Why it is the best of times and the worst of times for religious freedom
It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but there are some pictures where words do not suffice. Take as an example the cache of photos from the Xinjiang police files recently published by an international media consortium. The faces of Uyghurs who have been detained by the Chinese Communist Party tell the story of their suffering: some are fighting back tears, while others stare at the camera with a resigned look on their faces. Many of them can be seen with menacing guards standing behind them, a visible sign of their oppression.
The world has known about China’s persecution of the Uyghurs—a predominantly Muslim Turkic people in the Xinjiang region of China—for some time now. About one million Uyghur men, women and children are believed to be imprisoned in China’s so-called reeducation centers, where they are subject to physical, mental and emotional torture. But this is perhaps the first time we have been able to see so many of their faces, which offer a haunting reminder that to this day many religious minorities and faith communities around the world face severe persecution because of their beliefs.
To borrow from Charles Dickens, it is, in a sense, the best of times and the worst of times for religious freedom. The latter is easy to prove: government restrictions on the practice of religion are at a historical high. According to Pew Research—a think tank that over the past has studied religious persecution in nearly 200 countries—a staggering 57 countries had high or very high levels of restrictions on religious practice and belief in 2019, when the most recent data is available. Even more countries have laws or policies that punish blasphemy against the state religion, which are often weaponized against minority communities.
Pew Research also noted a rise in government harassment of religious groups and interference in worship. For example, in recent years the military junta ruling in Myanmar has damaged or destroyed hundreds of churches and, in some instances, killed their pastors. Afghanistan is another sobering example of how religious minorities suffer under the rule of autocratic regimes. The violent takeover of the Taliban has resulted in a mass exodus of Muslim minority sects like the Hazaras and Ahmadis, as well as Hindus, Sikhs and other faith communities that have lived in the country for generations, according to USCIRF’s most recent report. Places like North Korea and Eritrea, for all intents and purposes, are prison-states where freedom of conscience and belief is all but nonexistent.
As cited in State Department and USCIRF reports, the Turkish government has become increasingly repressive since July 2016. The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities. Sunni and non-Sunni Muslims, and non-practicing Muslims said they continued to face heavy pressure or persecution. Especially members of the Hizmet “aka Gulen” Movement, which is a civil society focused on education and interfaith dialogue globally.
Unfortunately, we also are noticing trends of governments harnessing technology to repress religious minorities. Reports indicate that China has tested facial-recognition software to analyze the emotional state of Uyghurs—whom the Communist Party labels a security threat—and identify suspicious behavior. Online spaces are monitored as well, so that any critic of the government’s treatment of religious minorities can be traced and punished.
Given these deeply concerning trends, it may be hard to see how it could also be the best of times for religious freedom. The good news is that while nefarious actors keep working to repress faith communities, a growing coalition made up of a kaleidoscope of civil society activists, faith leaders and governments is advocating for their rights. This remarkable group is made up of people from various faiths—and indeed, many human rights advocates without any religious affiliation—who share the common conviction that people everywhere should have the fundamental right to freedom of religion, conscience and belief.
This coalition is came together this week in Washington for a second annual summit for international religious freedom. It is a rare bipartisan, multi-faith gathering of leaders from government and civil society who have come together for this common cause. Their commitment is an encouraging reminder that while in some ways it may be the worst of times for religious freedom, we also stand on the cusp of what could very well be the best of times for the global movement to protect this fundamental human right.
Religious freedom is no longer a cause reserved solely for obscure government offices or niche human rights organizations. Its vital importance to building free, pluralistic and democratic societies is being recognized across many industries—technology, trade, art and finance, to name a few—and the drive to expand international religious freedom is generating innovative cross-sector solutions that promote collaboration. Just last week the U.S. State Department announced U.S. Customs officials would begin enforcement of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which will prohibit imports of goods suspected of being manufactured using forced labor, hopefully persuading international corporations to stand up against human rights abuse in their supply chains. Advocates have also suggested adding a religious freedom clause into multinational trade deals in the future.
Religious freedom is also finding new champions, from grassroots activists to professional athletes. It’s one thing to hear elected officials and policy wonks talk about the importance of religious freedom. It is quite another thing to see a grassroots movement building around the cause or to have a professional basketball player risk his career by wearing shoes proudly emblazoned with human rights slogans like “Free Uyghurs” and “Free Tibet.”
Take it from us—one of us a policy wonk and one of us that NBA player with infamous shoes—there are reasons to feel optimistic about the future of religious freedom.
Enes Kanter Freedom is an NBA basketball player who has raised his voice to advocate for human rights, freedom, justice and democracy around the globe. Samuel Brownback served as U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom (2018-21) and is co-chair of IRF Summit 2022.