Rising Restrictions on Religion (Winter 2012 Trust Magazine Article)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Thomas Omestad


01/04/2012 - In Iran, seven Baha’i leaders are arrested and accused of “insulting religious sanctities,” among other things. In France, a legal ban on students wearing religious symbols, such as headscarves, remains in place. In the Philippines, a Protestant village pastor is kidnapped and killed by guerrillas. And in Russia, attackers break the windows of a synagogue in Nizhny Novgorod.

For years, such moves by governments and social groups to control or stamp out religious activity have been dutifully recorded by the U.S. State Department as well as a growing number of international institutions and human-rights groups. They collect the anecdotes and then render opinions on the state of religious freedom around the world.
The accumulating mass of anecdotes within those reports, it turns out, was also creating an untapped opportunity.

Researchers at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life have seized that opportunity, unlocking data in unprecedented ways. The Forum is pioneering the measurement of restrictions on religion by governments and from within societies at large. For the first time, the methods used in large-scale, quantitative social science research are being applied to the field of religious freedom, and that breakthrough is fostering discussion of a topic that can quickly ignite sensitivities over faith, identity and political power.

The release of the Forum’s August 2011 report, Rising Restrictions on Religion, drew global attention for finding that, in large parts of the world, it is becoming more difficult to practice some religions. More than 2.2 billion people, nearly a third of the global population, live in countries where either government restrictions on religion or social hostilities involving religion rose substantially between mid-2006 and mid-2009. Rising Restrictions builds on the findings of a baseline study, Global Restrictions on Religion, released in December 2009, which reported that 70 percent of the world’s people live under high or very high restrictions on religion. The two reports begin a series of studies examining trends in religious restrictions over time.

Both are part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, a jointly funded effort of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation to analyze the impact of religious change on societies around the world. The collaboration has already produced reports projecting the future global population of Muslims, assessing the interaction of Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa, and surveying evangelical Protestant leaders around the world.

For many specialists on religious freedom, the Forum’s latest effort provides an independent confirmation of trends they have suspected from watching conditions on the ground. But the Pew work also provides a new focus for dialogue in a field in which rights advocates and government representatives often talk past each other, assuming there is meaningful conversation in the first place. Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement, called the reports “critical to the evolution of our field. It provides an empirical touchstone in which all sides can come together and have a candid and constructive conversation.”

The Forum’s work is a “historic” addition to the study of religious freedom, says Allen Hertzke, an expert on religion and politics and presidential professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. “For centuries, scholars, intellectuals and religious leaders have been making arguments about religious freedom—that when government no longer restricts religion or no longer favors one dominant religion, society is more peaceful, vibrant and prosperous,” he said. “The Pew reports, for the first time in history, provide us with a global database that enables us to test these assertions.”

Rising Restrictions and Global Restrictions on Religion constitute the first quantitative social science studies measuring both governmental and social restrictions on religion from numerous sources, as well as the first with a methodology that others can see and replicate, says Brian J. Grim, the principal researcher and director of cross-national data for the Forum. The assessment is global in scope, covering 198 countries and territories, and is designed to measure change over time.

Building on the 2009 baseline study, Rising Restrictions shows that of the world’s 25 most populous countries, eight had substantial increases in restrictions on religion and none had a substantial decrease. Most countries experiencing substantial increases in government restrictions or social hostilities already scored at high or very high levels in those assessments. Yet nearly half of the countries with substantial decreases in restrictions already scored low. The Forum’s researchers believe they could be seeing “a gradual polarization” between high- and low-restriction countries, a trend they will continue to examine as new data emerge in the coming years.

The Middle East-North Africa had the largest share of countries in which official restrictions on religion rose, and it remains the regions with the highest curbs overall. The Americas had the least. But the latest report also found that Europe had the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion increased—countries such as Bulgaria, Denmark, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Drawing on earlier work at Pennsylvania State University with fellow sociologist Roger Finke, Grim devised an innovative scoring system. Because the concept of religious freedom is inherently hard to measure, the logical alternative was to identify the presence of various restrictions in each country or territory. Grim divided restrictions into two main categories, official government actions and social acts of hostility. He developed 33 measures phrased as questions, all funneling information into one of two composite scores: a government restrictions index and a social hostilities index. Research assistants known as coders would “ask” those questions of 18 publicly available information sources, including the State Department’s annual report and those from the United Nations, European Union and British government, as well as nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, the Hudson Institute and Amnesty International. Commentaries and opinions were ignored; only information about concrete government actions or instances of religious violence or harassment by social groups was recorded.

