02/07/2013 18:00 BST | Updated 01/09/2013 06:12 BST

Religious Freedom: Principle or Plot?

The hue and cry at Channel 4's Ramadan broadcasts and call to prayer highlights the way religion is jumping back into the headlines in an unhelpfully sensationalist fashion.

The hue and cry at Channel 4's Ramadan broadcasts and call to prayer highlights the way religion is jumping back into the headlines in an unhelpfully sensationalist fashion. The good news is that in foreign affairs attitudes are moving in the right direction. Both the USA and Canada now have active offices for religious freedom and the British Foreign Office has a dedicated staffer for the topic. Last week the Council of European Union Foreign Ministers made a commitment to monitor religious freedom through their diplomatic missions.

This is not to say that religious concerns were totally ignored before 9/11. Diplomatic services in the former Soviet Union had Jewish dissidents and Pentecostals needing help as part of their workload. But as the former Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See, Anne Leahy, is reported as saying, her Prime Minister now "implicitly puts [religious freedom] promotion on a level equal to that of other major interests such as economic prosperity and security". This is an altogether different, and welcome, level of concern.

Why? The most obvious answer is based on the best available statistics - from the Pew Foundation - indicate that religious un-freedom, government controls and social hostility, is on the rise with the "Arab Spring" adding to the deterioration. Religious freedom has rightly risen up the agenda.

Christians and Muslims, the latter facing a frightening level of Sunni-Shi'a fraternal strife in West Asia and the Middle East are often seen as somehow complicit in the foreign policies the powers fighting proxy or hands-on wars, and suffer accordingly. This must have heightened concern. But this is not invariably the understanding. One of the insights that I took away from a McGill/Tony Blair Faith Foundation Summer school on religion and foreign policy in Montreal last week was that the championing of religious freedom was viewed with suspicion by some weighty academics from "unaligned" countries. There were two arguments running concurrently.

The first dates back to the founding of the United Nations and the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After the Holocaust and in the face of Stalinist suppression of religion, the British Council of Churches and Jewish organisations approached Eleanor Roosevelt seeking a declaration on religious freedom. The argument in response was that a declaration on religious freedom could only stand in the context of a wider declaration promoting other basic rights. Today the echoing argument is that you cannot have religious freedom without democracy and an end to authoritarian forms of governance.

The fulfilment of UN Article 18, the right to religious freedom, requires democratic governments committed to pluralism and protection of minorities. Prioritising rights can be an invidious game. But the counter argument - recently made explicitly by the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion in the UK - is that religious freedom has become de facto a "residual right" to be honoured only when reasons of realpolitik do not suggest otherwise.

So it is precisely a question of sustaining the equal importance of the different articles. Though, of course, the right to life and to religious freedom as the right to meaning are surely moving into a more religious discourse, basic to human dignity. Moreover, a concept of human rights without a concept of human dignity, will likely end up as a citizenship rather than a universal right. And citizenship rights can disappear like the morning dew for minorities and refugees.

The other argument is less easily discussed because it stems from how each country chooses to interpret and advocate Article 18 and the right to religious freedom, and there is an inveterate "hermeneutic of suspicion". This is coupled with the not unreasonable question: "is your own house in order?".

Let's begin with the first. The history of colonialism and imperialism does not provide a comforting precedent. A nation that has tortured and castrated Kenyan detainees might blush at lecturing Kenyans on human rights today. But, as they say in the Catholic confessional, can there not be a firm intention of amendment? Even if there is backsliding in the face of terrorist threats, are powerful countries to be denied the possibility of having values as well as interests? Might it not be that this is a matter of fellow human beings doing the right thing for the right reason?

Secondly, yes, hysteria about minarets in Zurich and the unhelpful reaction in the media to a call to prayer during Ramadan on Channel 4 is not my idea of a culture practising or at ease with religious pluralism.

But what moral equivalence exists between that and a young Pakistani girl shot by Taliban militants in the name of God because she wants girls to have a proper education? Do we all have to become post-modern relativists, throw away any concept of truth, and become obliged to give up on any shared moral compass?

There can be no doubt that the Cold War, amongst other pernicious consequences, resulted in the politicisation of human rights. The Cold War is over. It is not the case that the attempt to honour Article 18 is another "western plot" nor is it inevitable that it will be used as a political weapon. So let's just say, as Gandhi said of British democracy.... it would be a good idea.