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Op-Ed: Secularism, religiosity and human rights

Op-Ed: Secularism, religiosity and human rights

Liberation theologies are needed in the struggle for human rights and gender justice. By ZANE DANGOR.

Culture, traditions and religiosity can be used to oppress people or they can form part of a broader human rights struggle, including countercultural struggles against oppressive regimes. The intersection between religion, tradition and culture and conservatism can and does attempt to control peoples right to “be”. Often, this control can mean more than just a curtailment of human rights, but can lead to people losing their lives.

This fact was recently displayed by perhaps the most bizarre statement delivered by any head of state at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in modern history – by Donald Trump of the US. Aside from the infantile use of words like “Rocket Man” to refer to another curiously dangerous head of state, Trump attacked multilateralism and secularism at the UNGA. The UN and its agencies are expected to be at the forefront of promoting secularism so that states can implement the provisions in the UN Charter and the International Bill of Rights that protects people’s freedoms of belief, religion, conscience and expression. It is for this reason that the Secretary-General of the UN is often referred to as the “secular pope”.

Trump attacked the multilateral institutions and processes necessary to avoid recourse to the use of force – the primary driver behind establishment of the UN after the horrors of World War II. He also used the word “God” numerous times to reflect on his perception of American and “civilised” cultures and how to protect these. In essence, Trump articulated the sentiments of the popular right-wing and often Christian fundamentalism that propelled him into office to threaten to murder approximately 36-million people. Trump’s support base is curious in that aside from the popular Christian Right, it included the “anti-establishment” right and, even more curious, the essentially Islamophobic gay white male right-wing fringe lobby.

Trumpist Christianity, Netanyahu’s version of Judaism, the Islamic versions of ISIL/ISIS, the violent and genocidal Buddhist nationalism of Aung San Suu Kyi and Narendra Modi’s violent Hindu Nationalism, are some of the more obvious examples of how organised religions can be used to discriminate, kill and oppress. Aside from these versions of religiosity as instruments to murder and oppress there is also the discrimination associated with the more normative versions of these and other organised religions that routinely promote discrimination and often violence on the other. “The other” can be race, gender and sexual orientation and gender equality.

The rise of right-wing leaders through essentially modern democratic processes is an indicator of the disturbing fact that there is a global increase in conservative religiosity. Miroslav Volf, the Founding Director of the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture, in his latest book entitled Flourishing: Why we need religion in a globalised world, presents compelling information about the steady growth of what he terms the seven world religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) *, in both absolute and relative numbers, from 1970 to 2005. In Africa, Pew Centre Research surveys note that religions are on the rise, and that this does not correlate with affluence. In addition, the research estimated that in 2010, 79% to 98% of the population are practising believers. Furthermore, a median of 60% and 63% of Christians and Muslims, respectively, supported making their faith books as guides for the “law of the land” (Pew Forum 2010: 11).

In relative numbers, the number of people that adhered to the seven world religions increased from 67.8% to 72.4% of the world population. Volf notes that the number of people who self-describe as non-religious stands at 1.1-billion strong; this is decrease as a percentage of the world population. These numbers contradict modernisation theories among others that posited that globalised policies and including (neoliberal) economic policies would lead to a decrease in religiosity.

The worrying factor is that the increase is also a rise in conservative and bigoted religiosity globally. Aside from the US and Trump, the rise of social conservatism in Russia follows from the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church has reportedly a significant influence on key players in the Russian government. Even in the progressive, secular politics of post-revolutionary Latin America, the religious inspired conservatism that shaped politics and social policy in the 20th century is resurgent. In Brazil, with the Workers’ Party in crisis, there is now a strong Christian Fundamentalist lobby that actively opposes reproductive rights and other rights for women. The role of the church in Nicaragua and Guatemala remains prescient in terms of shaping social norms and serves to curtail the rights of women.

If one considers the social conservatism in much of the so-called ‘Muslim world’, a significant section of the world’s people live in jurisdictions where human rights are bounded by norms shaped by religious fundamentalisms.

Now for the double whammy, the relationship between certain forms of secularism has also served to curtail human rights. That is, secularism also necessitates its own checks and balances. “Secular fundamentalism” in many parts of the world, in particular in Europe, is essentially a platform for a virulent form of Islamophobia. This Islamophobic secularism is perhaps most evident in France where even Muslim women in particular are becoming targets of discrimination for wearing headscarves and burkas.

Islamophobic secularism has given rise to a situation wherein the human rights of Muslims are being bounded in much the same way that religious fundamentalism circumscribes the rights of people in other parts of the world. In essence, the emergence of religious fundamentalism and anti-human rights secular fundamentalism have conspired to roll back the post World War II consensus of building a rights-based world, wherein fundamental human rights, including the freedom of religion, conscience and belief, would be the bedrock on which to build peace and prosperous societies.