Two groups of coders would separately pore through the reports. Any disagreements were reviewed and resolved by Grim. Anastasia Kolivas, a former coder who was then a Georgetown University student, recalls one: whether the Egyptian government’s decision to cull all of the nation’s pigs amid a swine-flu scare was motivated in part by religious discrimination. Unlike Christians, Muslims are forbidden to eat pork. Grim studied the record and decided the destruction of all the pigs harmed only Egypt’s Christian minority and so constituted a form of government harassment, especially because the World Health Organization and Egypt’s Food and Agriculture Organization announced that the slaughter of the animals would not affect circulation of the virus. “We had a lot of supervision. It was very carefully structured,” recalled Kolivas. Pew’s researchers also made a series of decisions on statistical methods that, in effect, set a high bar for declaring when change is taking place. That has helped to armor-plate the results from charges of bias, sloppiness or trafficking in unrepresentative anecdotes.

The caution reflects the culture of the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, of which the Forum is part: nonpartisan, non-advocacy, fact-driven. “It’s the niche we occupy in a town full of advocates,” says Luis Lugo, the Forum’s director. “Disciplining ourselves to stay within our game is what makes us so valuable.”

The reports offer plenty of analysis of the statistical findings but none that judges governments and societies. So just how narrow is the path Pew follows on the topic? “We’re not technically for or against religious tolerance,” Lugo said. “There are many different kinds and levels of government restrictions on religion, and we don’t try to decide whether some are justified and some are not. We also don’t say that if a country has a high level of social hostilities involving religion, the country is necessarily at fault. The point is, in this research, as in all of our research, we strive to avoid taking normative positions. That’s because we are devoted to providing facts that everyone, no matter what their position on the issues of the day, can trust.”
Said Seiple, “Both Brian and Pew are radically nonpartisan. It’s tough to get Brian to give an opinion on the weather.”

He called the typical reliance on anecdotes in reports “the Achilles’ heel of human rights and international religious freedom issues.” The hard numbers offered in these reports make a difference.

“Some representatives of particular religious groups overseas are given to exaggeration. But the combined weight of these two reports is to make it clear that there is a global crisis,” says Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and the first director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. “It is a pervasive social pathology.”

Supporters of religious freedom say they can put Pew’s consciously non-advocacy work to immediate use. It is already bolstering their calls for more tolerance in matters of faith. Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, the senior program manager for international religious freedom at Freedom House, said, “It’s a treasure trove of information that helps with our advocacy…. It’s such a confirmation of our findings on the ground.”

The Pew approach to investigating matters of faith globally has avoided tripping the field’s shallowly buried landmines. When the State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and other institutions issue reports, the angry reaction from some governments and religious organizations is virtually automatic. Government-sanctioned religious groups in China termed the State Department’s most recent report, unveiled in September 2011, a “smear” that interferes in its internal affairs. Saudi Arabian commentators criticized the State Department as acting like “world police” and trying to impose Western values. Vietnam said the department’s report relied on “biased” and “erroneous” information. In contrast, Grim was invited to present findings from the research in venues ranging from the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, DC, to Peking University Law School in Beijing.

By avoiding prescriptions and sticking with what can be quantified, Pew’s social-science approach tends to avoid exciting political and religious emotions. And it appears to be getting a hearing inside some of the governments routinely pegged as violators of religious rights, advocates say. “Among elites and officials, social science arguments have more clout,” said Dennis Hoover, a colleague of Seiple at the Institute for Global Engagement. “It’s not seen as some cultural agenda.”

Grim thinks the work “provides people with a new language to discuss religious issues.” Pew’s innovation to separate and quantify social hostilities related to religion from government actions has also strengthened its appeal overseas.

“Previously, scholars only paid attention to the state’s role in regulating religion. Now, Pew’s report adds one factor: social hostilities. It is more objective than before,” said Yunfeng Lu, a sociologist at Peking University. Roman Lunkin, a research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences, also credits Pew with following an “objective scientific approach.” He says that Pew’s global perspective “helps for religious science to come out of the national ghetto.”

The Pew project is helping to mainstream the field of religious freedom studies abroad. In Europe, the strong secularization of both academic and national political cultures, along with a lingering sense that religion was a catalyst for centuries of conflict on the Continent, has slowed advances in the field. The European Union is only now considering whether to consider religious freedom in its foreign-policy making.

In this way, the Forum is playing an even larger role with its research. “Its work,” said Cole Durham, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University Law School, is furthering “a kind of a renaissance of religion studies.”




Other Findings from the Forum on Religion & Public Life:

  • Over the three-year period studied, Christians and Muslims faced either government or social harassment in 66 percent and 59 percent of countries, respectively.
  • The number of countries that experienced mob violence related to religion rose from 38 (19 percent) as of mid-2008 to 52 (26 percent) as of mid-2009.
  • Religion-related terrorist groups were active in 74 countries in the period ending in mid-2009, and the groups carried out acts of violence in half of those countries.




Thomas Omestad, the former diplomatic correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, is a National Press Club award–winning writer based in Washington, DC.

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