Commentary

A World Spinning Backward

America’s First Amendment helps safeguard something that is not only precious but rare.

Rather than celebrating the triumph of democratic capitalism, the world appears to be dividing between generally liberal Western-oriented states and a gaggle of authoritarian systems united only in their disdain for individual freedom and dignity — and not just for democratic politics and free markets. A new study by the Pew Forum on Religion found increasing restrictions on religious liberty between 2006 and 2009.

Two years ago, Pew reported that 70 percent of humanity suffered from either government persecution of or social hostility to religion. Add more moderate restrictions of the sort which Americans would still reject and an incredible 86 percent of the world’s peoples did not enjoy genuine religious liberty.

That trend is growing. According to Pew’s new study, “more than 2.2 billion people — about a third of the world’s population — live in countries where government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion are increasing. About 1% live in countries where government restrictions or social hostilities are decreasing.”

In many cases these restrictions are not minor. Explained Pew: “The number of countries in which governments used at least some measure of force against religious groups or individuals rose from 91 (46%) in the period ending in mid-2008 to 101 (51%) in the period ending in mid-2009. This violence was wide-ranging, including individuals being killed, physically abused, imprisoned, detained or displaced from their homes, as well as damage to or destruction of personal or religious properties.”

These are astonishing, and horrifying, findings in what is supposed to be an enlightened age. As much as Americans want to believe that everyone else would be like Americans if given a chance, the so-called Arab Spring so far has matched a desire for political liberation with a preference for religious intolerance. Tyranny may end up being transformed rather than eliminated.

The most serious problem remains countries with Islamic majorities or some provinces with Islamic majorities. Those which suffered increases in government persecution or social attacks included Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Only communist or formerly communist nations demonstrated such rising hostility toward religion.

By simple number, the most persecuted faith is Christianity: 130 countries (two-thirds of those studied) limit or harass Christians. Muslims face pressure in 117 nations, while Jews — despite their smaller numbers — are at risk in 75 states. Hindus and Buddhists face restrictions in 27 and 16 countries, respectively. Other religions, such as Baha’i, Zoroastrians, and Sikhs, are victimized in 84 nations.

Pew noted that “restrictions on religion are particularly common in countries that prohibit blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. While such laws are sometimes promoted as a way to protect religion, in practice they more often serve to punish religious minorities whose beliefs are deemed unorthodox or heretical.” Indeed, Pew devoted an entire section to these restrictions, imposed by 44 different governments. Again, the Middle East has the worst record. 60 percent of countries in the Middle East/North Africa have and enforce blasphemy statutes; another 20 percent have passed statutes but don’t apply them.

Blasphemy prosecutions have become notorious in Pakistan. These laws began with the British, were strengthened by a military dictator seeking religious support, and now are disproportionately used against Christians, often to settle property or other disputes. Muslims who urge reform of the laws are at risk. Punjab governor Salman Taseer was vocal in his criticism of the blasphemy statute and was murdered in January.

In all, 30 times as many people now suffer from more religious oppression as enjoy greater spiritual liberty. So, the question emerges: what is responsible for this alarming trend?

One finding suggests an unusual form of global polarization. Explained the Pew report: “The substantial increases tend to be in countries where restrictions and hostilities are already high, while the decreases tend to be in countries where restrictions and hostilities are already low.” That is, authoritarian states are growing more repressive while liberal nations are growing freer.

But while the Americas remains the most religiously free region in the world, social oppression is breaking out even in Western democratic nations.

Until recently, Europe seemed an unlikely venue for religious oppression. However, Pew found that “Europe had the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion were on the rise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Indeed, five of the 10 countries in the world that had a substantial increase in social hostilities were in Europe: Bulgaria, Denmark, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.” Italy showed a lesser but still noticeable increase.

Russia also showed a dangerous upswing in religious-oriented terrorism. “In Russia … more than 1,100 casualties resulted from religion-related terrorist attacks during the two-year period ending in mid-2009. This was more than double the number of casualties recorded in the previous reporting period. This includes people who were killed, wounded, displaced from their homes, kidnapped or had their property destroyed in religion-related terrorist attacks.”

Only one thing is certain: liberty is both rare and precious. Unfortunately, people in much of the world are free in neither their personal nor their political lives. And, as the Pew report details, a majority of the world’s population does not enjoy full spiritual liberty, but instead faces varying degrees of restrictions in and punishments for worshiping God. These threats have been increasing. History obviously has more than its share of surprises left for us.

The First Amendment must never be taken for granted.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the Senior Fellow in International Religious Persecution at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics (Crossway).