IRF Summit 2022 Side Event: Religious Freedom Under Fire in Ukraine

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RFI SIDE EVENT ONLINE PREMIERE Join RFI for the online premiere of IRF Summit 2022 Side Event: Religious Freedom Under Fire in Ukraine. The dramatic intensification of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that commenced February 24, 2022 constitutes a shameful and horrific injustice. This event will consider the threats to religious freedom in Ukraine following Russia’s 2014 and current invasion …

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Clash of the Acronyms? Finding The Right FoRBula in the Fight for Religious Freedom

In an article published this week in Religion Unplugged, Miles Windsor, Senior Manager for Strategy and Campaigns for RFI’s Middle East Action Team, discusses the importance of terminology in the fight for religious freedom. In particular, Windsor contrasts the term “international religious freedom,” which is used in the U.S., with the term “freedom of religion or belief,” which is gaining …

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Why Ukraine Is So Resilient, and Why It Must Win – the Religious Freedom Factor

During the first summer after Ukraine declared independence, as I stood among the cobblestone streets of central Lviv, I sensed a door swinging open on history’s small hinges. Lviv has become world famous this season as the main hub for war refugees fleeing west to NATO countries, and Western aid flowing east to the front. But when Russians last occupied Lviv, the city served for a half-century as the hub of the largest underground Christian church in history. Near city hall, I had stumbled upon a quaint museum in a converted church, which was eagerly overhauling its dark exhibits. Happy to welcome a foreign visitor, the director handed me his business card.

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Populism in France’s Presidential Election

RFI Executive Vice President Eric Patterson recently authored an article for Providence titled, “Populism in France’s Presidential Election” in which he argues:

For those who believe that a rules-based Western liberal order—with limited government, civil liberties, and a basic form of collective security among democracies—is crucial for world peace, France’s populism reminds us of the threats to democracy and Western solidarity.

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The Tyrannical Threat of New Blasphemy Laws, in Scotland?

Nobody likes to feel slighted by jibes or have their beliefs contradicted. However, it is almost always a cause for celebration amongst those in the religious freedom community when blasphemy laws are abolished, even archaic laws that have not been enforced in 175 years.

Freedom of conscience, expression, and religion are vital pillars in advanced and healthy societies. It is more troubling, however, when old laws are being discarded only to be replaced with new and aggressively imposed blasphemy laws.

“Where in the Middle East is this dreadful threat to liberty being enacted?” you may be forgiven for asking. “In Scotland,” would be the surprising response.

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The French secular model of laïcité—which aims to mark a formal separation of church and state—is a core republican value of the French state and some segments of French society. However, it is often poorly or only partially understood, both domestically and abroad. In its original formulation, laïcité was not designed to eliminate religion from areas outside the jurisdiction and purview of the state, nor to uphold a specific faith over another. Rather, it was supposed to dissipate religious practices from the operations of the secular French state. In public or private matters outside the functioning of the state, laïcité should be no threat to freedom of religion. But in practice, recent instrumentalizations of this model have attempted to contain people of minority religious faiths or coerce them into a closed secularism. Such rampant abuses of laïcité threaten and sometimes violate religious freedom, ultimately undermining pluralism and social stability.  

Denmark’s Recent “Burqa Ban” – Unnecessary, Counterproductive, and Hypocritical

The target of the new law is the burqa and niqab but, already the Danish People’s Party have turned their attention to the head scarf, launching a new poster campaign that tells women to “throw of the headscarf and become part of Denmark.” Given the rise in religious apathy and intolerance towards religion generally, who knows what will come next; tomorrow the cross or the yarmulke could be the next target. This is why it is important now, more than ever, for all freedom-loving people to come together, to stand together and oppose this unnecessary, counterproductive and hypocritical law.

Securitization of Islam and Religious Freedom

Securitization is not simply state prevention of foreign political violence. It is also increasingly aimed at Islamic religious practices like the burqa which are interpreted as signs of political radicalism. One of the unexpected consequences of such a situation has been to grant governments greater means to control religions in general. As such, it is a very serious threat to religious freedom and democracy across Europe.

A “Burqa Litmus Test” for Religious Liberty Advocates: A Response to Sohrab Ahmari’s “Confessions of a Burka-Phobe”

Theatrics aside, Ahmari missed a critical opportunity to engage in a constructive debate about the niqab and the limits of religious liberty and pluralism in the public square. Instead he turned to seemingly more pressing issues: the bullying and silencing of free and honest debate in Europe by progressive liberals. “Does liberal opinion permit Europeans to discuss the burka openly, honestly, and fearlessly?” he asks. “The answer is almost certainly ‘no,’ judging by the furious reaction that greeted Boris Johnson’s recent remarks,” he answers. The Johnson controversy, Ahmari would have us believe, has little if anything to do with “Islamophobia,” anti-Muslim bigotry, or the right to manifest one’s religious beliefs. It has everything to do with “a prohibition against expressing any discomfort, enforced on pain of social ostracism and joblessness” by “illiberal liberalism.” A prohibition that is “a recipe for populist backlash.”

