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Dr. William J. Antholis: "Religious Tolerance and Pluralism in a Global Context"

Religious Tolerance and Pluralism in a Global Context

Remarks to the Archon 2nd International Conference on Religious Freedom

December 4, 2013

As prepared for Delivery

William Antholis

Managing Director

Brookings Institution

Your Eminence Archbishop Demetrios; your Eminence Metropolitans; Commander Limberakis; conference planners, members of the German Bundestag, ambassadors, brother Archons and other esteemed guests.

It is an honor to be invited, to represent Brookings, to speak in this city, on this issue.

Perhaps Brookings greatest accomplishment in its 97 years has been to help design the Marshall Plan in 1947.  Not only did that contribute to reviving post-War Europe, but it also followed through on President Truman's commitment to aid Greece and Turkey earlier that year.  A Europe whole and free – including Greece and Turkey – remains a major priority for Brookings. 

It is also a joy to return to Berlin, where I visited often when I worked with the German Marshall Fund of the United States – whose founding endowment was a gift to America from Germany in appreciation for the Marshall Plan.  As Americans like to say, what goes around comes around.

The phrases religious liberty, religious equality, and human rights, and the words tolerance and pluralism animate this conference.  The conference organizers have asked me to begin by placing those ideas in a global context.  Europe's relationship to Turkey on religious freedom has global significance.

So I am going to ask you to follow me around the world.  We will travel west from here, through that magnificent gate of freedom, across Europe, to America, on to Asia, and then back through the Middle East before finally coming to Turkey and Europe again.

As we travel, I'm going to introduce another concept that is central to law, foreign policy, and even to religion – and often associated with walls, fences and borders.  And it is certainly appropriate to any trip around the world that requires showing a passport.  That word is sovereignty. 

All of these concepts can be abstract, and can be discussed in a timeless manner.  Yet all are embedded in real life history – often in history soaked in blood.  How our aspirations for liberty, equality, tolerance, or even sovereignty are practiced has varied considerably over time. 

So as we go from place to place, it is possible to identify at least four views that sovereign states have held toward religious freedom and neutrality.

The first view is that the sovereign state neither favors freedom of religion nor religious neutrality.  From secular to religious dictatorships, states have not embraced the freedom of religious minorities.  These states have at their core the hubris to believe that government can know the one true faith or secular ideology.  These governments not only criminalize certain public actions.  They also criminalize the practice of certain beliefs. Let's call this state the Leviathan.

The second kind of sovereign state allows religious freedom, but advocates on behalf of one or even several religions.  In these states, all religions are allowed to function at some level, but the state provides unequal support for them.  This non-neutrality promotes religion – and even religions – as providing a foundational moral role in civic life.  Of course, the downside is that while one religion or denomination can be a central thread in a nation's moral fabric, control of that faith can lead a sovereign government to the conceit that it knows a true path forward, even if it is willing to allow alternatives.  Let's call this potentially conceited state the Paternalist.

The third is a sovereign state that is neutral against religion.  That is, it allows all religions to practice freely.  These states view religious freedom as the least-best alternative to open bloodshed between different faith systems.  This view of neutrality is driven by fear, and that drive can be just as easily used to shut down toleration of religion.  Both democracies and autocracies can allow broad freedom of religion as a least-best alternative, with tighter or looser controls on practice.  Let's call this fearful state the Watchman.

Finally, some states actively promote the free exercise of religion, but in a neutral way.  These states never choose a particular religion to favor, but instead understand that human knowledge is limited and that diverse opinions about the one true god – or many gods or no gods – is, itself, the human condition.  Our striving for knowledge, especially our striving for knowledge about ultimate things, our place in the world, our primary duties, is the source of our dignity as human beings.  This view of government and religion begins with humility.  Let's call this hopeful state the Celebrant. 

The Leviathan – no freedom no neutrality -- is characterized by hubris.  The Paternalist – freedom but no neutrality – is characterized by conceit.  The Watchman – neutral but willing to limit freedom -- is characterized by fear.  The Celebrant – full neutrality and full freedom -- is characterized by humility and hope.

If it's not already obvious, like many Americans I hold a bias toward the Celebrant.  But as we travel, you will see I think, it is also important to be realistic.  In the real world of public affairs, hope is not a strategy. 

