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preventing violence committed in the name of religion

Heiner Bielefeldt, the  UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, led a p anel discussion on his report to the UN on Preventing Violence Committed in the Name of Religion on Friday October 23 at Baha’I International Offices in New York.

“This has nothing to do with religion.”
“This violence is not our business and has nothing to do with us?”

For years, religious leaders have not seen their religion in violent terms. However, some of these same leaders are finally suggesting that they must overcome the state of denial when it comes to dealing with the violence that is committed in the name of religion, and while religion is not usually the root cause, it is definitely a factor. Mr. Bielefeldt reminded the audience that it’s not religion that is committing the violence; it’s perpetrated by human beings who have radically interpreted religion to suit their political needs.

A Brief Summary of Mr. Bielefeldt’s Report to the Human Rights Council

In order to effectively combat religious extremism, a holistic understanding of the various factors involved in violence committed in the name of religion is urgently needed. This is among the recommendations made by Heiner Bielefeldt in his report to the Human Rights Council. It sets out a multifaceted strategy of how to prevent "violence in the name of religion," based around concerted action by government, religious communities and civil society organizations. Bielefeldt identifies two traps into which analysis of religion often falls, warning of the dangers of both extremes. The first is that religion itself can be used as a complete explanation of religious violence. The second is that religious ideology has little or nothing to do with the acts of violence perpetrated in its name.

The state's role in promoting or tolerating violence in the name of religion ranges from passive to active but is nonetheless a major factor. Policies of exclusion of a particular group, or conversely the privileging of another, often create the conditions for religious violence, particularly where the state perceives itself to be the guardian of a particular religion. At the conclusion of his 23 page report, the Special Rapporteur listed 33 recommendations. One of these recommendations is that states respect freedom of religion or belief when undertaking actions to contain and combat religious violence, something often compromised through security heavy handedness. Acting in this way will make it easier for governments to lead by example in using education and community outreach to promote a culture of respect, non-discrimination and appreciation of diversity within society at large. These conditions will help to build resilience in the event of societal shocks that often lead to religious violence.

Panel Discussing the Report

Mr. Bielefeldt’s remarks were followed by comments from two impressive scholars: W. Cole Durham, an educator who is currently the Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, and Agnes Callamard, an expert in human rights and humanitarian work, who has conducted human rights investigations in a number of countries is Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Cole Durham equated violence with evil and said that neither provides an anchor for moral consensus. State repression competes with law and order around the globe so that we’re up against a world of differences and all won’t agree with how to deal with this issue of violence in the name of religion. The state must understand the differences and lower threat levels in order to diffuse the problem and build some sort of consensus.

Agnes Callamard declared that Bielefeldt’s report is one of the best to move us into a better understanding of the connection between violence and religion. She believes that human rights must provide the light to move us forward. Currently there is not an accepted definition of violent extremism so all states provide a different answer. There is a link between extremism and violent extremism so currently all radical thinking is being targeted. 

Ms. Callamard has reason to be optimistic. There is a social movement taking place to fight violence in the name of religion, i.e. North Africa. In addition, religious leaders are responding to incitement. In responding to Mr. Durham, Mr. Bielefeldt stated that there is a need for enforcement, institution-building and clear concepts to hold states accountable. He warned that a state can delegitimize any religion with words so anti- extremist laws must be very clear and specific.

PRESENTED BY MADELEINE BRECHER, ICJW UN Representative