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Religious Minorities: Challenge or Threat PDF Print E-mail

Clinton Bennett
Westminster College, Oxford

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

Minorities, linguistic, ethnic, and religious—and these categories quite often overlap—have been, and are regarded as, both a threat and a challenge. This varies from context to context, synchronically and diachronically. In many Western contexts, some legislative measures, such as the United Kingdom’s Race Relations Act of 1976, and the Religious Education Clause of the 1988 Education Act, represent responses to the challenge of integrating minorities into the mainstream. The granting of public funding to an Islamic school earlier this year, also in the United Kingdom, begins to bring these minority schools into the mainstream, along side Christian and Jewish schools which already receive state support.

Democracies recognize individuals and groups rights to maintain different cultural and religious identities, but they also recognize that without safeguards and legal mechanisms, problems will arise. The creation of such mechanisms is part of the challenge of nurturing healthy pluralist, democratic societies. The British foreign secretary, introducing the European Communities Amendment Bill, which enrolls Britain in the European Social Chapter, stated:

Britain has one of the largest groups of ethnic minorities anywhere in Europe. It is, therefore, in our national interest to ensure that members of these minorities should be protected against discrimination, when they exercise their right under the treaty to travel or to work on the continent.

Yet, these same minorities are regarded by some as a threat or, if not as a threat, as a burden—an economic burden. Perhaps invited to migrate during a period of economic prosperity, when recession comes, these once welcomed migrants will be perceived as occupying jobs, and as enjoying welfare provisions which ought to be reserved for members of the majority community. This is when ethnicity, the concept of a link between race and land, comes into play. The migrant, even if second, third, or fourth generation, and therefore technically not a migrant at all, will be regarded as lacking what we might call native title. Racism in France, Germany, and Britain fits this description.

Of course, racism and religious discrimination or intolerance, are not the same, but in many instances, they do overlap. The migrant minorities in question tend to be of a religion or religions different from the majority. Historically, here in Europe, they were Jewish. Even when, as in contemporary France, Britain and here in Germany, the majority are themselves no longer Christian in any meaningful way, the national image—that is, what it means to be a German, what it means to be British, etc.—may still embrace a Christian identity.

In India, where the majority is Hindu, the currently dominant right wing perceives the Muslim and Christian minorities, especially, as a threat. They are regarded as not belonging. Muslims ought to be in Pakistan. Christians ought to be in the West. There, few of the minorities differ racially from the majority. All are Indians. No one came much later, or much earlier than any one else, although their religions did. It is the identification of ‘Indianess’ with ‘Hinduness’ that must reduce the non-Hindus to subservient status. The charge here is of cultural betrayal. The perception is that Muslim and Christian loyalties lie elsewhere, just as the loyalties of Catholics in England was perceived as belonging to Rome, and not to the Crown.

In other contexts, the majority themselves may be the relative newcomers. The minority or minorities may be indigenous, although I don’t think there are any truly indigenous or aboriginal peoples in the world. In the Americas and the South Pacific, it was newcomers who persecuted, oppressed, and even enslaved the natives. In these contexts, the natives’ perceived superior claim to be bonded with the land threatened the newcomers’ territorial aspirations. The natives—I use the term for convenience, meaning inhabitant whose arrival predates recorded history—may represent a legal embarrassment. Thus, their claims will be dismissed.

In Australia, where I was brought up, the Aborigines were deemed too primitive to have any concept of land ownership. Therefore, the land was nobody’s and could be claimed legally for, and by, the British Crown. In 1993, the Native Titles Act, following the famous Mabo decision of the Australian High Court, restored land rights to the Aborigines, and recognized as illegal the “founding falsehood” on which Australia had been built. The South American solution was that the Ameroindians lacked souls, and so had no entitlement to human rights.

As one writer put it, “nationality is a fiction.” It is a story people tell themselves about who they are, where they live, and how they got there. My own thinking about the minority-majority relationship has focused on the status of religious minorities in two quite different contexts: 1) in the traditionally Christian West; and 2) in traditionally Muslim parts of the world. In the former, European context, religious minorities are not all together new. There have been Jews and various sub-groups of the Christian tradition over the centuries. Generally, minorities suffered disabilities and handicaps.

The founding pioneers of my own Baptist tradition fled religious persecution in Britain in the late sixteenth century, although some returned in the early seventeenth century. Thomas Helwys, (1500-1616) a returnee, wrote what has been called the first plea for religious liberty in the English language in 1612. The king, he declared, has no right to stand between a man and his conscience, whether he be Jew, heretic, or Turk (I’ll forgive him a non-inclusive gender language). In other words, the state should not demand belief in certain doctrines, or the practice of certain rituals, as a qualification for citizenship, for public office, or as a test of loyalty.

Such tests, of course, have been imposed, not only in Britain, but in countless other contexts as well. In fact, in the United Kingdom, despite the Toleration Act of 1688, which allowed dissenting groups—but not Roman Catholics—freedom of worship, other tests and disabilities remained in place until as late as 1871. These restricted certain offices to Anglicans, who also received rates (a type of tax) from all, regardless their religious affiliations. Without signing the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, no dissenter, Jew or Catholic, except those of noble birth, could graduate in theology from Oxford until early this century.

