THE BLOG

Times that Try Men's Souls

05/09/2014 15:20 BST | Updated 04/11/2014 10:59 GMT

We are in the midst of a geopolitical crisis in Africa and the Middle East. It is acutely felt by communities of faith who suffer a new barbarism as they watch their hallowed values drowned in blood. But it is no less a crisis for international commitments to human rights.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights was intended to be implemented as a whole, not served à la carte. Yet in a world of contrasting and diverse cultures, where some states champion their secular nature and others are shaped by religious principles, getting all its rights accepted remains problematic.

The obvious flaw in the theocratic state is that divine mandate and religious certainty brook no opposition. But more fundamentally the conduct of a nation state is unlikely to follow any religion, least of all in times of conflict. Their close embrace is a Judas kiss for a country's faith communities. So, the bishops of the Middle East have principled as well as pragmatic reasons for their promotion of the need for the secular state.

Meanwhile, the flaw in secularism is its tendency to be programmatic: religious freedom becomes an unwelcome contender for recognition when it clashes with other rights. When religious leaders narrowly assert their own rights - such as on teaching about sexuality - they often find themselves treated with condescension as oddities in the public square, or sometimes even like convicts on parole.

The contemporary European legal debates about religious freedom contain an historical irony. The totalitarian secular regimes of the last century pushed post-war American Jews and the British Council of Churches into seeking formal international acknowledgement of the right to religious freedom. Eleanor Roosevelt told them that the new UN body could not proclaim this right unless set in the wider check-list of other rights. In practice, states that abuse religious freedom also violate a number of other human rights. Today's growing and savage assaults on religious freedom around the world, chronicled by the Pew Foundation, put our own debates into perspective -- and influence them.

Until the early 1960s, Catholic leaders were unsure that religious freedom should be seen simply as a right rather than in the context of a set of duties owed to God and truth. The Church was slow to put its "error has no rights" philosophy in the dustbin of history. The Jesuit John Courtney Murray, allied with the US bishops, Pope John and several bishops from communist eastern Europe - notably Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II - finally got the core content of the UN Declaration adopted during the Second Vatican Council. For many of the Spanish and Italian bishops the duty of the state was to privilege the Church, enabling it to be what it was, a societas perfecta, possessing all that was needed to perform its divinely given role. Notably several Muslim states also argued against and continue to behave as if an inviolable right to convert to another religion or abjure Islam is religiously or culturally impossible.

For much post-war history, in the context of secular extremisms, total war and the Holocaust, religion was not viewed as part of the problem, but rather its innocent victim. Atheistic communism remained the clear and present danger globally until the Iranian revolution and the storming of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. Henceforth Islamic extremism would slowly, then precipitously with 9/11, become the enemy unifying religious leaders and statesmen in secular democracies.

Today there is something inconsistent in secular attitudes to religion. In most liberal democracies there is a pressure to insist that religion is no more "special" than any other set of subjective ideas that give a moral identity. Freedom of conscience - left vacuously undefined - becomes the substitute. But meanwhile, "bad religion" is a global threat requiring special attention.

Violent extremism emerges from a collision of world views, using religious language and an imaginary divine mandate to justify acts of violence. It is a perverse by-product of religious identity reacting against the pressures of globalisation and secularism feeding on resentment, impoverishment and lack of hope. In response religious freedom is often curtailed with illiberal measures to protect society and the state.

On the other hand, promotion of religious freedom begins to be identified as a key feature of successful democratic governance and foreign policy. The UK, USA, Canada and Germany are all promoting more diplomatic activity on this front. A critical question then arises: how should liberal democracies respond to political parties with undisguised religious underpinnings? For a large part of the world wants to see a particular set of values prevail in government and society. More precisely how should states handle Islamism?

People of all faiths and none want to see their values inform the societies in which they live. In Europe, Christian Democracy came as a reaction to the dual totalitarianisms of Communism and National Socialism. It proved remarkably successful in Germany, significantly flawed in Italy.

Islamist parties have undergone a very different trajectory and feature against a different political backdrop. While they confront similar questions, their assumption of power has been treated differently, due to suspicions about commitment to democratic conduct. And, of course, anxieties are heightened if violence featured historically in the early stages of a ruling party, even if since abandoned for democratic politics, particularly when that violence was legitimated primarily by religious ideology.

In short, the crisis in the Middle East and Africa is related to two failures. One is the failure to create democracy-friendly religion. The other is the failure to create religion-friendly democracy. These are not morally symmetric failures but they are related. As former Defense Secretary, Robert Gates wrote: "the challenge of the early twenty first century is that crises don't come and go - they all seem to come and stay".

This article also appears at religionandgeopolitics.org