So we start our journey in Europe, where all four views of liberty and sovereignty have lived.  Perhaps that is appropriate since sovereignty, itself, was invented in Europe.  In fact, sovereignty as a concept came before any ideas of religious liberty.  And that concept came from the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire – which, as the joke goes, after a thousand years became neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.

As Kings across Europe struggled with Rome, and also with religious dissidents, the word "sovereignty" emerged as a way to make kings god-like above religious authorities.  Writers such as Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes patterned the king's power on their perception of god: as absolute, unified, and eternal.  Hobbes' great book was, of course, the Leviathan.  Few people read the second half of the book, which argued that the sovereign needed to control religious affairs, in order to keep domestic peace from rival religious factions.

European Kings went on to fight a series of wars with one another – where one hubristic God-like warrior taking on another on the field of battle.  The failure of these religious wars ended in 1648 at the great Peace Conference in Westphalia.  Sovereign monarchs recognized one another as equal, separate, and responsible for morality and religion within their realms. 

Each monarch was allowed to choose the church for his people.  Catholic kings paid obedience to Rome.  Protestant kings set their own rules. 

Yet with so many warring Kings claiming to have God on their side, even a deeply religious thinker such as John Locke worried about conjoining religion to politics.  Locke felt no human authority could copy the sovereign power of God.  Locke is, of course, most famous for arguing that if power did not come from God, it should come only from the consent of the public.  As a result, he is often considered the father of "popular sovereignty." Yet Locke himself would have thought that phrase to be an oxymoron, since the people could no more assume God's power than could a king.  In other words, for Locke, the people could govern themselves, but they could not collectively impose beliefs on any single person.

Thanks to Locke and other enlightenment thinkers, many sovereigns began to allow pluralism within their borders.  Most were Paternalistic -- still promoting a top religion within their states, but allowed for some dissenting religious views.

Still, twice in three hundred years, hubrist tore through Europe.

First was Napoleon's march across the continent in the early 1800s.   This was political hubris of the first order.  But Napoleon's one saving grace, from the perspective of religious freedom, was that he believed that the state should be neutral against religion.  Napoleon's rule combined a continent-wide Leviathan in political affairs, with a Watchman in religious affairs.  That is, religion could be tolerated as long as it did not undermine public order. 

One hundred fifty years after Napoleon came the next horror of hubris: fascist totalitarianism in Germany and Italy, and communist totalitarianism in Russia.  While nominally these states allowed some Christian denominations to continue, by and large they opposed religion.  They were atheistic Leviathans of the most vicious, murderous kind.

I've condensed Europe's four centuries of wars into about four minutes.  Remember two things.  

First, Western Europe has fallen out of love with sovereignty.  The European Union that has emerged is the world's most successful experiment in transcending the sovereign nation-state.  The EU realizes that – at some level – giving unitary, absolute and eternal power to any earthly authority is dangerous at best, and lethal at worst.  The European Convention on Human Rights follows from that fear, protecting all citizens of Europe from any effort to control thought, conscience, or religion. 

But, second, many (but not all) Europeans also fear religion.  Freedoms of thought, conscience, religion may be "prescribed by law … in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."  That is, Europe's neutrality toward religion means that freedom always contains some potential limit. 

Europe's member countries are diverse, of course.  France is more watchman.  England, Greece, and Italy have had closer relationships with an officially sanctioned church than has France, so they are more paternalistic.  But in general terms, over the last four centuries, Europe has moved from hubris toward the mildest forms of fear and conceit.

From Europe, let's now travel west across the Atlantic, following the path of colonists escaping religious persecution and religious wars.  The first colonists in the early 1600s sought religious freedom.  Yet while they celebrated their first Thanksgiving with animist native tribes, the colonies founded by the Pilgrims were not necessarily neutral.  Various colonies each had its own distinct denominational character: Separatists and Puritans in Massachusetts; Anglicans in Virginia; Catholics in Maryland and Delaware; Quakers in Pennsylvania. 

Of course, these paternalistic colonies were not sovereign states – that power still belonged back in Europe.  More importantly, perhaps, American thinkers picked up on John Locke – not just on his idea that public consent was the foundation for government, but on his argument that government should not have the power to promote one religion or another.  Thomas Jefferson was the leader of this effort.  Several months before authoring the Declaration of Independence, he also authored the first draft of a Statute for Religious Liberty in Virginia – a document so important to him, he listed it on his gravestone as one of his three great life accomplishments, along with the Declaration and founding the University of Virginia. 

