By Jakob De Roover
The annual reports of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have long irked politicians and citizens from countries placed on its ‘watch list’. This is no different in India. In the 2015 report released about a fortnight ago, the country again occupies an unenviable spot in Tier 2, which includes countries where the religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious.
Striking about this year’s report, however, is its claim that incidents of religiously-motivated and communal violence have ‘reportedly’ increased for three consecutive years in India. “According to Muslim and Christian NGOs that track communal incidents,” it adds, “2014 statistics, yet to be released by the ministry, will be likely higher” than the 823 incidents recorded in 2013.
What is so remarkable about this? Well, the Indian home ministry’s official data about communal incidents for 2014 give a very different picture. The number of incidents saw a significant decrease to 644 in 2014. The USCIRF report also includes Andhra Pradesh, “Chattisgarhi” [sic], and Odisha among states that “tend to have the greatest number of religiously-motivated attacks and communal violence incidents.” Yet the home ministry’s information recorded no incident in Chhattisgarh, just three in Odisha, and five in Andhra Pradesh.
How reliable then are the international religious freedom reports of the US government? The obvious retort to this question is that the home ministry’s data for 2014 must be very biased. But which other unbiased data could establish this bias? When asked this question, an American academic responded as follows: “I don’t have any data, but given who is in charge, it can’t help but be biased.” That, of course, is a knockdown argument.
Other academics point out that many incidents of communal violence remain unreported in India. But surely this is not the issue at stake. The real question is about the number of communal incidents in 2014 relative to the number of such incidents in the two preceding years. The data provided by the home ministry show that this number is lower. Now, are there facts (or well-founded reasons) that prove that in 2014 suddenly a much higher number of communal incidents were not reported than in previous years? If this is not the case, then we can only assume that the average number of unreported incidents has not changed significantly. And if that is the case, then the claims of the
USCIRF must be false.
What evidence did the American commission draw upon to come to its conclusions? Its website claims the following: “USCIRF obtains information about violations of religious freedom abroad in multiple ways, including visiting selected countries in order to observe facts on the ground, meeting regularly with foreign officials, religious leaders and groups, victims of religious intolerance, and representatives of civil society, non-governmental organisations, government agencies, and national and international organisations, and keeping abreast of credible news reports.”
Indeed, the 2015 report shows the results of this type of deep research. It mentions conversations with minority religious leaders and NGO representatives. Its repetitive use of the words ‘reportedly’ and ‘report’ is striking: “Incidents of religiously-motivated and communal violence reportedly have increased”; “Christian NGOs and leaders report that their community is particularly at risk…”; “… Muslim communities have reported facing undue scrutiny and arbitrary arrests and detentions”; Indian Christians, converts and missionaries “have reported more frequent harassment and violence …”.
The evidence then seems to amount to impressions of particular people, hearsay, anecdotes and newspaper articles. Clearly, it gives a privileged status to the observations of certain NGOs, religious leaders, and the dominant media, which can hardly count as reliable and ‘unbiased’ sources in these matters. Moreover, the report depends on dubious concepts such as ‘religiously-motivated violence’, but forgets to mention what criteria it used to find out whether violent incidents are ‘religiously-motivated’ or otherwise.
Naturally, the fact that some religious groups feel threatened in their basic freedoms is important. Some Hindu nationalist organisations do commit unacceptable acts of violence against Christians and Muslims. Such crimes need to be addressed by the government. Some Hindutva supporters are also becoming increasingly aggressive online and elsewhere. This problem has to be examined and tackled. But can all of this serve as evidence for grand claims about the disquieting rise of religious freedom violations in India? Does it suffice to make recommendations to the US government about Tier 2 ‘watch lists’ and the like? No, it does not. It appears that forces other than evidence give shape to the claims of the American campaign for international religious freedom.
Hypocrisy: Which forces might those be? One obvious route is to note the hypocrisy and ‘holier than thou’ stance behind the US international human rights violation reports. This government would never dream of putting its own country on its watch lists, even though there are good reasons to do so. For instance, to identify “countries of particular concern,” the USCIRF uses the standard of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which defines “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom as “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as—(a) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; (b) prolonged detention without charges; (c) causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or (dD) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”
This reads like a laundry list of the American government’s war on terror.
However, simply noting that the US violates its own standards (as the Chinese government does in its own annual human rights violations reports) can neither explain nor legitimise anything much. It does not account for the many American policies that do reflect a genuine concern about the state of religious freedom at home and abroad. Still, the sense that the annual report reeks of the disingenuous has legitimate grounds. In fact, a more fundamental hypocrisy is at work. Let me explain how.
