Religious Freedom and National Self-Determination

There are many instances of religious persecution and national oppression, some of which lasted for centuries, some of which are on-going today.

Religious Freedom and Persecution

Human history - and much of pre-history, if we accept the recordings of the great anthropologists - has been a constant struggle between those who seek to promote religious freedom and open inquiry, and those who have sought to impose on the lives of others one or another or even no religion and limit such inquiries through a variety of means of persecution; through censorship, desecration of holy sites, discrimination, forced conversion, pogroms, segregation, terrorism and war.

One need not delve into many examples of the more extreme attempts of war, torture and genocide to limit religious freedom; most are well known; the Diocletian persecution of Christians by Roman pagans, the Christian Crusades of the Levant, the Mohammedan conquest and rule of Hindu India, the conquest of Mesoamerica and the destruction of their religious life, the Christian versus Christian wars of the Inquisition, the reformation and counter-reformation and into the twentieth century with the public and private Christianity of Hitler against the Jews: "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.."

Against these - and somewhat more subtle restrictions on religious freedom - there is also the tradition of religious freedom. In ancient times, multicultural population centres with large travelling merchant population often developed a syncretic approach to religion. Over two and a half thousand years ago the ruler of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great, established laws of religious freedom. Three hundred years later, the emperor of the Indian Maurya Empire, also provided such laws in the Edicts of Ashoka. We Unitarians are justly proud of our primary role in establishing the Transylvannian Edict of Turda, the first legal statement of religious freedom in Christian Europe.

Today freedom of religion is expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 and which hangs in the entrance foyer of this church. It proclaims: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance." This declaration is taken quite seriously by countries governed by liberal and democratic principles, however other fall seriously short. In places like Iran for example, conversion from Islam is a capital crime and the Bahá'í faith is systematically persecuted as a heresy. The People's Republic of China has banned the spiritual group Falun Gong, torturing and imprisoning to the point that the make up least half of China's labour camp population and even subjecting others to systematic "organ harvesting".

Conflicting Standards

This is also however a conflict between secular laws, human rights and religious freedom. Thus religious freedom is, like any other right, not an absolute one. It was one which is pragmatically positioned in relation to other rights. In some cases, secular law seem to unfairly limit religious rights. For example, in some religions allow polyamorous unions however in most secular countries it is prohibited. Many religious practises, particularly of the earth-centered faiths, include the use of psychedelic drugs - these are invariably illegal.

On the other side however there are religious practises and rites which most certainly should be restricted. As Voltaire pleaded to Frederick II of Prussia: "May we not return to those scoundrels of old, the illustrious founders of superstition and fanaticism, who first took the knife from the altar to make victims of those who refused to be their disciples?" From extreme cases such as human sacrifice and violent rites, to the painful slaughter of conscious animals, the personal right of freedom of religion cannot be allowed to transcend universal moral rights.

It is pleasing to suggest that in countries with strong democratic and liberal institutions, with an advanced level of scientific knowledge, that both the right for a person to religious belief, to express those beliefs and to change those beliefs, is something that is largely accepted by members of such societies and further than such freedoms are ultimately limited by universal morals. Much of this has to do with the recognition by people in such societies that they simply cannot and do not have the answers to the transcendent metaphysical questions - and that they do not wish to conflicts arise by those who think they have such answers for everyone else.

What Is A Nation?

If freedom of religion, as constrained by universal rights, is understood as a personal right based on what is ultimately a socially agnostic approach to metaphysics, then there is equally a necessity for self-determination of nations, based on the real existence of cultures in communities. Now there is a great deal of confusion and ambiguity over definitions on this matter and they are critically important in understanding these rights.

A nation means a group of human beings, whose membership is defined at birth, from the Latin "natio". From the seventeenth century onwards it was strongly tied to ideas of commonality through "blood and soil", that members of a particular nation had shared descent and a common homeland. A more contemporary perspective emphasises use of shared symbolic values; thus national identity becomes very close to cultural and linguistic identity.

Nationality is different to country and to state. Countries are a region of land; a state is the institutional governance of that region. The matter is not helped by the insistence of states calling themselves "nations" or by bodies like the United Nations which is, in reality, a body of states. Or by such terms like "international law", which is invariably framed not between nations, but between states.