Jefferson -- a thinker and leader inspired by the Enlightenment – wrote with precision on the limits of human intelligence.  His statute referred to all political, civil, and ecclesiastical leaders as "but fallible and uninspired men."  (Clearly, he had not met the clergy assembled here today.) Still, even with this fallibility, he saw it as Lord's plan to empower the mind – "who, being Lord, both of body and mind, chose not to propagate it by coercions on either."

Jefferson attacked not just suppression of free religion, but even state support of religion.  State support only tended to "beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness."  Rather than simply guaranteeing freedom, Jefferson argued for full neutrality.  The state of Virginia should not establish an official religion since no man should be compelled to financially support "the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves."

Of course, this core idea became the foundation for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution fifteen years later, which says that Congress shall "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." 

Jefferson was not just playing watchman, however, he was also celebrating religious diversity.  Religious instruction and education was part of Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia – but that included studying not just the various Christian denominations, but also core tenets of Judaism and Islam. 

Of course, there is still a roiling debate in the US between whether neutrality is against religion, or should be neutral but with equal support for all religions.  One new book suggests that historically the U.S. has favored a version of neutrality that Jefferson would have applauded – one that freely allows citizens to worship because that leads to a more rich, diverse, inclusive, and morally informed society. 

As my dear friend Peter Berkowitz has effectively argued, this makes neither atheists nor moralists happy.  Atheists argue for a more strict version of neutrality which fears any connection at all between religion and public life.  Moralists, on the other hand, would like the state to encourage a more active role for non-denominational celebrations of religion.

What I think Jefferson had in mind was more like a mosaic of the religiously minded – a spirit that animates many of the great acts of American democracy.  Morally engaged religious believers played a crucial role in key struggles for freedom: in the middle of the nineteenth century to end slavery; in the middle of the twentieth century to secure civil rights for blacks, and today in fighting poverty and protecting the environment. 

Of course, there is a very dark side to this story in America.  Many southerners used their religious beliefs to justify slavery, the slaughter of native Americans, the oppression of women and other immigrants, and even promoting racial eugenics.  As a principle, celebratory neutrality is fine.  But by not introducing boundaries for religious practice, the Jeffersonian approach appears to allow all manner of perversity in the name of religion – including hostility toward other faiths.

Indeed, perversity remains a price of freedom, in both the US and EU in recent years.  Particularly when it comes to respect for Islamic minorities, public celebrations of diversity have not met our highest aspirations.  Whether that is efforts by Christian ministers to burn the Koran, or opportunist political entrepreneurs to oppose Muslim places of worship, our citizens have tended to act out of fear or conceit, as opposed to acting out of hope and humility. 

Even our formal laws, from time to time, have moved in that direction.  Whether it is banning the wearing of head scarves, the building of mosques, the providing of Islamic education, we have not had the courage to embrace our brethren who see God differently than we do.  If we are to demand that around the world, we must demand it in our own countries. 

How we draw that line between celebrating diversity of belief and limiting intolerant acts is the hard and dirty work of public life.

Having gotten our hands dirty in America, let's continue to travel west, where we eventually reach the far-east. 

If we are to discuss universal concepts, we must fully address the one in three humans today who live in China and India.  Our world – that is, the Euro-Atlantic world of the EU, the US, and all the rest of north and south America – has a grand total of about 1.3 billion people.  That is roughly the same population as either China or India alone. 

When my family and I took our journey to China last year, we experienced the reality of constrained religious worship in modern China.  For Easter services, we had three options: the Russian embassy's Orthodox Church (inside the compound, requiring approval from the Russian government), a Chinese language Catholic Church (whose bishop is approved by Beijing authorities), or at a local independent Anglican service which operated in the dining hall of a residence for foreign nationals.  We chose the latter for convenience and ease of access.  But we had to bring our passports.  That service was forbidden for Chinese citizens.

Still, wandering around China, we saw signs of religion everywhere.  A giant Buddhist temple overlooks Beijing, the capital of the world's largest country with an atheist ideology.  Buddhist and Taoist temples can be found in all cities, just as one can find major churches and mosques. 