The Winding Way to Same-Sex Unions: A Euro-Italian Lesson

By: Andrea Pin

The legal recognition of same-sex couples varies considerably from one state to another. Some countries have introduced same-sex marriage, whereas others have implemented civil union pacts. Some states have legislated, while in others courts have enforced same-sex partnerships. Also, the types of arguments involved vary widely from one country to another, giving shape to very different policies of recognition. 

Sweden and the Refugee Crisis

In the wake of the horrible terror attacks in Paris on November 13, Western politicians are forced to ask hard questions about what drives radicalization and how it should be countered. The way our leaders answer these questions will also shape many of their policies, such as migration, national security, and the state’s role in a more globalized society. Is there a risk that governments will miss the mark either by being too restrained or overreaching in their response against ISIS support? 

In Sweden radicalization and recruitment have often been explained by pointing to unemployment and social vulnerability as the main motivation to join the Islamic State. While these factors may play a part, it runs the risk of being a too-limited view. Often the religious motivation has been overlooked. This was evident when Swedish public television in the spring of 2015 broadcasted an interview with a Swedish national who had returned from fighting with ISIS. “Adam,” as the program called him, had been pretty successful in school and even had plans to become a dentist before he was radicalized. But throughout the interview “Adam” gave his religious motivation behind joining ISIS: “Allah orders us to defend his religion,” he said, adding that Sweden was a good country to live in, but that he wants his children “to grow up in an Islamic caliphate.” 

In one of the latest editions of Dabiq, which is the Islamic State’s magazine for recruitment purposes, the so-called “Umm Sumayyah Al-Muhajirah” explains why she and other women have chosen to join ISIS: “The opponents often repeat that those who perform hijrah to the Islamic State belong to a marginalized class in their former lands, living in difficult conditions between unemployment, poverty, family problems, and psychological disorders. But I saw something contrary! I saw sisters who divorced the Dunyā and came to their Lord, striving. I saw sisters who abstained from a life of luxury and abundant wealth. I saw sisters who abandoned a beautiful home and luxurious car, and ran for the cause of their Lord.”

It is a huge irony that while the Islamic State claims to shun a life of wealth, Western politicians claim that those who fight for them are not wealthy enough. 

Another response from the West that seems to be overreaching are proposals for religious tests in our refugee policies to reject Muslims and only welcome Christians and other religious minorities. While this might be out of concern for those Christians and Yazidis fleeing Syria and Iraq, it runs the risk of penalizing “innocent women and children who are fleeing from murderous barbarians simply because they’re not Christians,” as Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said recently. While some of the theological convictions of potential Islamic terrorists may overlap to some degree with other Muslims, it is hardly an argument against excluding all Muslims from seeking refuge, as it is an example of a faulty generalization. There is also evidence that shows that radicalization has happened after immigration due to attending mosques in the new home country or listening to messages online, which has been the case in Sweden. Radicalization isn’t always hindered by closed borders. 

Proposals for religious tests also enlarge the role of the government over the individual. Right now, religious convictions are outside the jurisdiction of the state. If the state would enact religious tests in the area of immigration, there wouldn’t be any warrant against religious tests in other political areas. 

There is an irony in the fact that politicians who normally argue for smaller government would now argue for bigger government. 

Western countries are running out of time. According to Dr. Magnus Ranstorp, Research Director at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies (CATS) at the Swedish National Defense College, radicalization and the support for terror groups like the Islamic State have been growing among young Muslims in cities like Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, and Örebro for a long time. He and other researchers and journalists have for a number of years tried to bring this to the attention of Swedish politicians, but haven’t seen much interest. Therefore, it is due time that Western politicians agree to engage with the hard questions and not to settle for reductionist answers. 

A View from Berlin

By: John M. Owen

The shock waves from the Paris terrorist attacks have disturbed Germans in particular. Their country has accepted an estimated 200,000 refugees from Syria’s civil war. Presumably most of these are fleeing persecution from either ISIS or some other horrendous rebel group, or from Syria’s Assad regime itself. Either way, in a real sense these are people fleeing religious persecution and seeking a place where their identity as a Christian, Yazidi, or the wrong kind of Muslim does not get them and their families killed. 

