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Why is it that terrorism and human rights violations are often attached to religion?

Remarks by Michel ROUGÉ (France)


Michel Rougé argues that religions generally affirm the innate dignity of all human persons and stand at their side when their rights are violated. He explains why religions should not be accused of promoting terrorism. He gives reasons why, on the other hand, they may refuse to endorse certain claims presented as rights which are in conflict with their notion of what human life is about and ignore the concomitant duties of human beings in society. He makes a case for benevolent secularism as a condition for religious freedom which, in line with current catholic thinking, he considers to be an essential component of respect for human rights. He concludes with a wish that religious people in the industrialised West focus their support for human rights on the "Four Freedoms", including freedom from want.


In responding to the question put to me, I should like to deal separately with the issues of terrorism and human rights violations. I wish to stress that, though it is sometimes practised in the name of religion, terrorism can never be consonant with a truly religious attitude. On the other hand, religions often take a more nuanced view of alleged human rights violations. They are, on the whole, in favour of human rights, but they also take into account other concerns which the ideology of human rights frequently ignores. Outlining the reasons for these reservations and looking in more detail at the complex problem of religious freedom may provide Christians with pointers on the way to deal with human rights issues in the religious context of the world today.

  1. Terrorism and religion. Terrorism can be defined as a mode of governing or opposing governments by intimidation through the threat and actual use of violence, blind assassination, kidnapping and the like. It is resorted to, among others, by people who feel that their rights are ignored by the authorities of the land and who despair of obtaining a more equitable treatment through legal, peaceful processes. Terrorism often arises out of social groups with an ethnic, linguistic or religious background which differs, in one way or another, from that of the majority in the country concerned. In some such cases, but certainly not in all, religion is the defining criterion. Thus, terrorist organisations have found breeding grounds in the frustrations of, for example, Jewish immigrants in Muslim and Christian Palestine in the 1940’s, the Muslim majority in Hindu-ruled Kashmir, Tamil-speaking Hindus in Sri-Lanka, Roman Catholics in Protestant Northern Ireland, or Mindanao Muslims in the overwhelmingly catholic Philippines. Religious differences, however, are not involved in other, similar situations like those of the Basque provinces of Spain or the French island of Corsica, both in a purely Catholic context. Similarly, the Kurdish rebels are Muslims fighting the governments of three Muslim countries, secularist Turkey, Sunni Iraq and Shia Iran, which do not recognise their ethnic specificity. When conducting joint terrorist attacks against Israeli occupation of Palestine; Christian and Muslim Arabs set aside their traditional religious quarrels. The same happened in Algeria in the fight against French colonial rule. Even when religious affiliation is in the forefront, the right of the people concerned to practice their faith is usually not at stake. What is present in all cases is resentment against alien and/or brutal domination and a longing for self-government. The assertion by some terrorists that they act under some kind of spiritual inspiration is seldom convincing. People responsible for such crimes as the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City or the lethal sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway invoked confused religious motivations for what was, in fact, the murderous impulse of distraught minds. Islamic movements like the Taleban in Afghanistan or the "Groupes Islamiques Armés" in Algeria claim to be fighting to establish in their country institutions faithful to the spirit and letter of the Koran. Some members of these organisations may indeed be driven by genuine, though misguided commitments to their religion. One suspects, however, that their leaders are interested mostly in the conquest of power through the forcible ouster of the existing governments. Needlessly provocative actions on the part of the ruling faction, such as the Unionist demonstrations by Protestants in Northern Ireland, may make religious minorities more sympathetic towards terrorist groups claiming to act on their behalf. But, again, this is in no way different from what happens in a non-religious context when intolerant ethnic or linguistic majorities feed terrorism by supporting their governments’ repressive policies. State terrorism, as distinct from minority group terrorism, occurs when authorities will not tolerate any form of opposition. The armed forces, the police or unofficial bodies under their control arrest and detain dissenters or murder them outright. Dictators will occasionally turn their partisans’ religious sentiment into an instrument of their lust for power by designating miscreants as enemies of the people. The quasi-genocide conducted, under the Khartoum government, by the white Muslim Northern Sudanese armed forces against the black Christians in South Sudan is a striking example. The affected religious zeal of political and military leaders indulging in these or similar crimes has all the marks of hypocrisy. No religion can justify such practices as Syria’s support for the murderous Hezbollah guerrillas in the Middle East, Serbia’s "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia or the crimes against Christians which the Hindu ruling party leaves unpunished in India. In this last case, the perpetrators seem mostly to resent the foreign Catholic and Protestant clerics’ siding with the poor and the outcast minorities in the north eastern mountains. This is very much like what led to the assassination of social-minded bishops by the henchmen of military dictatorships in Latin America. In the Spice Islands of Eastern Indonesia, the armed forces’ pogroms against Christian communities appear to be above all an attempt at revenge for their failure to prevent the secession of Catholic East Timor. Their terrorist activity is not endorsed by President Wahid and other responsible Muslim authorities. In all these situations, true religion is on the side of the victims, not the perpetrators of terrorist acts. Religious authorities, when they do get formally involved, usually do not condone terrorist acts. In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, the highest-ranking leaders of all major local religious communities jointly condemned all forms of inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence. They solemnly denied perpetrators of such acts any right to claim religious justification. In Sierra-Leone, religious authorities worked together to arrange a cease-fire between the Government and Foday Sankoh’s United Revolutionary Front. Together, they began to pave the way for reconciliation among warring factions. In Poland and the Philippines, the movements which toppled the communist régime and the Marcos dictatorship were officially supported by the locally predominant Catholic Church. Only their decidedly non-violent character made such support possible. To sum up, religion may or may not be a feature in situations where terrorist acts are committed. But it never is a root cause of such acts. This can be proved by the strong stand against terrorism often taken by religious leaders. It is demonstrated also by the fact that terrorism occurs just as well in situations of oppression and discrimination where religion plays no role. People concerned with the good name of religion should therefore emphasise that it is not a part of the problem of terrorism. On the contrary, it can and should be part of the solution by endeavouring to develop mutual understanding among communities and promoting the non-violent handling of legitimate grievances.