It is likely that there are hundreds of millions of practicing Buddhists and Taoists, as many as 100 million Christians and between 20 million and 50 million Muslims.  Accurate estimates are elusive.  Many worship in registered "patriotic religious associations" – state-recognized religious bodies.  But thousands of home churches and temples across the country choose not to register.  Probably about a third of China worships some deity – three times as many as the 80 million members of the Chinese Communist Party.

As with Napoleon, China's government is part Leviathan, part Watchman.  The current government of Xi Jinping is just as focused and obsessed with maintaining national sovereignty and unity as were its predecessors. 

When Mao Zedong's Communist party consolidated power, fear was the dominant motivation for strictly limiting both freedom of religion as well as pluralism.  Mao feared religion was a front for former colonial powers to regain influence.  He also feared Buddhism, Islam, and Taoism.  During the Cultural Revolution, the Party's fear married Marxist hubris, leading to one of the greatest religious suppressions in human history. 

After 1978, Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, began to liberalize Chinese politics, and that applied to religion as well.  He allowed private worship.  Still, fear is the core of the current Chinese government approach.   In western China, the heavy hand of the central government regularly confronts violent riots by Turkic Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, and the self-immolations by Tibetan Buddhist monks and riots by average Tibetan citizens. 

The world's other giant nation, India, has 1.2 billion people.  If you think China does not have enough religious observance, go to India.  In fact there the complaint is that there are too many gods.

North India is the birthplace of at least four religions – Hinduism (still the largest), as well as Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. South India has been home to Christianity and Islam since the early days of both faiths.  St. Thomas settled and died there in the decades following Christ's crucifixion.  Early Islamic traders also extensively travelled the southern and western coasts – followed by Portuguese, Spanish, and British traders and missionaries.  And of course, the Turkic Mughal Emperors ruled across north India for five centuries. The Taj Mahal was built by one, when European kings were concluding Peace at Westphalia.

Religious pluralism generally has worked well in modern India.  That is partly because the nation's modern founding father, Mahatma Gandhi, was the ultimate Celebrant.  Gandhi saw his religion – Hinduism – as a non-violent search for truth.  In his words, "The need of the moment is not One Religion, but mutual respect and tolerance of the devotees of the different religions. …. The Soul of religion is One but it is encased in a multitude of forms. Truth is the exclusive property of no single scriptures."

Because of Gandhi, tolerance for religious minorities is woven into the fabric of Indian national government.  Not just through words, but also through his non-violent deeds, Gandhi has much to teach us all.  He was a central inspiration for Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders.

But at the sub-governmental level, historical tensions and resentments run deep.  The fear of communalism remains strong.  Local governments often have a hard time restraining themselves or their people.

India will wrestle with those forces in the coming year.  With national elections in 2014, the opposition Hindu-nationalist party will be led by Narendra Modi, arguably India's most popular politician.  He also is most widely feared.  Hindu-Muslim riots stormed his home state of Gujarat in 2002, killing nearly 1000 Muslims.  Many still blame Modi for failing to stop the violence.  As a result, the United States still does not issue him a visa, thanks to a provision in U.S. law that bars any foreign government official who "directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom."

Both India and China are protective of their sovereignty.  Nevertheless, Muslims and Christians around the world share an interest in protecting the rights of minorities in those two countries.  But what we do in our countries toward our own minorities – Christian and Muslim included – will set critical precedents for how they treat our brethren. 

Continuing west from India, we enter the broader Middle East.  The Arab Awakenings started as secular revolutions against the failed economics and political oppression by military rulers. But these democratic uprisings also unleashed fundamentalist forces – raising new questions about religious liberty.  Whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, extremists in the Free Syrian army, or the continuing reign of the Ayatollahs in Iran, the religious persecution of Christians, Jews and other Muslims remains a major challenge.  In today's Arab world, many wonder whether a strategy of hope is realistic.

Of course, the most effective and established democracy in the region, and the west's closest ally, is Israel.  A country born out of religious persecution, it is the region's model of toleration and restraint.  But even here, freedom of religion is far from neutral.  Ahmad Tibi embodies the mixed message of Israel.  He is an elected Arab representative in a Jewish and democratic state. In his words, "Israel is a democracy for Jews, and a Jewish state for Arabs."  From his view, right or wrong, the Arab citizens of Israel, one-fifth of the country's population, do not share in the equality of religious treatment.

