The UN General Assembly is currently under way in New York, and while I often watch it for its drama (countries leaving in protest during speeches and outlandish claims that are often made by world leaders), this year I was struck by a few points that were made by President Obama.
Freedom of religion is easily defined as freedom to express all religious beliefs. Few would argue that definition. In practice though, religious freedom often plays out as freedom to express beliefs for the majority, but not the minority. Religious intolerance towards the majority is often dealt with harshly either in the form of public outcry (the preferred route unless it leads to violence) or judicially. But it some countries where one religion dominates beliefs, the religious minorities are not offered this same protection. President Obama’s point was made to defend freedom of expression and beliefs in the USA, where some world leaders have called for the authors of the recent anti-Muslim video that has gone viral to be prosecuted.
There is a fundamental problem with believing that one’s religion deserves governmental protection against unholy or unsacred acts. Who’s religion and beliefs deserve this protection? I am sure Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula or the Lord’s Resistant Army in East Africa believe their radical extremist views are infallible or less dramatically, correct. I am sure Coptic Christians in Epypt, Jews in Iran, or the Muslims in northern Burma feel their beliefs are correct and deserve protection. Government can not make a distinction between which religious beliefs are correct and deserve governmental protection. In limiting religious freedom they also limit freedom of expression. Government can set up boundaries to keep religious groups from committing violence. If true freedom of religion for all (through freedom of expression) isn’t guaranteed then countries better hope they have stability and a tolerant governing body. We see how easy it is for a change to take place at the government level and intolerant, authoritarian groups to take over. A perfect example of this is playing out in Somalia. Modern day Somalia was never a shining light of religious freedom or expression. A horrible extremist group in Al- Shabab took advantage of a leadership vacuum in a country where religious tolerance and expression were not engraved governmental values. Sure there are other reasons for Somalia’s current state, but one might argue that such lack of religious freedom and expression would have never happened had Somalia had a society that believed so honestly in these freedoms.
As South Sudan develops as a nation, they must realize the importance of freedom of religion and expression. They fought for 30+ years to free themselves from oppression. The foundation of which was Sudan’s lack of religious tolerance and expression. South Sudan ethnically black African and Christian, didn’t want to abide by Sudan’s intolerant, repressive quasi-sharia law. True freedom of religion and expression must be the foundation of this new nation.