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Rule of Law and Religion in Asia: Role of Religion in Politics and Impact on Law Making

On 29 and 30 October, 2018 KAS Rule of Law Programme Asia and the Centre for Asian Legal Studies, National University of Singapore jointly organised a workshop in Singapore.

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The second workshop on "Rule of Law and Religion in Asia" focused on the role of religion in politics and its influence on legislation. The participants from politics and academia as well as representatives of different religious communities and non-governmental organizations discussed over two days the different aspects of the freedom of religion and belief in social reality.

Almost all Asian states guarantee freedom of religion and belief in their constitutions. These codifications have led in many states to people demanding these human rights, in particular by taking legal action. The growing expectation of courts to resolve religious conflicts, however, has been only partially satisfied so far. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that the courts are in part reluctant to carry out their task as guardians of the constitution. In Malaysia, the highest court rejected the request of the Christian minority to use the Arabic word Allah for the Christian god in Malay-language Bibles.  On the other hand, judgments are unable to guarantee an effective freedom of religion and belief due to social realities. In India, the Supreme Court granted women the right to access a temple that had previously been restricted to men. However, in response to the ruling, ultra-religious groups mobilized to prevent women from entering the temple. Therefore discussions followed on how to best ensure enforcement of court decisions. At the same time, it was asked what conclusions are to be drawn from the fact that judicial decisions can also trigger or aggravate religious conflicts. Oftentimes, court decisions do not correspond to the morals of the population or religious majority. However, it is a decisive feature of judicial independence that judges interpret the law free from any popular opinion, but on the basis of legal principles and constitutional values. Thus, the conference expressed the view that conflicts in response to judgments may be an inevitable evil in the short term as courts need to ensure fundamental human rights. Nevertheless, resentment among the population needs to be taken seriously. It was therefore proposed that alternative conflict resolution mechanisms and platforms for understanding should be established. These means could include citizens as actors on the path to peaceful coexistence of religions.

In a subsequent discussion between representatives of different  religions, such approaches were welcomed. It was emphasized, however, that the state is required as a neutral mediator in order to create platforms for interreligious communication and understanding. All religious representatives affirmed that a secular state led to a higher degree of freedom for all religions. From Singapore's perspective, it was also stated that a high degree of regulation in the religious sphere does not necessarily entail a low degree of freedom. On the contrary, the religious representatives were convinced that the various laws and "soft laws" of Singapore lead to a higher level of inter-religious tolerance. As an example, not only the implementation of a "Racial Harmony Day" was illustrated, but also state-supported multi-religious councils and grass root organizations at the municipal level. The religious representatives and participants were convinced that a – moderate – secular state is a prerequisite for religious freedom, inter-religious peace and thus stability. However, the question of how to convince the religious majority in some countries of the region of the advantages of a secular form of government remained open.

A possible approach could be a dialogue in between the State and religious leaders. Particularly in States with a low degree of secularism or where the concepts of nationality and religion are mixed, a dialogue with religious leaders is essential. In nations characterized by a strong influence of religion, institutional religious networks of educational institutions and social welfare are common. These institutions are quite similar to state institutions, but have their own authority based on religious beliefs. In addition to the religious values and norms that are generally taught there, citizens could also be taught "civic education" through this network. Civic education comprises not only an awareness of citizens for their role within the state, but also a sensitization for constitutional values and principles. Such civic education also has the potential to counteract the existing notion that, in view of the higher divine order, the human-given constitutional order has less weight. Further, there is a great need to also enter into dialogue with young people and young adults using modern communication channels such as  social media.

Another challenge identified by the workshop participants was the attitude of politicians to religious intolerance. Religious intolerance is often used by politicians to mobilize voters during election campaigns. Conversely, in religiously motivated riots, political actors rarely urge for an end to violence for fear of losing voters. Groups that belong to the majority religion are often in a position to exert a decisive influence on proposed legislation. In some Asian countries, gaps in the law can be identified that are based on religious beliefs but at the same time clearly restrict other human rights. In some places, for example, it is possible to have marriages with minors approved by the Sharia Court despite a ban on child marriage. It is therefore necessary to sensitize parliamentarians to freedom of faith and belief - also in the context of other human rights - and to expand personnel and institutional capabilities and capacities. Following on from this, next year the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, together with the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) in Singapore, will organize a conference at which representatives from all over the world will meet to exchange views.

With regard to the executive, it was noted that freedom of religion and belief in Asia is significantly restricted by reference to "public order". This principle, which is generally widely interpreted by the authorities, has considerable potential for abuse. In the past, authorities have taken measures against minorities that peacefully exercised their religion as "provocateurs" of violent riots against them.

Concerns have also been expressed about growing religious extremism. Fear of and dehumanization of the "other" was recognized as common characteristics of religious extremism. The lack of economic development and the resulting precarious living conditions also seem to play a role. Therefore, it was suggested to examine this connection more closely in the future.

Furthermore, the Internet as a medium requires special attention with regard to the radicalization process. It was noted that  social media platforms, where content was   generally not moderated and accessible anonymously, phenomena such as "hate speech" are increasingly common. Users of these social media  platforms tend to be encouraged in their prejudices due to the presence of the phenomenon of  digital (filter) bubbles. However, participants in the panel also stressed that social platforms make it easier to communicate with dissenters than in the analogue world. For example, "Internet trolls" - i.e. people who join interest groups of a different social or political nature on social media to insult their members - can be motivated to engage in dialogue through fact-based responses and reactions.

Overall, it became clear during the workshop that freedom of religion  and belief  is not a  human right that can be considered in isolation. At the same time, a restriction on the said freedom has an impact on other freedoms as well such as freedom of expression, for example. In order to understand the interactions between religion, law and politics, the social context must also be closely examined. There are often religious conflicts not only between the majority religion in a country and minorities, but also between different minorities within a religious community.

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Gisela Elsner

Gisela Elsner kas

Global Sustainability Policy Officer and KAS Advice and Complaints Officer +49 30 26996-3759

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