International Affairs · Law

Religious Extremism and the Role of International Law

The sight of people wearing religiously distinguishable clothes or insignia is still suspicious and controversial due to certain biases society holds. But when such controversial behaviour violates another’s human rights it is called religious extremism. The world has recently come across two major incidents of religious extremism in Africa, which have not only shocked the entire world but have left the international authorities feeling helpless.

The first incident took place on the night of 15th April, 2014 when more than 300 girls were kidnapped from their school dormitories in Nigeria. It has been months there are still no leads with the Nigerian government. The Islamic militant group Boko Haram, which reasoned the attack saying that girls should not be educated but should be married by a mare age of 12, took the responsibility of the incident. What is more is that all the girls have been converted to Islam.

The second incident took place in Sudan where the world witnessed the plight of an eight months pregnant Christian Sudanese woman for marrying a Christian man. Miriam Ibrahim herself claims to be a Christian as she was brought up by her Christian mother after her Islamic father abandoned them when she was 6 years old. A heavily pregnant Miriam already has an eighteen-month-old son who is living with her in the jail cell where she is held imprisoned until she delivers and the death sentence is carried out. What is even more upsetting about this is that she was first sentenced to a 100 lashes on account of “adultery” and then given 3 days to recant her faith, upon the denial of which she was sentenced to death on account of apostasy.

These recent incidents have forced us to think as to who has the right to choose our religion for us. In a wider sense, should the choice of an individual’s belief system depend upon the individual or one’s family, society, nation, or militant/ terrorist groups? Also, it’s imperative to reflect upon how the existing international humanitarian law seeks to ensure a balance between religious apathy and religious extremism as the major problem lies in finding the proper balance proselytism and the multitude of rights/ interests of religious groups, state and individuals which may conflict with that freedom.

The attitude of acceptance of other people’s religious beliefs and views is what is meant by religious tolerance. Such tolerance may not be that one views another’s religion as equally true or idealistic but that every person grants the other her/ his right to preach any religion and in any way they want in the absence of any kind of force or coercion and totally distinguished from race, sex, nation, social origin, etc.. But when religious intolerance takes an uncompromising approach it turns to religious extremism.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 (UDHR) is considered to be the basic foundation of Human Rights under international law. Article 18 of the UDHR states that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his/her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

This provision clearly bestows the right of every individual to choose his/ her own religion, faith, belief or conscience along with the right to proselytism. The choice to preach such religion or belief alone or with someone else or in a community is also that of an individual. Thus, no one can force another person to indulge in an activity, which is against his or her choice or right.

International law does not define religion but it identifies it as one’s moral choice and conscience under many declarations and covenants. But such identification hasn’t proved to be of much use. In the Nigerian kidnapping case, the girls are still missing. Countries like USA and France have deployed their troops throughout the territory of Nigeria and on the borders it shares with Cameroon and Chad. But this action wasn’t taken until many days passed since the incident and consequently the girls were converted to preach Islam. In the case of the Sudanese woman, the only action taken by an international authority was by Amnesty International, which sent a petition to the Sudanese court to free the woman. Other than that, no action was taken by any other international authority thus shedding light on the failure of the international humanitarian law in matters of religious extremism.

Thus where international law identifies religion and religious choices it also accepts that its manifestations need to be protected. Despite this acceptance, its actions continue to fail and disappoint us. The United Nations in 1981 passed the Declaration of Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion and Belief but this declaration was never endowed with the force of International Law and similarly the UN has established a Special Rapporteur of Religious Intolerance. Thus, probably what the international lawyers fail to understand is the need for legislation solely for the purposeful protection of the freedom of religion and ensure its proper implementation in order to create a balance between religious apathy and extremism and safeguard the basic rights of every human being.

It seems that the threat to freedom of religion is not from the atheists or the agnostics but from religions in general. Christianity is being termed as ‘Christian West’, attacks on Sikhs and the age- old Hindu- Muslim animosity are just a few examples. Religion is not a barrier to the progress at United Nations or any where around the world, unlike religious extremism, which proved to be a serious threat and potential to cause serious damage to anybody against its ideologies. Many religious people work for the greatest good for the greatest number of people but religious extremists, however, have an uncompromising approach towards politics and if given a chance, would deny basic right of choice to most people. Thus, one can say that right to proselytize the abducted Nigerian girls was the right of the girls themselves but considering they were minors the right to ‘shape’ their religious views is of their parents and not of Boko Haram. But in the case of Miriam Ibrahim of Sudan, the right to freedom of religion is hers alone. No one has the authority to ‘shape’ or ‘change’ her religion against her will. In her case, it wasn’t apostasy as she was preaching a religion that she has since childhood.

Ultimately, every secularist can come to two conclusions, first that the choice of religion is not that of a state or a community but that of an individual and; second the starry- eyed dream of a secular world still seems nothing but a utopian fantasy in today’s times.

About the Author

Tarang- ImageTarang Nagar

A student of Symbiosis Law School, Noida she has an aptitude for public speaking and likes reading. She has an inclination towards International Law, affairs and economics. When she manages to get spare time she is daydreaming about travelling all over the world.  She is a big novel and movie buff. She has a special interest in taxation law and wants to pursue the same in the future.





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