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Ziya Meral

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The Giant Blind Spot of Human Rights NGOs

Posted: 02/10/11 22:40

Last week, a frantic panic dominated a handful of small advocacy groups about an Iranian Christian Pastor who has been facing death penalty for simply converting from Islam to Christianity. Their efforts started bearing fruit when the White House, US State Department, British Foreign Office and Foreign Secretary, France and EU issued public statements condemning his treatment.

Then, a host of media outlets including the Fox News, Guardian and Telegraph picked up on the statements by officials and highlighted the fact that more than 250 Christians were arrested in Iran since 2011, just for simply practicing their faith and exercising the fundamental freedom of conscience, thought, religion and belief as enshrined by the Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It was only after his case dominated international media, became a frequent topic in twitter and thousands signed up to groups on Facebook, did the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issue basic statements on their websites condemning his treatment. You know something is really wrong when a major human rights group pick up on a human rights concern after governments, mainstream and social media do with simple statements.

Sadly, lack of interest shown to Pastor Youssef's case by the big actors of human rights world is not a one off failure. It highlights a major blind spot that is raising serious questions about the work of mainstream human rights organisations. As a researcher focusing on the human rights issues in the Middle East and an advocate who has worked with various non-governmental and governmental bodies focusing on such issues, I have faced two bitter realities over the years.

First, persecution and exclusion of people on the basis of their religious affiliations and practices is one of the most common forms of human rights abuses in the world today and it is only getting worse as the notions of clash of civilizations and religious politics dominate the global arena. Second, issues surrounding freedom of religion and belief are rarely covered by mainstream human rights organizations, rarely reported by the international media, often ignored by local and international bodies and remain to be the least studied and developed aspect of human rights.

This has puzzled me for many years. According to the Pew Research Centre's August 2011 report, "Rising Restrictions on Religion", restrictions on religious practices and beliefs rose significantly between 2006 and 2009 in 23 countries, decreased in 12 countries and remained unchanged in the remaining 263 countries. Since the countries that restrict religions, the report states that " more than 2.2 billion people - nearly a third (32%) of the world's total population of 6.9 billion - live in countries where either government restrictions on religion or social hostilities involving religion rose substantially over the three-year period." While we, the activists, are over zealous in picking up every unknown and even the smallest of issues under the sky, we seem to be completely blind and mute to the sufferings of 2.2 billion people.

I believe that there are multiple reasons for this. The first one is that human rights groups face limitations from their mandates and resources, thus they can't be involved with every issue in every country they monitor. While this is understandable to a certain degree, the disproportional coverage of issues they pick and the no-cost of including religious freedom issues in their country reports lead us to ask further questions.

The second major reason is the blatant ignorance on part of individuals based in the West, who see religion as a matter of private belief, which are held by uneducated and often radical masses. While none of these are empirically based truths even in the West (please don't tell it to Richard Dawkins), religion remains to be one of the most important social factors and sources of identity in the world. Since British universities rarely even teach sociology and politics of religion, human rights departments rarely have experts studying or courses teaching these issues, a generation of jet setting activists and diplomats roam the world in utter blindness.

The third reason is the fear factor. Organizations and diplomats who notice the fast growing problem feel completely out of their depth and worry about being branded as campaigners against particular religions if they pick on religious persecution in a country. But if someone points to the persecution faced by individuals in India or Saudi Arabia, one does not attack Hinduism or Islam, but the failure of those states in upholding human rights and protecting their citizens. The lack of academic and policy research on religious freedom law and advocacy is paralysing even the most willing activists.

The fourth and the deepest reason is human psychology and tribalism that only sees the importance of human rights for people like themselves. People with certain political, cultural, religious and sexual orientations tend to only advocate for human rights for people like themselves, ignoring the suffering of other people who don't share these.

Sadly, through out the years, I have been in countless meetings and read countless human rights documents where human rights abuses were picked up or ignored according to the personal likes and dislikes of those advocating for them. I saw leftist and liberal Westerners dismissing suffering of conservative and religious individuals, Christian groups only caring for suffering of fellow Christians at the expense of turning a complete blind eye to the suffering of those of other faiths. And in return, I saw Muslims, Baha'is and Jews doing the same only for their own co-religionists and atheists just picking up cases like that of Salman Rushdie.

It is high time for human rights academics, researchers and advocates to put their biases, blind spots and arrogance that goes with them on the table and stop ignoring suffering of millions of people, just because they hold religions and beliefs other than themselves.  In the age of polarization and exclusion, religious freedom has become the litmus test measuring the extent of our commitment to human rights for all. Sadly, most of us are failing this test dramatically.

 

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