. We’d like there to be an internal lobby in all the great nations, all the freedom-loving nations. We’d like there to be an internal lobby for religious freedom. Because it really is hard. Without an official internal lobby it really is hard for religious freedom to get the place at the table. Just because of the sheer power behind economic interests and military and strategic and security interests. And I’m not trying to denigrate those interests. They’re real, they’re important. The wellbeing of any society requires a flourishing economy and security, but religious freedom is important too and it needs a place at the table.

Now your second question was a really important one, just remind me.

Guest 4

The right of parents to send their children…

Professor Robert George

Yes. We stand strongly for that and we’re concerned here about Europe. There are a couple of things that concern us about Europe. One is the reawakening of antisemitism. That really concerns us. The second thing is the right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children. Which in great many cases, not all, is a right cherished and exercised by religious people. Now we have fight about that in the United States, but still we have a fairly robust, pretty deeply rooted principle of parents’ rights in the areas of education. We have flourishing religious schools: Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, now Islamic schools. I think that is terribly important and the state suppression of that is a grave offence against parents’ rights and in many cases against religious freedom. So this is an area where I would like to see… we need to be influenced by you in some areas and you need to be, I think, influenced by us in this particular area to pay greater attention and give greater regard, greater due to parents rights.

One caveat here, we’re very concerned across the world about the use of textbooks produced particularly by the Saudi government for use in Islamic schools, usually not in the West but in places like Africa, that are essentially advocating, not only discrimination, but violence against, especially, Jews. The anti-Jewish material in some of the textbooks it’s just an outrage and a disgrace. Now we have… an area where we’ve had some success in our commission from before the time I came on the commission, we have been pressurising the Saudi government on this issue. They have in response to that now created new textbooks and the new textbook looks, well not perfect, on the issues that we’re concerned about (religious treatment of religious minorities, and especially Jews). While they’re not perfect, they are much better. The problem now, we’ve noticed is, while they brandish, probably brandish these textbooks and say: here, look we’ve produced these great new textbooks, they don’t include this horrible stuff that is in the old textbooks. We have no evidence that these new textbooks are being distributed so it’s one thing just to produce them, but they have to call back those old textbooks, have them shiped back and replace them with the new textbooks. So there is an issue just at the edge here, where private education becomes indoctrination into violent extremism. But that shouldn’t become a pretext for suppressing non-violent curriculum materials in schools that are run by Catholics or Evangelicals… you don’t want those schools to have to use textbooks that reflect not their own religious or moral values, but those of liberal secularism.

Tom Wilson

Professor, officially we have run out of time, but if you are happy to take a set of another three questions that I’ll be happy to…

Professor Robert George

Let’s have three questions. I’ll be quick.

Tom Wilson

Should we just take these three here.

Guest 5

My name is (inaudible). I’m a journalist. You mentioned Mussolini and Italians. I wanted to know how you see the behaviour, similarity between the Nazi Germany behaviour with Jews and the Islamic Republic of Iran with Baha’i today.

Professor Robert George

Yeah, I mean the extremism…

Tom Wilson

Oh, if we could just take these next two

Guest 6

I am Liz Catherine Finn (?) I am the director of the APBJ (inaudible) parliament floor (inaudible)… I argue that we have the internal lobby in the UK government


Hold your mic closer

Guest 6

A couple of questions, very briefly on… I am sure… I’m not sure whether you have been following the conversation last week in the House of Lords and Commons. I noticed a few weeks ago the US office put out a declaration before Kerry (?) did declaring Daesh’s actions as genocide. Just wanted to get your comments on that for the UK. Is this a message for the UK? And also a technical question at the international level on whether there should be an international treaty on freedom of religion and belief there is a kind of academic discussion at the moment or whether the HR and the ICCPR are sufficient in themselves, just wanted to get your thoughts on this.

Guest 7

Hi, it’s Nathan Heath I’m from the United States but studying here at the University of Oxford. My question is. You alluded to a law higher than the law of the state, I’m referring to a kind of shared universal equality and I’m wondering kind of in an age, where many people would question the legitimacy or even the existence of a centralised moral set of norms. How we can even begin having conversations with religious freedom, with other states where the morality is not shared or with those within our own countries, in freedom-loving regimes, who don’t even identify with the specific morality at all.

Professor Robert George

Good. Ok. First, on the Iran question. We’re terribly concerned about the oppression of the religious minorities and of Shia dissenters, including religious leaders. There are ayatollahs, there are at least one really important ayatollah who’s in prison for advocating for a more humane treatment for a dissenting Muslims, Baha’is, Christians and others who are persecuted by the regime. I do think Iran has gone over the edge shading over into totalitarianism. That’s why I’m prepared to actually list them.

