The Varieties of Religious Repression in Nondemocratic Regimes

By: Ani Sarkissian

Religious persecution and repression are not new phenomena in any part of the world. Though violent religious persecution was more widespread in the period prior to the global spread of democratization and persists to this day, lower-intensity repression of religion, disguised as legalism, is even more prevalent in the contemporary period.

In a range of countries that lack competitive elections and protection of basic civil liberties (which I label "nondemocratic"), laws, policies, and executive decrees purport to regulate religion in a neutral manner but are wielded to target particular groups. These include laws that ban or restrict some religious groups, prevent groups from meeting or owning property, and limit their expression through literature or broadcasting. Sometimes these laws lead to religious conflict and violent persecution. Often, they lead to repression, which I define as the nonviolent suppression of civil and political rights related to religion. Most of the time, they allow politicians to entrench their rule.

My book, The Varieties of Religious Repression: Why Governments Restrict Religion, asks the question: Why do some nondemocratic countries repress religion, while others do not? Comparing 101 nondemocratic countries from around the globe from 1990 to 2010, I explain why these states vary in their policies toward religion and how understanding religious repression informs the study of regimes in political science. I focus on two main variables to construct my theory, the level of political competition and the structure of religious divisions in society. It is through the interaction of these two factors that we can understand the level of religious repression that exists in a country, as well as which groups will be targeted with it. Once we recognize the threat potential of religious groups and the ability of states to respond to them, we can better grasp both the varieties of religious repression and the varieties of nondemocratic regimes found in the world today.

Examining the level of competition in the political sphere gives us some clues to why the level of religious repression varies across countries. Nondemocratic regimes can have little to no competition for executive office (for example, hereditary monarchies) or hold unfree and unfair elections to pick top state officials (for example, electoral authoritarian states). We should thus expect to find higher levels of religious repression in countries with less competitive politics. In states with few checks and constraints on executive power, incumbent politicians are able to repress with impunity, as there are few institutions or groups able to challenge their authority. On the other hand, greater political competition decreases the repressive capacity of governments, as it requires them to compete for political support and therefore moderate their coercive tendencies.

However, outcomes in the real world are not as clear-cut. Some nondemocratic states with greater political competition impose high levels of religious restrictions, and others with less competition impose few or no restrictions on religion. Moreover, when we examine more closely the types of repressive policies states impose, we find that states vary significantly in terms of which groups they target.

To explain this variation, we need to consider the context in which states construct religion policy, namely, the structure of religious divisions in society. A religiously divided society is one in which religion acts as an important source of societal cleavage and conflict. It can take many forms, including conflicts over the role that religion should play in the state and politics and competition between different religious groups (or sects within one religious group) for adherents, legitimacy, or influence.

Together, political competition and religious divisions in society explain how nondemocratic states target repression. I argue that countries with the lowest levels of political competition and high religious divisions in society will target repression at all religious groups, as high religious divisions make the countries more susceptible to group-based conflict, while low levels of political competition make it easier for the state to repress as many groups as possible to avoid that conflict. These states will even maintain strict control over groups friendly to them to avoid the potential for these groups to gain enough power to destabilize the government.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, nondemocratic countries with higher levels of political competition and societies that are not religiously divided will commit little repression, as the potential for conflict along religious lines is low and groups do not pose a political threat. Furthermore, higher levels of political competition mean that politicians will find it hard to wield repression as a governing tool without sacrificing legitimacy, influence, and votes.   

Countries in the middle range of political competition and religious divisions should exhibit more selective state repression of religion, targeting only some groups. Because political competition is constrained in these countries, state leaders are able to apply laws selectively to certain groups without facing the negative consequences we would expect from such behavior in more competitive regimes. Which religious groups states choose to target or favor will depend on circumstances specific to each country’s religious arena.

I argue that this theory allows us to compare nondemocratic states across regions and from a variety of religious traditions without having to rely on stereotypes about the amenability of particular religions to democracy and religious freedom. For instance, Islam has often been criticized for lacking a distinction between the religious and political spheres and failing to abide by universal human rights conventions related to religion. Yet my research shows that majority Muslim countries can be found everywhere across the religious repression spectrum. Some, like Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, repress religion strongly. Others, such as Albania and Senegal, strongly protect religious freedom.

Thus, examining religious repression in nondemocratic states from a perspective that focuses on the costs and benefits states get from engaging in it allows us to examine state religion policy for what it is: a tool that can be used by governments to manipulate the political arena to serve their own interests and retain political power.

Ani Sarkissian is an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University (MSU) and an associate scholar with the Berkley Center's Religious Freedom Project.

This piece was originally authored on May 26, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. 

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