Media's myopia puts religious freedom at risk


By failing to take religion seriously, media elites and political leaders have helped to dim the prospects for religious freedom worldwide, according to Dr. Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

Speaking to a gathering of journalists in Jakarta sponsored by The Media Project, Marshall explained that religious repression has grown measurably in the last two decades, especially in the world’s most populous nations. Yet the trend remains largely invisible to the West, Marshall noted.

If analysts and media do manage to pick up on religious issues, they usually focus on isolated violations of a religious person’s rights.

Marshall, a member of the The Media Project board of directors, defines the issue differently.

“We are focused on situations where a person’s faith, or lack of it, is a component of the persecution or discrimination they suffer,” Marshall said.

“Religious persecution occurs when some or all of the oppression that people suffer would not occur if they or their oppressors were of a different religion."

Marshall described how Westerners could unknowingly collude with intolerant regimes by accepting the notion that religious oppression is to be expected outside the West.

Marshall argued that plenty of evidence exists to suggest that non-Westerners do desire religious freedom and do not consider it a “luxury” for prosperous nations.

“South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, South Africa, Botswana, Mali and Namibia are freer than France and Belgium,” Marshall said. “…religious freedom can be found in every area of the world. There are relatively free countries in every continent and of every religious background.”

A major problem, according to Marshall, is the “secular myopia” of the Western world. When thought leaders are unable to see, much less understand, the role of religion in human life, they will misinterpret events and misplace blame, Marshall claims.

Westerners are particularly uncomfortable critiquing non-Western value systems. But Marshall argues that close inspection shows that many non-Western systems are very compatible with religious liberty.

“Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, which have Confucian traditions at least as strong as China and Vietnam, both value and successfully defend religious freedom,” Marshall noted.

While Westerners avert their eyes, violations of religious freedom are becoming common, Marshall claimed.

China has recently increased its long-term crackdown on non-registered religions. India has proven unable or unwilling to deal with Hindu nationalists’ violence against “foreigners”. And Indonesia struggles with extreme religious movements in its transition to democracy.

In addition to government repression and inter-religious violence, Marshall pointed out that religions also persecute their own.

Russia’s Orthodox leaders supported laws restricting activities of Pentecostal Christians. Coptic clergy in Eritrea have supported the repression of Protestant Christians. And Afghanistan’s Sunni Taliban forces have killed thousands of Shiites, Marshall said.

So, what explains the growth in religious repression?

Marshall says that globalization is a factor in the rise of what he calls “authoritarian religions” prone to religious conflict.

“Traditional believers in Japan or Java did not in the past wonder about who they were,” Marshall said. “But now, through new communications and commodities, local identity becomes only one option in the bewildering menu of modern and postmodern life. In order to be maintained, a traditional identity now needs to be asserted, not just organically assumed.”

Marshall also links the growth of religious mobilization to a generation of leaders that has grown up free from the shadow of colonialism, especially in the Middle East. Where colonial powers educated and shaped the previous generation, this generation feels no need to appeal to Western values to gain legitimacy in their home countries.

Marshall called on journalists to combat their myopia by taking religion at least as seriously as the oppressors of religion do.

He questioned how journalists could possibly ignore religion when China’s leaders, for example, confess to being afraid of it. Marshall urged journalists to elevate religion in their reporting because it “is the most profound shaper of human culture.”

Likewise, Marshall implored journalists not to allow secular autocrats and oppressors to speak for any population or to set the terms of debate about religion in their countries.

“This is a vital matter,’’ Marshall concluded. “Religious freedom is historically the first freedom in the growth of human rights and often has more to do with the growth of democracy than does a direct focus on political activity itself.”

Africa, ReligionRichard Potts