Restrictions on Religious Freedom, Even If Not Supported by Law, Do Matter

Recent government actions (including an Austrian law restricting German translations of the Qur'an, a German circumcision ban, a French headscarf ban, and a Swiss aminaret ban) are restricting Muslims' religious freedom in western Europe. Please join us on Cornerstone as diverse commentators explore the obstacles that European Muslim communities face and what these challenges mean for the future of religious freedom. 

By: Abdullah Saeed

Over the last few years, many around the world have been watching with some concern, as the religious freedoms of Muslims in some Western countries have been somewhat restricted. Notable examples are the ban on minarets in Switzerland, the ban on headscarves in France, and more recent calls for bans on circumcision and Islamic methods of slaughter. While these bans appear to be mainly directed at Muslims, they do impact other religious communities as well. For instance, the bans on circumcision and slaughter according to religious guidelines will also affect Jewish communities. The ban on headscarves could also affect the wearing of different kinds of headgear by men in Sikh and possibly Jewish communities. Indeed, in time, the repercussions of these bans will be felt in many other religious communities. 

Historically, Australian society has not been particularly obsessed with religion, although certainly religion and religiosity have their place. Religious communities have the freedom to function as people of faith, and to manifest and practice their religion. This freedom is, by and large, protected by the constitution and by the law. 

While Australia has appeared to be an oasis of religious freedom in the middle of a desert of intolerance, Muslims in Australia have started to feel the effect of these global pressures. Although Australia has not initiated any laws specifically targeting Muslim religious practices, and government officials at both the federal and state level have consistently maintained the position that they are not interested in imposing any bans on Muslims (e.g. bans on immigration or the veil), at the social level, voices of hate and intolerance are getting increasingly louder.

Let me mention two very recent incidents that highlight this concern. 

While one may think that calls for restrictions on the religious freedom of Muslims are the product of lone voices in the fray, one is beginning to see echoes of these voices even in our most cherished institution—the Parliament. It was decided recently that Muslim women who cover their faces and who want to enter the Parliament as visitors must be seated behind a glass screen, after they go through the airport-like security screening. 

Despite the fact that politicians on both sides—Labour and Liberal—have rejected calls to ban the veil, and the security agencies have apparently maintained that the veil as such does not represent a security threat, this decision symbolically suggests otherwise. While this decision was handled poorly, causing some concern in the Australian community, one must credit the leadership of the country for overturning the decision. Nevertheless, this incident reminds us how easily those lone voices can infiltrate our corridors of power. 

A second example focuses on the blocking of Muslim projects. In Bendigo (a town in the state of Victoria), a small group of people, many of whom apparently do not even live in the town, recently launched a systematic campaign against the building of a mosque there using the most crude labels against Islam and Muslims, despite the fact that members of Bendigo City Council and the local population seem to overwhelmingly support the mosque. Even though this incident surrounds a mosque in a small town, such local campaigns can now gain international attention through the use of social media and connect with international players whose goal is to systematically target Muslims in the Western world. 

These recent examples point to an emerging worrying trend in Australia as far as the religious freedom of Muslims is concerned. Understandably, since 9/11, Muslim minorities in Western countries have had to suffer more than their fair share of harassment and restrictions, which are not necessarily endorsed by the country’s legal system or constitution. Australia generally upholds the right to religious freedom in its domestic law and is a signatory of the major international human rights conventions that emphasize freedom of religion. So, in a sense, we can say that there are no real legal problems with respect to religious freedom of Muslims, as such laws would most likely be unconstitutional if they existed. 

But restrictions on religious freedom do not always have to be enshrined in law. In fact, what we are seeing is a new phenomenon that is adversely affecting the ability for at least some Muslims to function in Western societies as Muslims. Certain sections of the media in general and social media in particular have become powerful platforms for the harassment of Muslims and the agitation against Islam. People can hide behind their anonymity in the social media and say whatever they want about a group, an individual, or a religious tradition. They can mount campaigns against mosques or ways of slaughtering animals from the safety of their own homes, enlisting the support of thousands of people who may have no direct connection to the local issues at hand. 

Given the way social media works, it has become easy for certain people to make major national or international issues out of minor local ones. Unfortunately, there is very little that individuals or communities can do in the face of a social media onslaught against them. Legal avenues can be extremely limited in such contexts, and many of these activities are protected as freedom of expression, a value that is extremely important in our societies. 

In the post-9/11 climate, many of us who are watching these developments in the domain of religious freedom are anxiously hoping that this will come to an end. Unfortunately, the players in this are not just a few individuals here and there who have local grievances or concerns, but often global players who are trying to influence national policies and laws. So far, their success in getting laws changed to suit their broader agenda in countries like Australia has been very limited, but we are seeing them beginning to carve inroads into the corridors of power even there, bit by bit. 

The question is whether Muslims are the only group that will pay the price if more and more restrictions are placed upon them, or whether those restrictions will extend to other religious groups, narrowing the scope of religious freedom for all. The risk is that we all may be the victims of such restrictions and intolerance.

Abdullah Saeed is the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne.

This piece was originally authored on December 8, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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