It is almost impossible to turn on the news today without witnessing scenes of hatred, violence and intolerance perpetrated in the name of religion or belief. The march of ISIL across Syria and Iraq, with associated reports of gross and systematic violations of human rights, may be an extreme example of such hatred, but it comes against a background of heightened religious hostility and discrimination in virtually every part of the world. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, violence and discrimination against religious groups by governments and rival faiths have reached new heights in all regions except the Americas. This bleak picture is supported by the findings of the latest report on religious freedom by the US State Department, which concluded that 2013 saw ‘the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory,’ with millions of individuals from all faiths ‘forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs’ in ‘almost every corner of the globe.’
In the face of such trends, it is clear that the fight against religious intolerance and discrimination must be a key political priority for the international community, and in particular the UN and its Human Rights Council.
The main UN global policy framework for combatting religious intolerance, stigmatisation, discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief is set down in Council resolution 16/18. Resolution 16/18 was adopted, with much fanfare, in March 2011 and hailed by stakeholders from all regions and faiths as a turning point in international efforts to confront religious intolerance. After more than five decades of failure, UN member states had, it was hoped, at last come together to agree a common, consensus-based approach and practical plan of action.
Almost four years on, and against the aforementioned backdrop of heightened religious hostility, UN consensus around the ‘16/18 framework’ is at breaking point. Rather than working together to implement the 16/18 action plan, states have returned to pre-2011 arguments over the nature of the problem, the correct role of the international community, and whether the solution to intolerance lies in strengthening the enjoyment of fundamental human rights or in setting clearer limits thereon.
These divisions have re-emerged, in large part, because of conceptual confusion among policymakers about what implementation of resolution 16/18 means and what it entails. Linked to (and indeed flowing from) this conceptual opacity, states – especially states from the Western Group (WEOG) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – argue over whether resolution 16/18 is being effectively implemented or not and, if not, who is to blame.
A new Universal Rights Group policy report aims to help put the 16/18 framework ‘back on track’ by cutting through the political rhetoric to understand the different positions of key actors and how to bridge them, and by providing an impartial assessment of levels of implementation.
Key findings and conclusions in the report include:
* The prevention of discrimination on grounds of, inter alia, race and religion, and the protection of minorities, were two of the four priority human rights issues chosen by member states at time of the establishment of the UN (1946).
* From that time until the early 1960s, the UN’s human rights system addressed racial and religious discrimination/intolerance as joint and interconnected issues. However, in 1962 the UN decided to decouple its consideration of the two discriminations.
* This decision facilitated the rapid adoption of a new UN convention on the elimination of racial discrimination (1965). However, consideration of religious intolerance was shunted to the diplomatic ‘slow lane.’ After long and difficult negotiations, the UN eventually adopted a (soft law) declaration in 1981 – a declaration that, today, is largely forgotten.
* From 1946 to the turn of the century, UN policy to combat religious intolerance was notably ineffective. Yet the international community was at least united around a single approach. That changed in the years after 1999 when deepening OIC concern over Islamaphobia (especially in the context of 9/11), together with a Western shift in emphasis away from combatting religious intolerance and towards promoting freedom of conscience, led to a split in the UN policy architecture – a split that remains with us today.
* Against this unpromising background, in March 2011 a group of four states – Pakistan, Turkey, the UK and the US – tabled a text at the Human Rights Council designed to heal divisions, reconcile the positions of East and West, and lay down a workable plan of action to at last confront and challenge global religious intolerance. That text became resolution 16/18.
* When looking at the implementation of resolution 16/18, expectations of the degree to which it is capable of resulting in policy shifts in UN member states should be tempered by an understanding that the primary political impetus behind resolution 16/18 was international rather than domestic.
* Nevertheless, resolution 16/18, with its in-built action plan and associated implementation mechanism (the Istanbul Process), does provide a useful and, in theory, workable framework for combatting religious intolerance. While it is difficult to identify a direct causal relationship between resolution 16/18 and concrete policy shifts at national level, it is possible to identify a number of domestic improvements in-line with parts of the action plan. A good example is the clear improvement, since 2011, in the speed and sophistication with which political and religious leaders speak-out against acts of intolerance.
* Despite these positive steps, Pew Research Center data shows a significant worsening of levels of religious intolerance in almost every part of the world over the past decade.
* An analysis of the underlying causes of this situation reveals a strong empirical relationship between levels of religious intolerance, levels of freedom of religion and levels of freedom of expression. States that place high restrictions on freedom of religion also tend to place high restrictions on freedom of expression, and in states where both these core freedoms are restricted, incidences of religious intolerance tend, on average, to be far higher.
