Is right to freedom of religion universal?

When ‘human rights’ are wrong

Should Western activists talk about the ‘right to freedom of religion or belief’ in non-western cultures? Erin Wilson doesn’t think so. ‘The language of human rights is not universal.’
By Megan Embry

2000 people were murdered during the violent 2002 clash between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat, India. What does the ‘right to freedom of religion or belief’ mean in places like Gujarat? Not much, says associate professor of politics and religion Erin Wilson. ‘The language of human rights is not universal’.

How can that be? The right to ‘freedom of religion or belief’ (FoRB) is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations in 1948. And the atrocities of Gujarat – in which Muslims purportedly burned a trainful of Hindu pilgrims in response to the Hindu destruction of a Muslim mosque, triggering three days of violent and widespread retaliatory attacks against Muslims and other minorities – seems like a clear violation of the universal right to freedom of religion.

But while Western countries take ‘rights’ to be universal, the language of universal rights does not always translate, says Wilson. It’s time to rethink how we promote ‘freedom of religion or belief’ in non-western cultures.

It doesn’t make sense

The problem isn’t with the principle behind Article 18, she says. ‘There are concepts and traditions across cultures that are consistent with our idea of freedom of religion or belief.’ The problem is with how we express it: ‘The language of ‘freedom of religion’ is often perceived as western. It either doesn’t make sense or is viewed with skepticism, as camouflage for another agenda.’

Wilson wants to defend and protect human rights as they are described in the UDHR, which is of course an ‘important foundation and a good starting-point’ for thinking about human rights and promoting them worldwide, she says. But since the UDHR was developed, there has been a growing acknowledgement that ‘rights’ mean different things to different people at different times and in different contexts.

There is so much conflict and disagreement about religion

‘There isn’t even a consistent understanding or application of the right to freedom of religion within Europe’, Wilson says. ‘We hear all these political references to “European values” – but what are those? There is so much conflict and disagreement about religion. Consider the controversies in recent years over headscarves, turbans, crucifixes in classrooms, minarets and burkinis – just to name a few. Let’s not pretend we’ve got things rosy and sorted.’

So what good is it, Wilson wonders, to assert a much-contested reading of ‘rights’, ‘freedom’, and ‘religion’ in cultures where those concepts don’t make sense in the first place? You can’t just map Western ideas onto non-Western communities, she argues.

If we want to promote human rights in cross-cultural contexts, we need a better approach: compromise, understanding, and humility.

‘What does make sense?’

Wilson’s latest research project was born when Mensen met een Missie, a Dutch faith-based development agency, contacted her team at the Center for Religion, Conflict, and Globalisation. Mensen met een Missie had received funding from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to promote the right to FoRB in Gujarat, India and Cirebon, Indonesia. They asked for help: ‘the way that freedom of religion or belief is understood in European contexts doesn’t translate here – what does make sense?’

So the Center deployed two graduate students to Gujarat and Cirebon to spend several months conducting research with the local organisations and communities.

In both locations there is real potential for religious violence to erupt. And in both places, the researchers discovered that local human rights organisations avoid talking about religion altogether. Instead, they interpret the big-picture goals of FoRB – dignity, equality, respect for others and living together with differences – in ways that make sense to the local communities.


Even in Gujarat, which suffers deeply from a history of horrific, government-sanctioned intra-community violence, this approach has met with success. The lesson? ‘We have to compromise on our language – without compromising on our principles’, says Wilson.

In Cirebon, ‘rights’ are too abstract and vague a concept to overcome sources of conflict. ‘There is also a widespread view that human rights are a Western imposition and bound up with Western exercises of power’. So, the local organizations there don’t about talk about rights at all. Instead, they use local terms for ‘gathering’ and ‘empathy’ which are deeply embedded in cultural traditions. This way they can bring people together and ultimately, reduce conflict.

The organisation in Indonesia established a ‘school for love and peace’ where people from opposing groups must treat each other according to local hospitality conventions. This goes a long way to overcoming social, religious, and political divides. ‘Talking about love and peace may sound airy-fairy, but it’s a way to get everyone in the room’, Wilson shrugs. ‘That’s huge.’


In Gujarat, the researchers saw that asserting the right to freedom of religion or belief is unhelpful because it misses the source of conflict. While the violence in Gujarat has largely been construed by the government and the media as religious, locals said that the reasons for the violence were not actually about religion.

‘The violence happening in Gujarat today isn’t about ascribing to a doctrine or a dogma, but about being part of a certain group. So in this particular case, they are designated ‘Muslim’ – but they might as well be ‘team A’ or ‘team B”, Wilson explains. People are denied education, employment, housing, sanitation, and healthcare – not because of their beliefs but because of their identities.

Arrogance premised on economic development led us to believe that we have the answers

Once local human rights actors understood that the problems in Gujarat are rooted not in religion but in tribalism, nepotism, and discrimination, their approach to promoting rights and mediating conflict shifted. They dropped the language of FoRB altogether.


When the organisations in Cirebon and Gujarat focus on local wisdom and tradition as a meaningful way to prevent conflict, they make real progress. Wilson suspects the takeaway is generalizable: human rights advocates should loosen their grip on the language around rights. Local communities probably offer better tools for promoting the same principles.

‘Historically, the approach has been that it’s our job to take solutions to the rest of the world – without recognizing there are already long traditions of acknowledging the dignity and equality of individuals in most countries. There has been a lot of arrogance – premised largely, I think, on economic development – which has led us to believe that we have the answers.’

But Wilson thinks it’s time to set that arrogance aside. ‘There should be a lot more humility’, she says. ‘I’d also like to see a lot more emphasis on mutual learning, collaboration, and partnership in international efforts on the right to freedom of religion or belief. None of us have got it exactly right.’




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