Religious Freedom and the Vicissitudes of Power

By: Peter Berger

In early October I attended an exceedingly interesting conference about religious freedom at Georgetown University in Washington, presided over by Tom Farr and Timothy Shah of the Berkley Center. I gave the keynote address dealing with the relationship of pluralism and religious freedom, based on the theory of pluralism I developed in my recent book The Many Altars of Modernity (2014)(Over the years I acquired a deep appreciation of African wit and wisdom, so I feel free to quote my favorite Zulu proverb, “if I don’t beat my drum, who will?”) The focus of the conference was on the place of religious freedom in the foreign policy of Western democracies, notably the United States and the United Kingdom.

Migration Crisis: Europe’s Failed Response

By: Hope Zigterman

Around 3,000 migrants are waiting outside Calais, France, as they hope to make their way into Britain via the Eurotunnel. Each night thousands face guards armed with tear gas and clubs, and ten so far have died attempting to board the trains that will take them through the tunnel. The situation has gained the attention of the international media, as tensions rise between Britain and France, and traffic through the tunnel clogs up. 

In France, Institutionalized Islamophobia Threatens Religious Freedom for All

By: Engy Abdelkader

A recent French court decision flouting Muslim and Jewish dietary restrictions serves as a sobering reminder that institutionalized discrimination threatens religious freedom in parts of contemporary Europe.

Earlier this year, a local French mayor announced that his district’s school cafeterias would no longer provide students non-pork alternatives despite rules against bringing packed lunches and a sizable Muslim population.

Religious Discrimination: A Common Denominator for Muslims in Western Europe

By: Engy Abdelkader

The murder of innocent French civilians—Jews and Muslims, men and women, cartoonists and law enforcement officials—by terrorists in Paris earlier this year rocked much of Europe. Observers frequently view manifestations of anti-Muslim bias through the lens of that attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices. In truth, the attack exasperated an existing anti-Muslim sentiment that helps contribute to the minority faith group’s inability to integrate, feelings of alienation, and perhaps, vulnerability to violent extremist recruiting. According to a 2013 public opinion poll, for instance, many Europeans view the Islamic faith as more threatening to their culture and values than any other faith tradition.

Uncertain Waters: The Refugee Crisis in the EU and Religious Freedom

By: Jacob Rudolfsson

Every year thousands of people seek asylum and better employment opportunities in Europe. Their journey is full of danger, and many times they travel across the Mediterranean Sea at the risk of their lives. In 2014 alone, at least 3,419 people died crossing the Mediterranean fleeing poor and war-torn countries in Africa. On April 19, 2015, a boat carrying 950 people capsized during an attempt to reach Europe. Only 28 survived. According to one survivor, at least 300 people had been locked in the hold by smugglers.

Islam and Immigrants in Western Europe

By: Nancy Foner and Richard Alba

The plight of the many thousands of refugees attempting to enter Europe from the Middle East and northern Africa in a flight from war and persecution has captured the world’s attention. Those who survived the harrowing journey have sought asylum, hoping to build new lives in Europe, which offers not only the prospect of peace, democracy, and economic opportunity but also the possibility of greater religious freedom.

Immigration, Segregation, and Religious Freedom in Europe

By: Joel Fetzer

Almost four centuries ago, a group of dissident Protestants left Europe for the New World in pursuit of greater religious liberty. At home, these Pilgrims faced fines and imprisonment for practicing their unpopular faith, and they believed that in America, they would enjoy more freedom of conscience. Though much has changed in post-Enlightenment Europe, many immigrant-origin religious minorities and practitioners of even formerly dominant religions still face legal challenges and public disdain because of their beliefs.

Muslims Women, Religious Freedom, and EEOC v. Abercrombie

By: Engy Abdelkader

The US Supreme Court’s recent decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch —supporting a Muslim woman’s civil right to observe hijab at work and prohibiting employers from considering a job applicant’s religion or belief practices in hiring decisions—reinforces America’s commitment to religious freedom. 

Additionally, one might draw a number of broader insights. 

First, the case highlights female agency in challenging anti-Muslim discrimination.

Framing the West’s Cultural War with Islam & A Way Forward

By: Daniel Philpott

Part One: Framing the West’s Cultural War with Islam

The horrific shootings on January 7 at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris have already ignited the latest round of a culture war that has been roiling in Europe and in democracies elsewhere over the character of Islam. Especially in Europe, the culture war has much to do with the place of domestic Muslim minorities.

Muslim Minorities: A Challenge to European Democracies

By: Farid Hafez

Muslims have become the internal “other” in Europe. While the Orientalist paradigm (Edward Said) construed the image of the Muslim as a geographical “other,” located far away, belonging to a strange culture and religion, Muslims nowadays are part and parcel of European societies. They make up roughly 10 percent of Europe’s whole population. After World War II up to the 1970s, nobody would have thought that the presence of Muslims would present a challenge to European societies and their governments as much as is the case today.