By way of a very useful example, the British Isles consists of two states (the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland), four countries (Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England) and at least six (relatively) indigenous nations (English, Irish, Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Manx). To further confuse matters, many people count their heritage as their nationality; everyone has at least met on person who, for example, claims to be Irish (especially on St Patrick's day) despite not being born there, or even knowing a word of the Irish Gaelic - they identify with it through prior relations, their ethnic heritage.

Formation of Independent States

The UN Charter argues that its purpose is "To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.." The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to a nationality and that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of a nationality or denied the right to change nationality." The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) read: "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development."

As politics would have it however, none of these conventions or declarations specify that nations are allowed to form their own states. As an agreement between existing states, they all have vested interest to ensure their own territorial integrity, even when that territorial integrity is predicated on imperialist control; and by imperialism there can be no other definition that the political and economic control of another nation's country by a foreign power.

Although nominally Marxist regimes have been among the worst practitioners of real national self-determination, there can be little doubt they have provided the best theory from the first expressions of support by Marx and Engels of the bourgeois-national revolutions in overthrowing the archaic feudal regimes, to the realisation that independence was required in Ireland whilst the English working class persisted in deep ingrained anti-Irish prejudices.

This set the stage for Lenin's classic analysis which argued that capitalism had reached a new stage; The stage of imperialism and that overthrowing imperialism through nations being allowed to establish their own states was a priority. Lenin argues, far more cogently than the covenants mentioned "it would be wrong to interpret the right to self-determination as meaning anything but the right to existence as a separate state."

Free Choice, Right or Wrong

This does not mean of course that in every instance people - and even more so, people of different nationalities - should support or agree with independence movements. There may be very practical reasons why independence, in due consideration, may not be a viable option. There may be a larger political threat which would welcome the opportunity to invade a small, weak, independent country but would be adverse to taking the region whilst it is within the boundaries of another; "better the devil you know" in such cases. But it does mean, regardless of nations making the right or wrong decision, that one supports the choice of the people.

As a very practical example, my support for East Timor was never framed in advocacy for independence, but rather advocacy for self-determination and support for independence once that choice had been made. In my first visit in May 2002 an East Timorese agreed with my statement that if Indonesia had been a democratic and liberal country in 1974, when East Timor first became independent, it probably would have only been a matter of months before they voluntarily joined their larger neighbour. After all, they have a common cultural and linguistic background, a common history of association dating back centuries, intermarriage and so forth. But because they were denied that choice in the first instance and there is now so much bad blood (literally) it will be many decades before such a union is reconsidered. I wryly mentioned to an elder Malaysian ambassador that perhaps in the medium term joining the Malay Federation would not be so inconceivable.

Limited By Universal Rights

Once again however a caveat must be stated; once again, it is universal rights. The right to national self-determination is no excuse for an autocratic, totalitarian regime to engage in widespread and systematic abuse of human rights. The fact that the UN found itself paralysed by the rule of Pol Pot in Cambodia and the intervention by Vietnam is an indication of the explicit limitation of that organisation; it can only act when international security is threatened, and only then with agreement of the Security Council - in this case, both the United States and the Chinese governments preferred Pol Pot's horrendous regime, to the success of the Vietnamese.

To provide a summary, the principles of freedom of religion and the right of nations to self-determination are natural rights which arise from recognising the inherent worth and dignity of every person to make their own choices and respect for democratic processes among communities. These rights require a reciprocal relationship. Freedom of religion does not mean the freedom to abuse others, under the claim of being a 'religious practise'; the right of self-determination does not provide the right to engage in widespread state-sponsored terrorism against a population under the guise of 'non-interference of others internal affairs'.

Freedoms are a right which include the possibility of the wrong choices being made. But it is only through free choice, and the ability to voluntarily change one's religion or state of governance that a individual or nation can develop consciously. Support of rational religious approach can only be achieved whilst the legal mechanisms are in place allowing people to hold irrational beliefs; support for internationalism can only be achieved when nations have the right to determine their own government and state. The 'right decision' can never be imposed upon other with any possibility of long-term success. If we respect our own ability to make free religious choices, and our own ability to determine our state and government, we should also accord that right to others.

An address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, August 31st, 2008