Interfaith Harmony Can Generate Development

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By Valentina Gasbarri* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

ROME (IDN) - Worldwide, there is increasing recognition that faith and religion play a vital role in promoting peaceful and harmonious relationships within and between nations.

For more than half a century, the United Nations, the European Union and numerous other international and regional organizations have affirmed the principle of religious freedom. Journalists and pro-human rights organisations have reported on persecution of minority faiths, outbreaks of sectarian violence and discrimination practices against religious individuals and communities in many countries.

But until now, there have been few examples of quantitative contributions that review the positive impacts of faiths and religions to social wellbeing and on policies of national and international communities.

A study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, published in January 2014, showed that 5.3 billion people – nearly 76 percent of the world's population – live under high or very high restrictions on the freedom of religion and beliefs. Some restrictions result from government actions, policies and laws.

This includes efforts by governments to ban particular faiths, prohibit conversions, limit preaching or give preferential treatment to one or more religious groups. In 178 countries (90%), religious groups must register with the government for various purposes, and in 117 (59%) the registration requirements resulted in major problems for – or outright discrimination against – certain faiths.

Others result from hostile acts by private individuals, organizations and social groups. This includes mob or sectarian violence, harassment over attire for religious reasons and other religion-related intimidation.

One example is the abuse of religious minorities by private individuals or groups in society for acts perceived as offensive or threatening to the majority faith of the country. Incidents of abuse targeting religious minorities were reported in 47% of countries in 2012, up from 38% in 2011 and 24% in the baseline year of the study.

In Libya, for instance, two worshippers were killed in an attack on a Coptic Orthodox church in the city of Misurata in December 2012. This was the first attack specifically targeting a church since the 2011 revolution, according to the U.S. Department of State.

In Egypt, attacks on Coptic Christian communities went up during the year. In China, increasing numbers of Buddhist monks, nuns and laypeople protested government policies toward Tibet by setting themselves on fire. Also in Nigeria, there was rising violence between Muslims and Christians, including attacks by the Islamist group Boko Haram. In Burma (Myanmar), communal violence between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists has resulted in hundreds of deaths and displaced more than 100,000 people from their homes.

The share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religious restrictions reached a six-year peak in 2012, according to the study.

The highest overall levels of restrictions are found in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, where both the government and society at large impose numerous limits on religious beliefs and practices. But government policies and social hostilities do not always move in tandem. Vietnam and China, for instance, have high government restrictions on religion but are in the moderate or low range when it comes to social hostilities. Nigeria and Bangladesh follow the opposite pattern: high in social hostilities but moderate in terms of government actions.

Among all regions, the Middle East-North Africa has the highest government and social restrictions on religion, while the Americas are the least restrictive region on both measures. Among the world’s 25 most populous countries, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and India stand out as having the most restrictions when government and social restrictions are taken into account, while Brazil, Japan, the United States, Italy, South Africa and the United Kingdom have the least.

Religious freedom and business

Will a religious-based approach make economic growth more productive, as "The Religious Market Theory" suggests. Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation has in fact explained why religious freedom is good for business for several reasons.

First, religious freedom fosters respect by protecting something that more than eight-in-ten people worldwide, 84 percent according to the study, support. Religious freedom ensures that people, regardless of their belief or non-belief, are accorded equal rights and equal opportunity to have a voice in society.

Second, religious freedom reduces corruption, one of the key impediments to sustainable economic development. For instance, research finds that laws and practices burdening religion are related to higher levels of corruption. This is borne out by simple comparison between the Pew Research Center's analysis and the 2011 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. Eight of the ten most corrupt countries have high or very high governmental restrictions on religious liberty.

Third, research clearly demonstrates that religious freedom engenders peace by reducing religion-related violence and conflict. Conversely, religious hostilities and restrictions create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies. Such has occurred in the ongoing cycle of religious regulations and hostilities in Egypt, which has adversely impacted the tourism industry.

Fourth, religious freedom encourages broader freedoms that contribute to positive socio-economic development. Economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, for instance, argues that societal development requires the removal of sources of “unfreedom.” Removing impediments to religious freedom facilitates freedom of other kinds.

Fifth, religious freedom develops the economy. When religious groups operate in a free and competitive environment, religion can play a measurable role in the human and social development of countries.

Sixth, religious freedom overcomes over-regulation that accompanies certain types of religious restrictions that directly limit or harm economic activity. A few current examples from the Muslim-majority countries – a set of countries with particularly high religious restrictions – are illustrative of how the lack of religious freedom contributes to worse economic performances.

One direct religious restriction impacting economic freedom involves Islamic finance. For instance, businesses involved in creating, buying or selling Islamic financial instruments can find the situation that one Islamic law (sharia) board deems a particular instrument acceptable while another board does not, making the instrument’s acceptance on stock exchanges subject to differing interpretations of sharia.

And seventh, religious freedom multiplies trust. Religious freedom, when respected within a company, can also directly benefit a company’s bottom line. These include both lower costs and improved morale. An example of lower costs includes less liability for litigation. Moreover, Important business stakeholders include business partners, investors and consumers, and a growing segment of ethically sensitive customers tend to prefer companies that are responsive to human rights. Indeed, consumer and government preferences given to human-rights-sensitive companies may give a company an advantage in competitive markets and enable it to charge premium prices and land choice contracts.

The analysis by the Pew Research Center also implicitly applies the theory of religious markets, highlighting the main implications in the context of real economies. Indeed, as it occurs in every economy, the more the religious market is subject to regulations by the government of other public authorities, the more will be the social hostilities in the country. The degree of religious freedom is one of the three main factors, along with the average Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate over the last 5 hears and the stability of prices and monetary policy, which determine the economic success of a country.

Applying the 10th indicators of the World Economic Forum, which represent the competitiveness of a country (namely through the education system, infrastructures, communication and efficiency of labour market), the study shows that those indicators reported better performances when religious freedom and belief are guaranteed and social hostilities associated to religion are limited.

China and Brazil

An interesting comparison could address the relationship between religion and business in countries such as China and Brazil, under the common recognition of BRICS' economies (comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) but with diverse approaches to the economic, social and cultural development.

Over the past 50 years, China has developed the highest government restrictions on freedom of religion and belief. In the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution, all religions were suppressed and people who identified with a religion were subject to beatings and other forms of harassment. According to the Pew Research Center's study, today half of the Chinese population identifies itself with a religion but with a large number of formal and informal restrictions still enforce in the country. However, China has the largest Buddhist population in the world, the 7th largest Christian population and the 17th largest Muslim population in the world.

On the other hand, Brazil is an emerging economy with a widespread enthusiasm for businesses. It is among the 76% of countries recently identified in the Pew Research study with initiatives to lower religious restrictions and hostilities. For instance, on January 15, 2012, President Dilma Rousseff approved an agreement to include the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and other Jewish-related subjects, as well as racism, xenophobia, and intolerance, in the curricula of some schools, universities and other educational institutions.

Another expression of such support for religious freedom occurred in the spring of 2014 when the government of São Paulo – Brazil's commercial hub and the western hemisphere's most populous city at 20 million – declared that henceforth May 25 will be "Religious Freedom Day". This declaration coincided with a multi-faith religious freedom festival that drew nearly 30,000 participants, including the participation of the Catholic archdiocese, leading politicians and celebrities.

*Valentina Gasbarri is a Junior Expert of the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). She has a strong background in East-Asia geo-strategic relations, development issues and global security studies. [IDN-InDepthNews – July 31, 2014]

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Image: Pew Forum

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