By Navam Niles –
When asked whether religion is important in life, reportedly 99% of Gallup survey respondents in Sri Lanka answered ‘yes’. Leaving aside questions of what religion means or how it is perceived here, it is reasonable to say that many people use religion to guide their worldview in some way or form. Moreover, religion plays an important role in contributing to ethnic identities. Naturally, there is a strong political incentive to appeal to religious institutions to reach out to constituents. This incentive became stronger when the previous government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa put an emphasis on puritan Buddhism to forge a nationalist identity in lieu political-economic reforms. Perhaps in an effort to compete, recently Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, the justice minister, suggested a constitutional amendment to protect ‘religious leaders’ from criticism, even in Parliament. The irony of the justice minister proposing serious and ill-advised restrictions on free speech aside, his suggestion leaves everyone – the public, the government and the religious institutions – worse off.
There are clear political incentives for governments to align themselves closely with religious institutions. Governments have the power to confer recognition and privilege upon religious institutions and particular leaders. In exchange, religious institutions are expected to provide a moral mandate and politically compatible sermons. This phenomenon is common throughout the world. In the Middle East and the wider Islamic world, across the Sunni-Shia spectrum, governments of all stripes use religious authority to compensate for their lack of a democratic mandate. Governments ranging from Saudi Arabia (a conservative Sunni-dominated state) to Iran (a conservative Shia-dominated state), allow religious authorities to dictate social and moral norms in exchange for legitimacy. This isn’t limited to one particular religion either.
During the Cold War, many right-wing dictatorships in Latin America and Eastern Europe often formed compacts with the Catholic Church and in exchange for allowing conservative catholic social policies, governments would enjoy implicit or even explicit approval and assistance in suppressing dissent. Dictatorships aren’t the only ones who try to leverage their political power by aligning to religious institutions. In the US, a country that prides itself for a constitution that separates state for religion, every political candidate is expected to demonstrate their religious affinity. In all these cases, a political-religious alliance cuts both ways.
When governments embrace religious authority and vice versa, they must swim together and sink together. For governments, this means that any political project, that goes against the fundamental interests of religious leaders is politically impossible. In Saudi Arabia, for example, efforts to create socio-economic reforms to empower women, improve education, reduce religious radicalisation and liberalise the economy have met strenuous objections from religious authorities. As a result, the monarchy had to water-down even its most modest reforms. Today, women still cannot drive, education is still dominated by religiously inspired curricula and Islamic radicalisation is an existential threat to the stability of the monarchy. Moreover, instead of liberalising the economy, the Saudi government is forced to spend billions duplicating infrastructure and resources (to adhere to a strict code of gender segregation) and supressing any creative industries lest they offend religious leaders.
Religious leaders, on the other hand, may find themselves tethered to government policies and the reputation government leaders. In Latin America, the Catholic Church’s support of right-wing dictatorships has damaged its moral authority. This explains many of the socially liberal reforms in Latin American states. For example, Argentina, the homeland of Pope Francis, was one of the first states to legalise gay marriage. The fallout from ill-advised political alliances between religious authorities could also affects the civil rights of everyone else.
To make a political-religious alliance work, rights such as religious liberty and freedom of speech must be limited or forfeited altogether. This is because special privilege for one group must often come at the cost of special responsibilities for every other group. To protect religious leaders and their religious institutions, the governments must first determine who qualify as religious “leaders” or what religious institutions are deemed “legitimate”. This power is used, often with tacit approval for dominant religious leaders and institutions, to silence minority religions or sects. Hence, Saudi Arabia recently executed a Shia preacher accused of terrorism. Meanwhile, China has refused to accept the Dalai Lama and has even made attempts to control the selection of the future Dalai Lama in order to solidify control over its restless Tibetan subjects. Thus, people are denied their right to worship as they choose.
Moreover, choosing or recognising particular religious leaders may allow governments to manipulate their religious message, which is further damaging to people of faith. Government involvement also affects those who have chosen to forfeit religion all together; i.e. those who seek freedom from religion. That freedom is also lost as governments often insist on allocating each and every one of its citizens to some religion or the other. Even when governments aren’t trying to manipulate the message, they can inadvertently create all sorts of problems. For instance, in the US, religions are considered “tax-free”. As a result, anyone who can satisfy some of the basic requirements of a religious “institution” can qualify for tax-exempt status. This can range from the nefarious (e.g. Creflo Dollar, an evangelical preacher who asked his congregation to contribute to a private jet) to the hilarious (e.g. John Oliver, a comedian who demonstrates just how easy it is to live the high-life in the name of god).
Meanwhile, the freedom of speech must also be curtailed. Mr. Rajapaksa, for example, was keen to prevent the ‘criticism’ of religious leaders. Yet, criticism can be construed to mean anything. Could one be punished for questioning the religious sermon of a religious “leader”? Could anyone be silenced for questioning the lifestyle of the monks who travel around in luxury vehicles or priests implicated in child-abuse? What about condemning religious leaders who encourage violence, abuse or pseudo-science? Could a religious “leader” be prevented from criticising another religious “leader”? Would it be wrong to criticise a religious “leader” indirectly, perhaps by criticising someone whom he or she blessed or praised? While we don’t have the justice minister’s answers to these questions, we must contemplate the consequences of such a proposition.
Protecting religious “leaders” may lead to a The slippery slope that could leave religious “leaders” immune to any sort of intellectual or spiritual debate. It could also neuter any effort to hold such religious leaders accountable for their role in guiding social and moral direction of their congregations.
Yet, ironically, it may be most harmful to religions themselves because the freedom of speech is essential for the evolution of religious and moral thought; it is essential for the purpose of truth itself. J.S. Mill, an 18th century English philosopher, argued that freedom of speech serves the truth in two important ways. First, it allows new truths to emerge or it may help society shed false or mistaken beliefs. Imagine, a world where the teachings of Ashoka or Christ were completely censored to avoid offending existing religious institutions. Religious teachings have evolved over time to allow us to adapt to a changing world, but restricting free speech will only make it harder for religion to keep up. Second, even when someone says something that is entirely wrong, the freedom to say such things forces the truth to reassert itself. For instance, when people criticise vaccines (for political or mistaken medical reasons), it forces the rest of us to rediscover and reassert the truth, strengthening our own convictions and attracting new adherents. This may be quite uncomfortable for those whose existing beliefs are displaced by newer knowledge or those can’t defend their beliefs in the light of new evidence, but the rest of us are left better-off.
Censoring free speech and restricting religious liberty to protect “religious leaders” is a pointless pursuit. After all, almighty gods don’t need the protection of mere mortals. Perhaps there are moments when speech must be restricted or curtailed but those should only be in the most extreme situations (e.g. where human life is immediately threatened) and only temporary. Creating a whole class of loosely defined persons who can be protected from any criticism, is a recipe for disaster.