* However, URG’s analysis also shows that promoting respect for freedom of religion and freedom of expression is not enough on its own. If states are to strike a blow against intolerance, they must also take a range of supplementary (and complementary) steps to strengthen policy (in line with resolution 16/18).
* States – especially EU and OIC states – should cooperate to dismantle the artificial divide that currently separates the UN’s work on promoting respect for freedom of religion from its work on combatting religious intolerance. In the medium- to long-term, this would mean agreeing on a single, coherent policy covering the mutually interdependent issues of freedom of religion, religious discrimination and religious intolerance;
* Linked with this point, states should avoid a return to the initiative on ‘defamation of religions,’ which achieved little beyond the polarisation of East and West. They should also avoid establishing new instruments or mechanisms on religious discrimination or intolerance in the absence of a solid evidential base showing that such measures would help;
* Because arguments over implementation are central to the current difficulties faced by the 16/18 process, it would be useful for relevant Council mechanisms, especially the Special Procedures, to undertake an independent and impartial analysis of steps taken by states, religious leaders and civil society, together with related best practice;
* Better use can and should be made of the UPR process and Treaty Body dialogues to promote implementation of the 16/18 action plan and to report on progress;
* States should ‘re-energise’ the Istanbul Process by agreeing in advance on a schedule of future meetings – a series that would allow all parts of the 16/18 action plan to be addressed; and
* The format of Istanbul Process meetings should be reformed, so that for each meeting a geographically balanced group of states, religious community representatives and civil society leaders are invited to present information about their national experiences, challenges faced and future plans.
Tag Archives: religion
By Morgan Meaker
This month, British charity Maslaha launched the website “Islam and Feminism”– a new project which aims to unite the two belief systems. “Muslim women have the same core concerns as white, secular, British women: the workplace, discrimination [and] childcare” says the charity’s Latifa Akay, yet they have long been excluded from the feminist debate. This is what the project wants to change by promoting the idea that women of all religions can push for gender equality.
Inna Shevchenko, leader of topless protest group Femen, strongly disagrees. “I will never have a discussion about Muslim feminism because it doesn’t exist. It cannot exist. It’s oxymoronic.” Femen’s intolerance has seen them labelled as “white colonials” and “cultural imperialists” but the group’s real fault is the way it forces women into a mould, leaving no space for individualism.
In 2012, Femen protested against the International Olympic Committee’s collaboration with Islamist regimes. As a demonstrator was led away by police, she screamed “I fight for women who are not free. We are not free”. She had elected herself as spokesperson for women around the globe but the way she spoke for Muslims prompted backlash.
It seemed that many Muslim women did not want to be “liberated” by semi-nude activists. They felt Femen were patronizing and had done little research into the culture of Islam. The Facebook page “Muslim Women Against Femen” was founded and a series of selfies, emblazoned with slogans appeared – “hijab is my right”, “nudity does not liberate me” and “I do not need saving”. A feeling of resentment was prominent; these women did not want western ideals imposed on their faith.
Artist Sarah Maple considers this idea in her current exhibition, “God is a feminist”. Her work turns the tables on common perceptions of Muslim women as trapped and victimized. “In the West there is an obsession with being sexually attractive in a very limited and narrow way. I was looking at how this may be seen as a form of oppression and that there may be a freedom in covering up”.
Feminism should never be rooted in the idea of whitewashing society. Surely nothing is more backward than the mind-set; “to be free, you must look like me, think like me and live like me”. Equality is about giving all genders absolute choice, no matter their religion.
Recently it has become a trend for far right groups to hijack feminist rhetoric – alienating Muslims from feminist dialogue. During an anti-Islam rally in Munich, The Freedom Party’s Michael Stürzenberger furiously revealed to the crowd that Sharia instructs men to hit women. “We don’t want that in Bavaria!” he bellowed. Yet he is not concerned with women’s rights, instead he channels his efforts into spreading Islamophobia. He’s already lead over 100 anti-Islam demonstrations.
British groups like the English Defence League and the British National Party also rush to condemn Islam’s lack of feminist values. But their opinions in this area seem entirely self-serving, especially when they are associated with candidates like the BNP’s Nick Eriksen.
Feminism must separate itself from inflammatory politics. Instead, its focus should be on educating women and empowering them to make their own choices – making sure no one is trapped in any lifestyle. However freedom and tolerance should always be on the same side.
Feminism should mean that women can work in any industry, receive the same pay as their male colleagues and demand respect from their husbands, whether they wear the hijab or not. Of course Muslims can be feminist and their views should be welcomed into the debate.