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Heiner Bielefeldt & Alexander Foitzik {*}

"For the Sake of Human Dignity"

Talk with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, Heiner Bielefeldt


From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 12/2010, P. 609-613
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Since August of this year, Heiner Bielefeldt is in an honorary position Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief at the United Nations. We talked with the professor of human rights and human rights policy of the University of Nürnberg-Erlangen about the debate on the dominant culture in Germany, right-wing populist parties in Europe, and the debate on freedom of religion in Islam. The interview was conducted by Alexander Foitzik.


HK: Mr. Bielefeldt, as a UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, what are your "feelings" following the newly flared up debate about the dominant culture in Germany? Are in this discussion Islamophobic undertones that are worrying you?

Bielefeldt: I have been following this discussion with unease. Of course one can to a certain extent understand that the debate about the German integration policy is strongly linked to the Islam issue. For the transformation of our society becomes particularly evident in the fact that since 15 or 20 years mosques are built and head scarves are a common sight in the streets. On the other hand it has to be said that religion and specifically Islam are not really the key topics of German integration policy but only a part of it. They are neither for the analysis of the current integration policy issues nor for the development of strategies the decisive factor. Anyhow, if it is e.g. about education policy, the impression quickly arises that certain segregation tendencies had to do with the fact that Muslims wanted to keep to themselves and 'take charge of' entire secondary modern schools. But such simplifications are nonsense.

HK: Does that mean, that the aspect of religion is of no importance to integration or to the refusal of integration?

Bielefeldt: Religion is certainly of importance, but it is not the key to understanding and solving the crucial problems of integration. Here, other factors must be considered primarily. It is e.g. about the development of the rents in cities, in general above all about socio-economic issues or in concrete terms also about the understandable interest of education-oriented parents to send their children to good schools. And here I feel uncomfortable with the current debate, because the issue of Islam mobilizes a lot of resentments; this has become evident once again in recent weeks. All sorts of projections and stark accusations are made here. The difficulties of integration policy are all lumped together and marked with the label "Islam" - as if they were acts of the Islamic conquest, the purposeful building of parallel societies, or even the attempt to introduce Sharia law in Germany. These are caricatures, often unfortunately associated with cheap demagogic propaganda.

HK: Is behind such sentiments also a problematic attitude towards freedom of religion as a central component of our state and social order?

Bielefeldt: Yes, although some phenomena, seen from a human rights perspective, must rather be ascribed to the field of racism than to freedom of religion.



Of course there are overlaps, especially when issues of religion and ethnicity merge. This is incidentally also a problem of the Islam Conference (The 'German Islam Conference' was initiated by the former Federal Minister of the Interior, Dr. Wolfgang Schäuble, with the purpose of having an official dialogue with different currents of Islam in Germany), which is at the same time a religio-political project and an integration policy project. Interestingly, according to a study on Muslims in Germany commissioned by the Federal Ministry of the Interior and published in the end of 2007, most Muslims say that they had hardly any problems with freedom of religion in this country. The majority does not feel seriously restricted in the exercise of their religion. But many of them feel exposed to stigmatization and are suffering from the fact that a negative, collective mentality is ascribed to them, in which the individuals then virtually disappear or are at least not be taken seriously. If you then also consider occurences such as the absurd ban on minarets in Switzerland, you can become anxious that we lose sight of the value of freedom of religion - a value of which we should rather be proud and which we should reinforce.


"Atheists, too, Can of course Refer to Freedom of Religion"

HK: Thus, is in Germany needed again a bit more awareness raising in terms of freedom of religion?

Bielefeldt: This is alway needed. The Human Rights Committee of the German Parliament has held in late October a public hearing on the issue of freedom of religion and the European identity in order once again to recall that freedom of religion is central to our self-conception in Europe. Freedom of religion has the status of a universal human right and applies equally to the traditional long-established religious communities and their members as well as to the members of new religions, to both large and small religious communities, and also atheists can of course refer to freedom of religion. It is the crucial basis for forming a religiously and ideologically pluralistic society.

HK: Are strong right-wing populist parties in Europe a serious threat to the this great good of freedom of religion and thus to the peaceful coexistence in pluralistic European societies in general?

Bielefeldt: This danger exists without a doubt. Whether you look to Holland, where Geert Wilders is able to push at will the minority government by his abstruse claims, or to Austria to the heirs of Jörg Haider - in many European countries right-wing populist parties experience a boost. Also in Germany, polls of recent weeks show that there is a right-wing populist potential. According to them up to 20 percent Germans would elect such parties. This is of course worrying. Policymakers respond ambivalently to it. On the one hand, there were e.g. pleasant clarifications on the anti-Islamic theories of Thilo Sarrazin, but unfortunately also some short-sighted opportunism, because one realizes the broad consent to Sarrazin's theses in the population.

HK: When one hears about violation of or threat to freedom of religion, one thinks commonly of Iran and Arab states. Are such German or European problems not rather harmless in comparison with other hotspots?