With that, our circuitous round the world trip brings us back to Turkey – a land and a people very dear to me, since my paternal grandfather and maternal great grandparents were born there.  My papou served in the Ottoman army in World War I.  As a child, I still recall him proudly showing off his fez and his hookah pipe, and boasting that Greeks from Turkey played tavli better than Greeks from Greece.

Kemal Ataturk views on sovereignty and secularism set the path for modern Turkey.  He hoped to build an independent state that would divorce secular sovereign power from traditional religious leaders.  In that sense, he combined an Enlightenment instinct for Turkey as the home of a modern nation with a view that the state should be strong enough to withstand foreign intervention. 

Ataturk did see a Paternistic role for Islam.  Limited and moderate religious instruction could provide a common moral foundation for a country populated not only with Anatolian Turks, but also with refugees from Bosnia, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Tatars, Albania, and across the former Ottoman Empire. 

But he intentionally avoided the fascism of later Italy and Germany, as well as the communist totalitarianism of Russia.  His reform of primary education included stripping out religious dogma.  Religious minorities were formally protected – but they clearly have taken a second-class citizenship status, which in many ways was a step backwards from the protection they had received under the Ottoman Caliphate. 

Seventy-five years after Ataturk's death, the question remains for how confident Erdogan's Turkey is in its own identity.  Since Ataturk's death, the treatment of minorities has been anything but exemplary.  Christian and Jewish populations have declined dramatically – and the government has directly intervened in how those communities conduct their public and private affairs, including choosing their leaders and educating their children and clergy.

Certainly Turkey's recent decision to follow findings by Europe's Human Rights Court on minority religious properties was a major step forward.  Indeed, it is hard to image another sovereign nation outside the EU agreeing to change its domestic laws in reaction to the EU's human rights court.  If Turkey takes steps in line with other democratic governments – such as allowing full religious instruction to minorities, or allowing those organizations to pick their own leaders – it will continue to distinguish itself from the Chinas and Irans of the world.  

Prime Minister Erdogan also speaks the language of Paternalism when he describes the AKP as the Islamic analogue to Germany's Christian Democrats.  Whether Erdogan's Turkey is willing to similarly embrace other religious minorities in the way the Christian Democrats have, however, remains an unanswered question. 

Just this October, as our German and Turkish participants surely know, the Christian Democrats elected their first Muslim member of parliament, Cemile Giousouf.  Ms. Giousouf believes it is just as possible for non-Christian Germans to believe in low taxes and a role for religious instruction in schools. 

So the question for Erdogan's Turkey is whether it is confident enough now in its own identity as a nation to move in the direction that the rest of Europe has moved in after its own decades of nation-building.  That is, does Turkey see for itself a vision that begins to get beyond fear and conceit?  Does it see itself as a place capable of celebrating diversity?

Recent protests in Turkey – which brought together religious and secular communities – suggest that the Turkish people themselves may have moved toward a more diverse, tolerant and democratic society.  Will Mr. Erdogan's government follow suit?

That challenge is equally great for Europe: whether it can also see that society without fear. 

Europe is only now beginning to emerge from an economic crisis that threatened the EU's very basic existence.  With the EU focused on its internal financial challenges, it should be little surprise that discussions are on hold about whether to welcome new entrants such as Turkey. 

Yet if that conversation begins again, the question of whether Turkey belongs in the EU will pivot not only on whether Turkey sees itself as a tolerant European nation, but also how broadly Europe defines its own tolerance. 

This conversation did not begin well.  In 2002, the Chairman of Europe's constitutional convention, Giscard d'Estaing famously said that Turkey had "a different culture, a different approach, a different way of life" – in my view, disregarding the extraordinary distance Turkey has traveled when compared with neighbors in a very troubled region.  Yet recently Giscard and the Christian Democrats here in Germany have expressed an openness to reviving the conversation. 

Tearing down the wall between Europe and Turkey will require setting aside not just hubris on both sides, but also conceit and fear.  Tearing down walls is a metaphor for embracing hope and diversity.  On both sides, that begins with respect.