Speaking recently at the University of Ottawa, Asma Jahanagir, U.N. Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, expressed cynicism about how religions treat women. She remarked sardonically that efforts at mutual understanding among religions might be possible because they can find common ground: suppression of women. All religions are capable of persecuting others, “even peaceful Buddhism,” she noted, almost with a touch of surprise in her voice. “Religions are as much persecutors as victims,” she observed.
Jahanagir has been in her position for four years. She reports to the U.N. General Assembly Third Committee and to the Human Rights Council. Jahanagir is a Muslim lawyer from Pakistan, where she had been actively engaged in struggles for women’s rights, minority rights and democracy. She told the audience that religious freedom is most secure when imbedded in other freedoms and in democracy. For that reason, in her homeland she wants President Purvez Musharraf replaced by “someone chosen by the people, not by George Bush.” Now back in Pakistan, she is, not surprisingly, under house arrest, ordered under the current declaration of emergency by General Musharraf. As rapporteur, she receives complaints, but she can only visit a country to do a thorough national review of the situation of rights when the country invites her. Among countries not inviting her are China and Iran, in spite of her expressed interest. She noted that the struggle for religious rights has become more difficult following 9/11. In her role as rapporteur, she deals with issues including conversion, new religions, and non-belief, including atheism. Some countries choose to permit “traditional” religions but exclude new ones coming in. Often, however, she finds that the excluded religions include earlier indigenous beliefs. Anti- conversion laws in some countries permit conversion, but only to the dominant faith. Jahanagir spoke approvingly of the rejection in Sri Lanka of a proposed law on “unethical” conversion, noting that a leading Buddhist monk helped to defeat it. She noted that in India many Untouchables convert to Christianity to escape the caste system. Jahanagir saw in her home country the grave consequences possible with blasphemy laws. Not only is such legislation a tool for religious persecution in and of itself. It also exacerbates a climate in which illegal persecution and killing goes unpunished. Thus, in Pakistan if a Muslim wants a Christian’s house, he will say that the Christian blasphemed Mohammed, and that Christian will have to flee to avoid being killed by a mob. The Muslim then moves into the house. On a more hopeful note, she reported on situations not well known in the West. Thousands of Muslims have taken part in demonstrations in Pakistan against persecution of Christians, and in Bangladesh Muslims rallied in front of an Amadhi mosque to protect it against assailants. Ahmadis are considered heretical by other Muslims. If they do not want their religion criticized, she said, then Muslims need to address the legitimate criticisms made of extreme practices such as cutting off hands and honor killings. Exhibiting her personal history of defender of women’s rights, she noted that there are no male honor killings. The West did not escape her criticisms. She charged that anti-terrorism laws have stigmatized and stereotyped Muslims. Referring to methods of interrogation used at Guantanamo, she charged that religion was attacked through teasing to the point of humiliation. When she visited France, the issue of religious symbols was on the table. “I asked, ‘Are the women with hijab bothering you? Are they courting violence?’ One country forbids head covering and another says women must cover their heads. Why can’t you just leave women alone?’ ” she pleaded. While Jahanagir deplored attacks on religions, she said that such attacks do not justify limiting human rights. Laws that try to do that risk infringing even on scholarly inquiry. “Religions,” she said, “have no rights. People have rights.”
Efforts to convert people are legitimate, she argued, but she was critical of drives to convert people in crisis situations such as after the tsunami, when some Christian groups cajoled and even bribed survivors. Is dialogue the answer to religious prejudice and discrimination? She cited a case where it was useful. In a situation of religious violence in Nigeria, Christians and Muslims and local government officials sat down together to defuse the situation. She was much more pessimistic about prospects at the U.N. level because some governments are headed by people who are themselves intolerant, and the delegates do not know the actual problems on the ground. Toward the end, she was asked her reaction to Quebec’s current controversy about “reasonable accommodation.” She responded that it is more of the same. She visited Quebec during the separation debate, and she noted that there was the same distrust of “the other” and need to protect the culture. Jahanagir said that there is a slogan in Pakistan of “One nation, one culture, one Islam.” “How boring!” she declared.