Bielefeldt: Such ranking does not strike me as meaningful. It sounds to those affected by discrimination and stigmatization like a mockery. They become third-class victims, because there are not yet such physical threats. Those who meet daily the evil eye suffer enough. It is nevertheless true that in Europe, compared with other regions of the world, the situation of freedom of religion turns out to be relatively good. Anyway, we observe in our latitudes no massive government persecution. But there are definitely discriminations. In any case, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is repeatedly given cause to pass sentence on states, e.g. because of discriminatory practices against Jehovah's Witnesses. But if you e.g. look at the massive state exclusion of the Ahmadiyya movement in Pakistan, the persecution of Baha'i members in Iran, or of Falun Gong on behalf of the Chinese government, it is clear that we have to keep the proportions in mind. In a word, there is no reason for complacency in Europe, but we must also see and appreciate the successes and achievements!


"The Claim to non-Discrimination implies the Claim to non-Identification of the State"

HK: Your predecessor, Mrs. Asma Jahangir, came from Pakistan, as it were, from a "hotspot" for the issue of freedom of religion. Your personal context of experience is a very demanding ambitious model for the state's dealing with religious and non-confessional communities. What does this background mean for your work? Where will you set priorities?

Bielefeldt: Others will be able to assess better than I where possibly partialities exist, due to my horizon of experience. One thing is certain: I have to prepare myself for very different conditions, and sometimes, while I am familiarizing myself with the situation of other countries, it almost takes my breath away. It is hardly imaginable to which extent feelings of hatred against religious minorities exist and are fuelled in many parts of the world.



This hatred often results from a combination of contempt and of fear that can verge on conspiracy theories. This is in itself a paradoxical mix, because people are afraid of someone who is supposedly stronger and despise those who are rather inferior. What matters in the next few years is to deal with very fundamental problems when implementing freedom of religion.

HK: To what extent is the German, the Western model of "respectful non-identification of the state with religion" - as it says e.g. in the opinions of the Federal Constitutional Court - suited also as a model for the world?

Bielefeldt: It is certainly a useful model. Freedom of religion has the status of a human right. Like all human rights it has to be guaranteed by the State without discrimination. This claim to non-discrimination also implies the claim to non-identification of the state with a particular religion or belief. For every identification of the state with a particular religion runs the obvious risk of unequal treatment. The respectful non-identification, which has its substantiation in freedom of religion, is quasi the deep grammar of the secular constitutional state, as it can be found in different variants in European countries, Canada, the U.S. and many Latin American countries. There are also debates in the Islamic context whether the secular constitutional state is a very plausible option also for Islamic societies.

HK: Do you see export opportunities?

Bielefeldt: It is not about the export of a certain European or even German model but about the systematic consequences of the human right to freedom of religion. International law is here not designed in such a way that it stipulates exactly this secular model of respectful non-identification. But existing systems of state church or state religion come at least under a particular pressure to justify themselves. The respective states where state religion exists have to offer evidence that it is not discriminatory. The counterpart of the system of state religion would be the deliberate non-identification of the state with a particular religion or belief, precisely out of respect for freedom of religion. This claim to non-identification, however, is nowhere completely and consistently redeemed, also not in Germany or Europe.


"With Freedom of Religion it is not about the Honour of Religions"

HK: Especially the churches criticize time and again the spread of a more or less aggressive secularism in Europe. Is this, too, a threat to freedom of religion?

Bielfeldt: With the slogan secularism many things can be meant - even a post-religious or anti-religious worldview. The fact that secular ideologies exist and organize is, of course, not per se a threat to freedom of religion, at best it means new competition for the traditional religions. There is not only the competition between Christianity and Islam, for example, but also the competition between decidedly non-religious and religious people. In this competitive situation, freedom of religion is not an instrument of one party against others. For also the followers of an atheistic belief can, of course, invoke freedom of religion. That's precisely why its full title reads "freedom of religion and belief." Problems only arise if atheistic beliefs become state ideologies, as it is e.g. the case with state Marxism.

HK: Forced by the Islamic countries, in recent years in the UN Human Rights Council discussions about the protection of religions against defamation took place time and again. Does this topic belong to your area of responsibility or is it rather a massive problem for your work?

Bielefeldt: This is a big problem. It is clear that religions can not be subjects that are entitled to human rights. This sounds trivial, but is politically highly explosive. For in some states there is an interest in interpreting freedom of religion by concepts which would be tantamount to a kind of "protection of honour" for religions. With freedom of religion, however, it is not about the honour of religions but about the freedom of people to independently orient themselves in matters of religion and belief, to communicate openly, to manifest their faith publicly, and if necessary even to criticize religious institutions.



HK: What would be the possible political consequences of such a "protection of honour" for religions?

Bielefeldt: This allegedly protective right would possibly be used by states to take measures against so-called "blasphemous" tendencies. This would quickly slide into authoritarian behaviour. From the perspective of human rights, such an approach will only lead us astray. My predecessor, Asma Jahangir, has therefore repeatedly spoken out clearly against this policy of combating defamation of religion. In my inaugural speech to the General Assembly in mid-October I joined this view and requested also to abandon this concept.

HK: Are also legitimate concerns behind this demand for a better protection against defamation of religions?

