Could there be anything less controversial than religious liberty? Other than extreme reactionaries like ISIS or Donald Trump, it’s hard to imagine who might oppose a person’s right to freely practice their faith and observe their religious customs. In 1948, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined the right to religious freedom as one of its most important liberties. And the appeal of this right appears to have gained strength during the last two decades, as a plethora of organizations have sprung up to defend religious minorities from cruel oppression. Think tanks like the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, the bipartisan congressional US Commission on International Religious Freedom, and dozens of other international NGOs routinely supervise the actions of governments and advocate intervention against religious persecution in places such as Myanmar or South Sudan. Religious rights seem to be a matter of rare consensus, both domestically and internationally. What is there to say against them?
Quite a bit, as it turns out. Over the last few years, anthropologists, political scientists, and historians have launched blistering attacks against religious liberty. In a series of provocative writings, they have argued that far from being a vehicle for equality, the enforcement of religious liberty discriminates against some groups and in favor of others; it also apparently exacerbates conflicts and imposes unfair restrictions on certain minorities. One needn’t look far for proof of this claim. The European Court of Human Rights has made several spectacular rulings on the issue, such as Dahlab v. Switzerland in 2001 and Lautsi v. Italy in 2011, both of which invoked religious freedom in order to deny it to Muslims. In Dahlab, the court ruled that banning head scarves in Swiss schools guarantees students’ right to be free of indoctrination; in Lautsi, it simultaneously approved the hanging of crucifixes in all Italian schools. The cross, the court maintained, was not a religious artifact but a symbol of European culture. According to critics of religious liberty, this dismal hypocrisy was not a misinterpretation of the law but instead the predictable result of a flawed concept. The problem is that states and courts get drawn into the business of regulating religion in the first place, and by doing so tend to impose their own understanding of the “right” religion, namely that of the majority.
At the core of the scholarly assault on religious liberty is an audacious agenda: to use a critique of religious rights to attack secularism as a whole. The most incisive contemporary critics of secularism are not American evangelicals or Catholics, Jews, or Muslims, but left-leaning and often atheist thinkers. For intellectual inspiration, such authors often turn to the renowned anthropologist Talal Asad, whose Formations of the Secular (2003) claimed that secularism and its attendant concept of rights have never been as neutral or liberating as they seemed. Rather, secularism has been closely tied to Euro-American and Christian ideas, and its promotion part of the West’s imperial quest to impose its “universal” principles everywhere and to shape diverse religious communities according to its own conception of belief. For Asad and others, today’s advocates of religious rights, like the imperialist agents of “the civilizing mission” before them, mostly do more harm than good.