Economic and Political Effects of European Restrictions on Muslim Religious Freedom

By: Timur Kuran

Suppressing a community’s religious freedoms conveys the message that its beliefs and practices are foreign, illegitimate, and unwelcome. Indeed, stigmatization is often the underlying intent. European policy makers who ban minarets generally aim to discourage Muslims from moving in and to make settled Muslims move away.Whatever the magnitude of the intended effects, the Muslim share of Europe’s population will probably keep growing for decades. The aging of European nations, high birth rates in the Middle East and South Asia, and massive governance failures in various Muslim societies almost guarantees a steady flow of new immigrants. If for no other reason, the economic and political effects of anti-Muslim policies in Europe deserve attention. Clues about the direct effects exist in past cases of religious discrimination, European as well as Middle Eastern. But these must be interpreted in the light of modern technological advances.

Individual Liberty Remains the Guarantor of Religious Freedom for All, Including Muslims

By: M. Zuhdi Jasser

The last time I was honored to contribute to Cornerstone, I discussed how, in the United States, we are free to accept or reject any tenet of our individual religions. Individuals are also free to reject faith entirely without fear of state reprisal. For the most part, I can practice my faith without fear of backlash—but if I am treated unjustly on the basis of religion, there are means by which I can seek justice. As an American, my freedom of expression is protected by the US Constitution, which is supported by a range of laws ensuring that even if my rights are violated in some way, I can seek recourse. Even in most private sector environments, Muslims are free to wear religious attire, observe our daily prayers and dietary rules, and more. 

Despite the Odds, Muslims Continue to Make Progress in Europe

By: Muddassar Ahmed

Muslims are a visibly fast-growing community in an increasingly diverse Europe. Within this context, Europe is witnessing a rise in multiple identities within minority groups, not least the Muslim community. How to reconcile these multiple identities has become a fundamental part of the popular discourse on Muslims in Europe. And whilst the more contentious aspects of that discourse can sometimes be divisive and controversial, they often mask the progress and increased social mobility amongst Muslims throughout Europe.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom, Even If Not Supported by Law, Do Matter

By: Abdullah Saeed

Over the last few years, many around the world have been watching with some concern, as the religious freedoms of Muslims in some Western countries have been somewhat restricted. Notable examples are the ban on minarets in Switzerland, the ban on headscarves in France, and more recent calls for bans on circumcision and Islamic methods of slaughter. While these bans appear to be mainly directed at Muslims, they do impact other religious communities as well. For instance, the bans on circumcision and slaughter according to religious guidelines will also affect Jewish communities. The ban on headscarves could also affect the wearing of different kinds of headgear by men in Sikh and possibly Jewish communities. Indeed, in time, the repercussions of these bans will be felt in many other religious communities.

Why the West Fears Islam

By: Jocelyne Cesari

The integration of Muslim immigrants has been on the political agenda of European democracies for several decades. However, only in the last ten years has it specifically evolved into a question of civic integration closely related to religious identity. In the 1960s and 1970s, the socio-economic integration of immigrants with a Muslim background was the primary focus of academic literature, but with the emergence of the second and third generations, the interest has shifted to political mobilization. Beginning with the Rushdie affair in the United Kingdom and the hijab affair in France from 1989 to present, the spotlight has moved to the legitimacy of Islamic signs in public space, such as dress code, minarets, and halal foods.

The Power of Stories: Removing Prejudice against Minorities

By: Religious Freedom Project Staff

Kuebra Guemuesay, the first hijabi columnist in Germany, will be a panelist at the Muslim Minorities and Religious Freedom event on December 15. As a journalist and a blogger, she writes for major German newspapers and magazines such as Die Zeit andDie Tageszeitung. Her blog, entitled “ein fremdwoerterbuch” (A Foreign Language Dictionary), discusses topics such as Islam, racism, social media, and feminism. On her blog, she has written articles on topics such as Islam and gender equality and Muslims and modern public image.

Neoracism in Europe and Its Effect on Muslims in the Public Sphere

By: Claudia Winkler

Picture this: a fourteen-year-old Muslim girl riding the subway in Germany is approached by a German woman and asked why she wears a headscarf. “Because I want to,” she replies. This answer is met with an emphatic “No you don’t!” and followed by a barrage of criticism invoking common associations with the headscarf like “violence against women,” “oppression,” and “honor killings.” This specific memory belongs to Turkish-German blogger Kuebra Guemuesay (upcoming speaker at the Religious Freedom Project’s December 15 event), but the experience is shared by many Muslim and/or Turkish women in Germany and, more broadly, in Europe.