The majority were quite sure of their rightness, and anyone who differed from them must be suspect. The logic of this was probably never examined. It was assumed that belonging and conformity were blood brothers, blood sisters.

What we have experienced in the West is, I think, a radical mind shift. Conformity is no longer especially important. Since World War II, we have more minorities and greater variety than ever before. In fact, there are so many worldviews and lifestyles on the high street, that it is difficult to label the majority with a single religious description. Most actually think that, for the majority, religion is a private, domestic affair, and as long as you don’t disturb or cause a nuisance to others, you can be whatever you want to be, and do whatever you want to do. You can attempt to persuade others that your religion is best, or ought to be tried out too, provided that this evangelism is invitational, not heavy-handed or coercive. Generally, religious freedom is not an issue for the majority. It is taken for granted.

What is an issue here is media freedom—and I fully support a free media—to depict some groups as dangerous and subversive. Some, who see themselves as totally supportive of religious freedom, regard the Unification Church and the Church of Scientology, for example, as movements that somehow ought to be banned. Removal of legal status, of course, only drives you underground.

What is emerging is a discussion about definitions. What groups ought to be included? What, if any, excluded? Who decides who is, and who is not, authentically religious? Using what criteria? A secular judge, or a commission representing faith communities? If so, how will discrimination against minorities within communities, and against new religious movements independent of what might be called a parent tradition, be avoided? I do not think that the question of definition can be resolved quickly or easily. Recent draft legislation in Britain has attempted a type of definition, and I have spoken about that in my earlier paper today.

I am going to move on to say something about minorities in Muslim contexts. Much has been much written about minorities within the Islamic world. This literature divides quite neatly into two genres. The first is literature that praises the Muslim dhimmi system as a mechanism for tolerance and protection unrivaled elsewhere in the world. Dhimmi is normally translated as a protected minority. In this view, Christian and Jewish minorities in the Muslim world were better off than were their counterparts in the Christian world, at least until the end of disabilities, and the beginning of our modern liberal democratic states. Zakaria in his 1988 study, tends toward the “all is well in the dhimmi camp” view.

The other genre of literature condemns Islam for virtually enslaving minorities, for denying them equal justice and equal opportunities for citizenship. Islam, it says, has systematically destroyed minority cultures, their sense of personal worth and self-esteem. Minorities in Muslim countries are persecuted, oppressed, and suffer from constant denial of human rights. It is argued that Islam does not recognize human rights, since its law is divine law and overrides any code or ethic of human origin. Islam, it is argued, is inherently intolerant. Christians and Jews, who stubbornly refuse to recognize Mohammed’s mission and cling to outmoded beliefs, must be humiliated. They may persist in these beliefs, but every effort will be made to make this difficult for them and every encouragement will be given them to join Islam.

The truth probably lies between these two extremes. At times, minorities in the Muslim context have flourished. Qur’an suras, which endorse tolerance, have been stressed. At times, minorities have been conveniently scapegoated, or targeted by the over zealous. At these times, text and interpretations, which appear to support a more aggressive attitude toward minorities, have been stressed. Indeed, the non-Muslims were quite often not a minority, but the majority politically subject to Muslim rule.

The problem is that of making valid comparisons between different political systems, and between different chronological periods. Arguably, Europe and the Muslim world were very different, just as then and now are very different. Yet, there were similarities. Both systems were feudal. People were not citizens, but subjects, and, except for those at the very top, everyone belonged to somebody else. Minorities had to be fitted in to that scheme. It really is not, I think, surprising that conquering Muslims imposed conditions upon the people whom they conquered, just as conditions were imposed on Indians in America, on Aborigines in Australia, on the peoples of India, and so on, by conquerors or by settlers—imperialists all.

By way of a conclusion, minorities, religious and otherwise, have been and are, perceived both as a threat and a challenge. Yet in few, if any, instances can the threat be real. Minorities, even if wealthy, are just that: minorities. They can rarely win any contest against the majority. Psychologically though, minorities represent something that disturbs majorities or, rather, they disturb those who wish to maintain monocultural or monoreligious identities. Such people fear minorities because their very existence and persistence suggests that alternatives are conceivable. As societies become more diverse, the threat element will diminish. The challenge will be to create mechanisms that protect pluralism. The danger is that the mechanisms we create will allow some to flourish, while marginalizing others.

The claim that links exists between certain peoples and certain pieces of land must, I passionately believe, be challenged. It is, I believe, a myth invented to support an exclusive land-link concept of citizenship and belonging. This, of course, will be problematic when a claim to that special land-link relationship is theological as well as historical. It is my view—however, that all of our ancestors were migrants and, if special bonds do exist between pieces of God’s earth and certain peoples—then these must not be used to deny others the right of occupancy, or the right to practice a faith that differs from the majority. What we need to develop are notions of belonging, which value participation in economic, social, and political life over and above ethnicity, religion, or place of birth. Any other definition of belonging, of citizenship, is restrictive and must be challenged. We might note that, as they stand, the citizenship laws of a number of European countries would not pass the test. Thank you.

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