A new Pew Research analysis of global religious hostilities finds that roughly 9 percent of the world’s nations employ some version of religious police.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept: religious police are a key indication that a country has failed to separate church and state. In countries where they exist, there's typically no secular legal system. Instead, jurisprudence is based on the government’s dogmatic interpretation of a particular belief system.
And the consequences for freedom of expression are severe.
In Saudi Arabia, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, called the Muttawa, are charged with enforcing an extreme version of shariah, or Islamic law. That includes the country’s strict gender segregation laws, which ban women from driving and prohibit them from traveling without male guardians.
The Saudi state’s interpretation of shariah is especially extreme and isn’t followed in many other Muslim nations. It’s a severe take on Sunni Islam that discriminates against minority Islamic sects as well as other faiths and non-theism.
According to this version of shariah, apostasy is a crime, and the Muttawa treat apostates accordingly. The case of blogger Raif Badawi has directed some public attention to the country’s religious laws recently; Badawi was arrested and charged with apostasy for establishing the Liberal Saudi Network and, horror of horrors, “liking” a Facebook page created for Arab Christians.
The Saudi courts haven’t yet ruled on Badawi’s apostasy charge, but he has already been sentenced to 600 lashes and seven years in prison for “violating Islamic values and propagating liberal thought.”
If he’s found guilty of apostasy, he could be executed.
But the use of religious police isn’t limited to Saudi Arabia, to Islamic states or to religious states at all. In Vietnam, the police are charged with enforcing restrictions on any faith deemed “extreme” by the government. The Vietnamese government has a peculiar definition of “extreme,” and in practice, it seems to be code for “all minority faiths.”
According to a US Commission on International Religious Freedom report cited by Pew, Vietnam’s religious police routinely arrest Catholic clergy, and harass Buddhists and Protestants alike simply for attending religious meetings. The state has also granted itself the power to legitimize certain religious groups over others, and even appoints clergy.
Vietnam is de jure a secular state. The government might not be enforcing religion, but by restricting religious freedom so severely, they’ve made it impossible for religious expression to flourish.
To further complicate things, the religious sects singled out for persecution are typically dominated by minority ethnic groups. That adds another discriminatory dimension to the situation.
Pew’s analysis is the latest installment in its work on religious hostilities, which are on the rise. There are a number of reasons for that trend, but the use of religious police is certainly among them.
When governments establish an official belief system, and enforce it using the police, discrimination is effectively legalized. That contributes to the persecution of minority groups and aggravates, rather than resolves, existing social tensions.
That’s exactly why religious freedom is so important. It’s not just a slogan for the American culture wars; it’s also necessary to a functioning democracy.
The Constitution was hardly perfect from birth. At various points in our history, we’ve had to organize to demand that it include equal rights for minority groups – and those struggles are on-going.
But the framers did understand the importance of religious freedom. That principle drives our democracy, and it propels the work we do at Americans United, too. The use of religious police around the world proves just how vital that principle remains."