Western elites are dumbfounded that religion matters so much to people and can breed so much violence. But they need to learn quickly that it can also be used for good.
Two days after the ousting of President Morsi of Egypt, Emile Naseem, 41, and his nephew were running for their lives. The Christian businessman had led an anti-Morsi petition, and a mob in their village of Nagaa Hassan attacked the pair with axes and clubs as they scrambled on to a roof and jumped from building to building. As one report put it: “Finally they ran out of rooftops.” Mr Naseem was killed, his nephew badly injured. That day Islamist extremists stabbed to death three other Christians and burnt dozens of homes in the village.
Several powerful forces are at work. The Arab Spring is unleashing the hatreds of Islamic radicalism against Christian and other religious minorities. According to a report by the Pew Research Centre, countries in the Middle East and North Africa have witnessed “pronounced increases in social hostilities involving religion” since 2011.
Nevertheless, human rights groups warn of an “existential crisis” facing Christians in the Muslim world. In Egypt, 16 human rights groups have signed a joint statement condemning incitement to violence against Christians. In Syria, an estimated 300,000 Christians have fled the country. In Turkey, Christians have been publicly called “an internal threat, a danger and an enemy”. Iraq’s Christian population has been devastated by persecution and flight, since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Pakistan has been singled out for criticism by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which sees a direct link between blasphemy laws and a culture of religious persecution. Over 18 months, it documented 203 acts of religiously motivated violence, injuring more than 1,800 people and claiming more than 700 lives. The methods included suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, torture, beheadings and mob violence.
Another factor is the expansion of laws restricting religious freedom: 64 nations, making up nearly 70 per cent of the world’s population, place high or very high restrictions on religion. Muslim-majority states, which typically criminalise “blasphemy”, or religious speech considered insulting to Islam, are the worst offenders.
How did the West overcome its legacy of bigotry and repression?
It was only when religious leaders viewed freedom of conscience as a natural right that the politics of persecution came under sustained assault. Religious thinkers from John Locke to James Madison dared to imagine a more generous approach to Christian faith. By appealing to the noblest religious impulses, by insisting upon a political system of equal justice for all faiths, they showed antagonists how to live together.
“It is not the diversity of opinions which cannot be avoided,” wrote Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). “But the refusal of toleration to those that are of different opinions, which might have been granted, that has produced all the bustles and wars that have been in the Christian world, upon account of religion.”
There is a path through this wilderness of persecution, if we can summon the wisdom, courage and faith to take it.