ISIL and Religious Freedom

September 16, 2014

By David Anderson, MP for Cypress Hills – Grasslands

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David Anderson, MP

At a time when the eyes of the world are fixed on atrocities being committed by ISIL in the name of religion, the notion of “religious freedom” can sound repugnant.  It almost appears to imply that ISIL, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, should be granted some measure of safe harbour. 

Yet nothing could be further from the truth.  In actual fact, there is possibly no better example of the need for an unequivocal defense of religious freedom than the barbaric actions and baseless ideals of ISIL.  Rather than providing protection for ISIL, religious freedom resoundingly condemns their cowardly regime of terror.

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right which protects three vital individual freedoms: One, the right to freedom of belief or non-belief; two, the right to manifest that religion or belief in teaching, worship, practice and observance; and, three, the right to change your belief. You can freely choose what you believe and you can freely exercise that belief.  What you don’t get to do is restrict the rights of others. Your religious freedom must be exercised in a way that does not infringe on the freedoms of those around you.  

Today, religious freedom is under attack from not just one point on the spectrum, but from two extremes which represent polar opposites. On one extreme, government grants and enforces exclusive status to only one religion. This has been referred to as “the sacred public square”.  On the other extreme, government seeks to stamp out any expression of religion from public life. This has been called “the naked public square”.

Both of these approaches are fundamentally flawed for the same reason: They rely on the power of the state to enforce belief or nonbelief, focusing on coercion rather than protection. The sacred public square seeks to utilize the power of the state to impose religious belief and practice, while the naked public square seeks to utilize the power of the state to remove all religious belief and practice. Both approaches violate the rights of freedom of conscience, speech and association and neither ensure religious freedom.  In their extreme, they both result in brutal government repression and human rights abuses.

Religious freedom is not attained by balancing the right to have faith with the right to have none, but by protecting both. Individuals can freely choose to believe, not to believe, or change their beliefs, and to express those beliefs without fear of retaliation or censorship. Like a marketplace, there is a free exchange of religious or non-religious ideas and beliefs, much like the free exchange of goods and services which takes place within an economic marketplace.  The objective is not to create sameness but to guarantee freedom. Individuals can freely participate without fear of coercion or retaliation, resulting in diversity with harmony.

While ISIL and its sympathizers understand none of this, we must. Because failing to do so will inevitably result in blaming religion for outbursts of radicalization. And in blaming religion, we will soon find ourselves curtailing religious freedoms, at which point we will be unwittingly complicit with the very attitudes we so vehemently oppose in ISIL.

– David Anderson, MP for Cypress Hills – Grasslands