The rise of religious fundamentalism is arguably an outcome of the failed promise of modernisation; this failure being characterised by persisting levels of poverty and inequality, and the manner in which individual worth was narrowly measured in material terms. The sinners in these failures included those who chose to approach human rights from within a secularist framework that privileged individualist civil and political rights over social, economic and cultural rights.

The failure to acknowledge and advocate for economic justice provided ammunition to religious fundamentalists of all faiths. They exploited the growing inequalities within and between countries to build on the false dichotomy between human rights and development. This is a false dichotomy as human rights are inclusive of civil, social, political, cultural and economic rights. Nonetheless, an organised transnational religious fundamentalism has emerged on the basis that secularist civil and political human rights were Western impositions that needed to be challenged.

This organised backlash was most evident in Uganda where we saw the emergence of legal frameworks that sought to jail people based on their sexual orientation and gendered identities. This mirrored similar laws and values in conservative states in Arizona and Texas in the USA. This is because much of the funding and ideological support for this form of anti-secularist human rights came from the Christian Right in the US and Arizona in particular. Again, the situation in Uganda was aggravated when some Western governments who were arguably inspired by secularist fundamentalism sought to punish the Ugandan government through withdrawing aid.

The emergence of post-secular societies, if unchecked, may see the re-emergence and strengthening of religious states where non-progressive Christian values or sharia law become dominant and reminiscent of pre-modernisation societies. Leaving “unchecked” though should not imply the employment of strategies that are anti-faith. Secularism in legal terms always sought to respect freedom of religion, conscience and belief. Therefore the emergence of secularist fundamentalisms is as dangerous as the emergence of conservative religious fundamentalisms.

Given the emergence of secular and religious bigotry the struggle for human rights and gender justice needs to be multifaceted. Progressive civil society, governments and the United Nations need to be steadfast in the separation between religion and state but ensure that they also, guided by provisions in the International Bill of Rights, ensure that all people enjoy the fundamental rights to freedom of religion and belief.

At the same time, progressive civil society and UN agencies cannot disengage from discourses in society where age-old beliefs in mysticism are still held dearly by the majority of the populations of the world. What we should do is tap into the positive elements of that mysticism and use that to strengthen global rights-based cultures and practices. This mysticism for example includes the fundamental belief that all people are or should be equal and treated humanely.

In an article I wrote a few years ago on the principle of sufficiency, I quoted one of my intellectual and struggle heroes, Neville Alexander from South Africa. Alexander was a socialist and a strong secularist but in one of his essays entitled “South Africa Today, The Moral Responsibility of Intellectuals”, Alexander quotes from a speech made by Ernest Mandel wherein he referred to the biblical Sermon on the Mount as a basis for a society that values sufficiency, equality and solidarity. The biblical injunction Mandel referred to says the following:

  • Feed the Hungry
  • Clothe the Naked
  • House the Homeless
  • Visit the Sick
  • Care for the Old, the Young and the Weak

It is this progressive religiosity found in almost all faiths that give rise to liberation theology and movements organised around liberation theology that helped fight against the oppression of colonialism. It is this liberatory nature within mysticism that we should tap into to build respect for all human rights, including sexual rights, reproductive health and rights and economic inclusion and equality.

While formal secularism is important, large numbers of people are people of faith and we should not allow those who are conservative and unable to embrace pluralism to interpret the history of mysticism to shape the world including public policy in their own bigoted images. We need to see mysticism and faith as an arena of struggle and a battle of ideas. The rich history of liberation theology and its role in the struggle against apartheid should be harnessed to protect human rights and gender justice. As part of the struggle against a system of oppression through law and conservative Calvinism, organised clergy from all faiths rallied around the traditions of liberation theology and were at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid.

Struggle leaders and organisations of faith were mobilised by the moral tenet of the equality of all people and grounded on firm belief that no person should be oppressed on any grounds whatsoever. These beliefs help inform the principles of the post-apartheid Constitution.

The tradition of liberation theology in South Africa should be resurrected. We need leaders of all faiths and their organisations to mobilise against the misguided attempts by the African Democratic Party (ACDP) to curtail women’s reproductive rights, which is a human right. We need the leaders of all faiths and their organisations, in the spirit of solidarity, to rally behind progressive civil society formations across the globe to protect people from discrimination and violence based on their Sexual Orientation and Gender Identities. Progressive faith leaders must rally behind those struggling for social, economic and environmental justice.

To conclude, in the words of Jon O’ Brien from Catholics for Choice, “Religion and its power in societies are too important to be left to the right-wing zealots.” DM

*Volf defines world or secondary religions as opposed to local or primary religions in the context of their axial transformation, the ability to adapt and to grow. Their characteristics include: two world account of reality, human beings as individuals, universal claims, the good beyond ordinary flourishing, a distinct cultural system, and the transformation of mundane realities.

Photo by Seth Willingham on Unsplash.


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