On Religious Freedom Day, consider life in countries without it

Travis Weber is Vice President for Policy at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Washington Examiner on January 16, 2018.

Our annual Jan. 16 celebration of Religious Freedom Day, commemorating the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom 233 years ago, reminds us of the roots of cultural acceptance necessary for religious freedom to truly flourish in any society. While modeled in the formation of the U.S., religious freedom is not exclusively an American idea, but a human right for all people. Halfway around the world, the saga of Asia Bibi’s blasphemy case in Pakistan is not yet over, but it is already highlighting the cultural deficit of religious freedom in that country for the world to see. More unexpectedly, this case is exposing the religious freedom rot in other nations through their inability to respond effectively to the crisis.

Asia Bibi is a Pakistani Christian woman who spent nearly 10 years under a death sentence for alleged “blasphemy” following a dispute with Muslim coworkers, before the Pakistan Supreme Court reversed her conviction (a reversal which was based on a lack of evidence, not a repudiation of the country’s blasphemy laws). Perhaps no other religious freedom case galvanized as much attention in Pakistan in recent years.

Throughout the course of the case, multiple high-level leaders who came to her defense were assassinated, including Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the cabinet’s only Christian, and Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was killed by his own bodyguard. After the reversal of her conviction, hard-line Islamic groups paralyzed the country with protests and forced the government to hold her in the country while the decision is reviewed yet again, while engaging in antics such as calling for the “murder of the three judges on the bench that acquitted Asia Bibi,” urging “Muslim generals to rebel,” and exhorting followers to “oust the ‘Jew’ Imran Khan” (the current prime minister). Though some Muslim leaders support Bibi, the opposition and violent voices are the loudest. Islamists proceeded to try to locate and hunt down her family members after the decision was announced.

Numerous calls for Bibi to be granted asylum followed the court’s decision. Several countries considered granting refuge, including the United Kingdom. While some British Muslim leaders called for asylum to be granted, the country eventually declined due to fears for the safety of its diplomats in Pakistan and that its Muslim community may not take kindly to the decision. This craven capitulation has understandably “led to accusations that Britain’s asylum policy is effectively being directed by mobs in Pakistan, a charge that the government unconvincingly tried to refute.” Indeed, some believe as a result the “the state’s moral principles have surely been watered down, if not abandoned.”

Despite oft-discussed demographic shifts and spiritual decline, we still have been generally comfortable looking at Western Europe as a safe haven where individual liberties can be exercised freely. Yet this decision may represent a landmark shift in our perception of freedom in European democracies, exposing the unsettling reality that while many around the world profess support for religious freedom, they don’t often stop to remind themselves of the cultural conditions necessary for it to exist.

In the same month as Bibi’s decision was handed down, the European Court of Human Rights refused to overturn an Austrian conviction resulting from comments raising the prospect that the Prophet Muhammad might meet the definition of a pedophile. While the European Court is supposed to exhibit some deference to member countries, supporters of free speech and individual liberties cannot be consoled by this ruling, and it should be concerning in any event that Austria is convicting people of insulting religion and policing speech “ aimed at demonstrating that Muhammad was not a worthy subject of worship.”

Is the court’s decision driven by fear of reaction from some European Muslim communities? In the day and age of Asia Bibi, it’s a legitimate question — whether in Austria, the U.K., or Pakistan. In the weeks following these developments, an Irish lecturer was stabbed to death by a Pakistani student at a university in France, in part due to an allegation the lecturer committed “blasphemy” by displaying a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad during class.

The deep tension between the worldview of some Muslim communities in Europe and that continent’s historic understanding of individual freedom is certainly not receding. When Pakistani Christians fleeing to the U.K. are being attacked by British Muslims after arriving in that country, we should recognize we have a problem.

After observing its mobs, we understand why Pakistan is currently powerless to protect religious freedom. We don’t expect the same of the U.K. and other European nations — at least not yet. Perhaps it’s time for a shift in our thinking.

By commemorating the important right of religious freedom in celebrations such as Religious Freedom Day here in the United States, we hope to avoid having to shift our thinking about our own country.