Now we have in our advocacy on behalf, particularly, of the Baha’i community. We have found that the leaders of the community themselves signal us, in any particular case, as to whether the best course is an effort publicly to shame the regime or a backdoor quiet diplomacy. And here we’re just happy to be guided by the diaspora community because they simply know the situation better than we do. And, of course, we are concerned, very concerned that sometimes our strong public advocacy are attempts at shaming will result in retaliation against innocent vulnerable people, Baha’is and others, in Iran. We recall the situation even in the Nazi period in Holland, when Catholic bishops in Holland spoke out strongly against the deportation of Dutch Jews the response of the Nazis was to round up more people, more efficiently and murder a greater number of people. So it’s a bit… sometimes it’s a difficult judgement call and we try to be guided by the community. But as far as the regime itself, it’s a horrible regime. And we’re… in the United States now because of the agreement that we’ve reached with Iran there seems to be a sense that we shouldn’t speak strongly against the Iran or we shouldn’t be as harsh against Iran. But to my judgement, the facts on the ground just don’t justify any relenting in our criticism of the regime. It’s continuing to execute people, literally kill them for religious crimes. And this, from our point of view, is intolerable. We press the administration, why it took us, or any other administration, to state the obvious fact that among the victims of genocide on the hands of the Islamic state were not only Yazidis, but also Christians, and Turkmen, and Shia, and other minorities. I’m speaking for myself here at the moment, not the whole commission because I think there would be disagreement about this, but for myself I will say that I’m concerned that the delay in our administration’s declaration of the obvious fact of genocide was in part motivated by the concern that telling the truth about Christians and the persecution of Christians would be perceived as anti-Islamic. Which, from my point of view, is nuts, it’s crazy. But in any event they finally came around to doing the right thing so god bless them for that and we’ll consider the whole thing to be done.

Your second question?

Guest 6

Am… the international treaty on…

Professor Robert George

Yeah, prudential judgement, difficult prudential judgement. I think that the declaration of 1948 contains such excellent language and regimes have signed on to it that I would not want to water that down by going out there and hunting for a treaty in which you would finally get less good. So I make the prudential judgement at the moment that I’d rather stick with this tool of the Universal declaration than pursue the treaty at the moment. In principle, obviously and international treaty adding more detail than we have at the moment in the universal declaration would be a desirable thing. But we’re not there yet, and may never be in a position where that’s the prudential thing to do.

Universal morality. Yeah. Here I recommend Rabbi Sack’s wonderful book ‘In God’s name’. It is an exercise in showing that there are resources within different traditions. He is focused in that book on the three great historic, monotheistic… you know Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He shows that there are resources within these traditions for a common affirmation, a common morality, not in every (inaudible) in detail, but in respect, at least of the most important things – the protection of the innocent, the vulnerable, the care of the poor. These sorts of things really are common. Alms giving in Islam is considered as high a virtue as a… important, divine requirement, as it is in Christianity or in Judaism. There’s a kind of prophetic witness for justice in all three faiths. Of course, the Christian faith incorporates the whole of the Jewish scripture, including prophetic tradition. Um. And I think that this is true more broadly. I mean, if we look at the Sikh tradition (we have lots of interaction and dialogue with the Sikhs on our commission) there would be no difference in the essentials, if you look at Rabbi Sack’s treatment of the other three traditions. I think much the same would be true of Hinduism, although Hinduism is, of course, very diverse, very very diverse. Most traditions are diverse, but Hinduism really represents quite a… quite a spectrum. But we need all the different faiths involved in the conversation looking for the resources from within each faith, not something imposed from without. But resources within each faith affirming the values that are affirmed by the Universal declaration. And then there’s the concept of natural law. My own scholarly work is within that field. I did my doctorate in Oxford, under professor (inaudible) who are leading, English speaking natural law theorist. I think pope John Paul II was right when he said that the natural law tradition is a language… just a basic language of rational philosophy, provides a common language for people of different traditions to speak about without appeal to divine… particular spiritual authority, to speak about and to analyse problems of justice and the common good. Take the question of just war. That is a question that people from different traditions can rely on this tradition rationally to explore and to apply to any particular case, where an evil being done at least raises the question of whether it’s justifiable to use force and if so what force to stop the persecution or to protect the innocent or minorities. So I’d like to see, really, two things. One – a dialogue in the common language of philosophy, in the the natural law tradition. And two – a drawing by people within each tradition, by drawing on the resources of that tradition to affirm these basic principle of justice and human rights. And with that Tom I thank you, I thank your society and I thank all of you.

Tom Wilson

Thank you so much.



Lost your password?

Not a member? Please click here