Both the conceptual language and the style of collecting evidence of the USCIRF go way back to the foundations of religious freedom in theology. The notion of Christian freedom is perhaps the core theological value of Protestant Christianity. Basically, it says the following: no human being has authority in the religious sphere, for only the biblical God can rule there. Therefore, the state cannot interfere in matters of religion. Each conscience – the faculty that conveys to humanity the will of its Sovereign Creator – should always be free, for no man possesses the knowledge required to decide when another’s conscience truly discloses God’s will or when it succumbs to Satan’s seductive whispers.
The USCIRF’s annual reports reflect these deep-seated religious concerns of Protestant Christianity. Take its vehement rejection of anti-conversion legislation in India as a violation of religious freedom. This derives from the Christian belief that every individual should be free to turn towards the true God at all times and that this can be done only by converting from false to true religion. For the US commission, this freedom to follow one’s own conscience always overrides other concerns – say, for instance, the worry often voiced in India that Christian missionary activity constitutes aggression upon the traditions, sensitivities, and harmony of a community.
Why? Well, protecting individual religious freedom has to do with safeguarding the right of every person to follow the will of the true God, which supersedes any issue that is merely human, such as the peace or stability of some social group. Hence, the fact that missionary work involves abusing the Hindu traditions as ‘false religion’ or their devas and devis as ‘false gods’ is considered much less problematic than putting restrictions on conversion. The fact that converts often insult the traditions to which they previously belonged is irrelevant when compared to the individual’s freedom of religion. The fact that family and community life are severely disrupted because of proselytisation is a trivial detail in the face of the eternal human choice between true and false religion, between God and the devil.
This is not the only religious dimension of the 2015 report. In spite of apparent evidence to the contrary, it suggests that the dominance of the BJP (as a Hindu nationalist party) in the Indian government must inevitably give rise to an upsurge of religious and communal violence. In other words, the entry of Hinduism into politics constitutes a major threat to religious freedom. Again, this conviction is rooted in the religion that gave shape to American culture.
According to Protestantism, heathen religions like that of India always tyrannise the human spirit. Inspired by the devil, they are characterised by their violation of Christian religious freedom. Therefore, the story continues, ‘Hinduism’ aims to stifle the soul and subordinate the conscience to human authority (through its caste system, for instance). Stripped of their overtly theological elements, such beliefs entered American common sense and popular discourse about India and her traditions. This story about ‘Hinduism’ makes it all the more obvious to the Americans (and to others who accept this story, such as the Indian secularists) that the freedom to escape from this religion should be safeguarded at all cost.
Little wonder then that factual evidence is of secondary concern to the USCIRF. The background framework within which it works is a scarcely secularised Protestant religious doctrine. According to the self-understanding of this doctrine, it derives from the Bible, the one true Word of the one true God. When 19th-century Protestants travelled to India, they did not need factual evidence to know that false religion would rule the roost and deny religious freedom to its followers. God had disclosed this. The US commission claims no such divinely inspired foreknowledge. Still, it also knows in advance what it should and will find in Indian society. Thus, it has no problem privileging the claims of Christian leaders and NGOs, other minority spokesmen, and mainstream newspapers – ignoring the perspectives of a plethora of other groups, thinkers and the media. And, oh yes, any evidence to the contrary must be the result of human tampering, such as the home ministry’s bias and Hindu nationalist cover-ups.
Religious nationalism: Here lies the hypocrisy: the US campaign for international religious freedom is very much a religious campaign. It seeks to spread Protestant-Christian values across the world but does so under the guise of promoting and protecting human rights that are ‘universally held sacred’. This claim to a sacred yet secular universality also underlies its condemnation of religious nationalism as a threat to the freedom of India’s citizens. Nonetheless, the American nation-state’s mission to bring freedom to all the world’s nations is propelled by the belief in the Protestant doctrine of Christian freedom. This in turn is founded in a series of convictions: God is the author of freedom; the Bible is the revelation of His will; and Reformation theology is its correct interpretation. How, then, could this mission not be an instance of religious nationalism?
If the US would straight out admit that it is a Christian nation and, therefore, seeks to promote Christian freedom across the globe, this dimension of its foreign policy would appear coherent and credible (and even commendable, in the eyes of some). It would be part of a larger project of saving souls, guided by a religion that believes itself to be true. From this perspective, factual evidence would not be needed, for no human considerations could trump God’s truth. However, the campaign for international religious freedom will remain sanctimonious so long as it pretends to a bogus ‘impartial’ position. To regain its credibility and honesty, the US should simply rename its commission as the Mission for International Christian Freedom and go on spreading the good word.
(Dr Jakob De Roover is professor at the Department of Comparative Science of Cultures, Ghent University, Belgium.)