Bielefeldt: Certainly, we must e.g. once again exactly discuss the question of the limits of freedom of opinion. In the field of international protection of human rights, freedom of expression is by no means regarded as unlimited. Rather, according to Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, hate propaganda has to be prevented. Hate propaganda, which possibly manifests itself in acts of hatred cannot be covered by freedom of expression. This is evident in itself but perhaps some clarifications are needed. In this context, certain aspects of the debate on combating defamation of religion could be taken up but at the same time they had to be designed conceptually quite differently.

HK: Is there in general in the UN Human Rights Council something like an expressed-unexpressed opposition of the Islamic states to the others?

Bielefeldt: The forming of regional blocs is a reality in the United Nations. However, unlike the time of the East-West conflict there are not two, but several blocs, which in contrast to the era of the Cold War act more variably. Blocs can definitely shift, and their relevance varies from topic to topic. In any case, in the world of states blocs are no irreversible fate but can be handled and perhaps even be broken up.


"Not only the serious cases of human rights violations must be documented"

HK: Exemplary inspections in this or that country belong to your tasks. Where will you set local priorities?

Bielefeldt: The inspections of countries follow several different criteria: e.g. according to the urgency of the problem, exemplary problems, but also regional diversity. It would be impossible to simply examine carefully one by one the countries of Eastern Europe. It makes also sense not only to document the serious cases of human rights violations but also to point out ambivalent tendencies or positive movements. This, too, has to be considered in the decision on visiting countries. Paraguy is the first country that I will visit. For Latin America has been visited only once in the 25 years in which the UN mandate on freedom of religion exists. As a European, I certainly should during my first journeys visit a European country, otherwise the impression may arise that I do not take the problems of Europe in terms of freedom of religion seriously. There are definitely grave problems of discrimination or of demagogy against religious minorities in Europe. And I am sure that one of my first three or four visits will led me to a Muslim country where the dealing with converts and the situation of religious minorities and proselytes will presumably be examined.


"The Religious Communities Themselves must see a Chance in it"

HK: What is the role of religions, their leaders and believers in the protection of freedom of religion?

Bielefeldt: freedom of religion can only then become lastingly effective if the religious communities see an opportunity in it. As long as they get at best grudgingly involved with it, the practice of freedom of religion will be in bad shape. We know also from the history of Europe and of the Christian churches that the recognition of freedom of religion is not easy. As is well known, in the Catholic Church the breakthrough only was made during the Second Vatican Council. A lengthy internal learning process is often necessary until within the religious community the insight establishes itself: Here nothing is withdrawn from us, nothing is destroyed. Freedom of religion is necessary for the sake of human dignity, and it is ultimately a tremendous opportunity for the religious communities.

HK: What about this learning process - roughly speaking - in the Islamic world? What are the main obstacles?

Bielefeldt: There is still needed a lot of internal clarification. In the Islamic context you will often find mixed up freedom of religion with the traditional Islamic idea of tolerance. But it was conceived much narrower, because from the outset only certain religious groups, namely the members of the pre-Islamic religions of the book were included in it.



The issue of changing one's faith from Islam to another religion poses still great difficulties. In the Islamic area different stages in the process of recognition of freedom of religion as an inalienable right to freedom of all people have been reached. What is still lacking to a great extent are inner-Islamic learning processes; but they are indispensable. It is to be hoped that the insight will more and more prevail, religion can be authentic only in freedom. For faith and religious practice are expressions of an inner decision that can remain endangered throughout life.

HK: What do you see as the role of the churches here in Germany in the context of the recent debate on integration policy?

Bielefeldt: When the President of Germany formulated the in itself not very exciting statement that Islam is now a part of Germany, there was fortunately on the part of the churches no audible opposition. Given the intense criticism of the President by sections of the public, however, it would have been possible for the churches to be even more explicit and to actively defend the President's statement. After all, we are a pluralistic society, and our constitutional order includes freedom of religion. We must realize this in all the consequences, also with regard to the symbolic presence of religious beliefs that then - in the shape of headscarves and minarets - also form the public life in Germany. In addition, I wish me more protest of the churches about too simple concepts of dominant culture, where Christianity often plays a strange adjective-role: "Christian-shaped", "Christian-Jewish", "Christian-enlightened" or perhaps even "Christian-secular". These adjective-configurations have little substance, and harmonize the often painful and conflictual course of the historical learning processes.

HK: Must the churches therefore make sure that they are not instrumentalized in this debate on a dominant culture?

Bielefeldt: For the sake of their own religious profile and also in the interest of a good cooperation in religious pluralism, it would at least be in the Churches' best interest to be a little more prickly to such hegemonic concepts that ascribe a dominant role to Christianity.


    {*} Since August 2010 Heiner Bielefeldt (born in 1958) is professor of human rights and human rights policy at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, and in a honorary capacity UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. From 2003 to 2009 the at the University of Bremen habilitated philosopher and Catholic theologian was director of the German Institute of Human Rights in Berlin. Bielefeldt is since 1999 Member of the German Commission Justitia et Pax and there responsible for human rights.


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