  2. Human rights violations and religion. While persons and groups who oppose terrorism can usually expect established religions to stand at their side (except, perhaps, for a few deviant radicals like the Afghan Talebans or the most extreme Iranian mullahs), persons and groups who militate against human rights violations may not be so fortunate. Though generally supportive of human rights, religions do not recognise certain freedoms claimed as rights by this or that element of civil society. They frequently entertain reservations about what might be called the ideology of human rights. Some of these reservations are a sequel to the conflicts which have existed historically between religious authorities and the proponents of human rights. An account of difficulties of this kind can be found in the attached note concerning the Roman Catholic Church, with special reference to France, the self-proclaimed motherland of human rights and a traditional hotbed of militant secularism. Disputes still occasionally flare up when one side or the other indulges in needless provocations such as the Iranian "fatwa" against writer Salomon Rushdie for publishing "Satanic Verses" or the choice of Rome, in the midst of the Roman Catholic Jubilee celebrations, for holding the year 2000 "Gay-Pride", much to the chagrin of the Vatican. A second, more serious reason is that since they consider themselves to be entrusted with divine revelation concerning major aspects of human life, religions can endorse published lists of human rights only to the extent that the rights thus specified can be reconciled with their theology. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, the Vatican paper "Osservatore Romano" criticised the fact that the text substituted for the recognition of God-given rights a man-made piece of legislation which men could and would change at will. The Church insists that human rights derive their legitimacy from their basis in divine will. The Vatican Council stressed this point when taking a strong position in favour of human rights in its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, The present position of the Catholic Church is that the 1948 document and other similar texts are welcome developments. They are seen as reflecting a perception of the dignity of the human person derived from the Gospel and present in other religious traditions as well. But, as was found when this point was discussed in CCADD at Driebergen in 1998, not all human rights formulated here and there can be so explained and justified. While taking a very positive view of human rights and insisting that they be respected by all, Pope John Paul II still wants rights to be coherent with a sound anthropology, a philosophic recognition of what a human being is and is called to be. This leads him to positions similar to those traditionally deducted from the concept of natural law from which, it is thought, the will of God can be inferred. Under his leadership, the Roman Church still holds, for example, that men and women are meant by nature, i. e. by God, to enter into only one legitimate form of sexual partnership: permanent, monogamous, heterosexual marriage in which the happiness of both spouses will be found in their selfless devotion to each other and to the children born to them. Not all so-called "reproductive rights" of women as proclaimed by extreme American and Northern European feminists can be recognised under this doctrine. Islam, similarly, weighs human rights formulations against the holy Koran and traditions ascribed to Prophet Muhammad. When the UN Declaration was being discussed in 1948, the nine Muslim states members of the United Nations, at the time often referred to their Islamic background. For example, when the Mexican representative moved to amend the draft article about the right of men and women to marry by adding the words "without any restriction as to race, nationality or religion", Iraq, Pakistan and Syria voted against (as well as South Africa, then already engaged in the apartheid system). Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia abstained. Their representatives pointed out that under Koranic law, men may marry only Muslim, Christian or Jewish wives (but not "pagan" women) while Muslim women must marry a Muslim husband. In the end, eight Islamic states voted in favour of the Declaration (Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey), but Saudi Arabia, at that time the most anxious to affirm Muslim orthodoxy, abstained after she found herself unable to bring the text in line with all her demands. Legally, all Islamic countries are bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the covenants adopted by the international community to give it effect. In a number of them, governments will not enforce such provisions of Islamic law as the Koranic restrictions on marriage (while leaving religious authorities free to prescribe them to believers). However, as fundamentalist currents become more influential in Muslim countries, there is a tendency for some Islamic governments to disown their international commitments in this area. In 1991, the representative of Sudan went so far as to state before the UN Commission of Human Rights that international instruments should be adapted to Islamic law, not the reverse. Islam and Catholicism are not alone in finding it sometimes difficult to reconcile current notions of human rights with their theology. All religions face problems of this sort. In Europe, a growing number of cases are brought before the Strasbourg Tribunal by plaintiffs who claim that their rights under their national constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights are being violated by religious authorities or under their influence. One should however not conclude that religion and human rights are, in principle, irreconcilable. There are indeed cases where certain human rights, as commonly defined, seem to be in conflict with divine rights as religions envision them. But in most situations, religions will consider it their duty to both God and God-created human beings to oppose gross violations of human rights. For this reason, contrary to what many people think, their relations with authoritarian governments are usually uneasy. Such is especially the case when oppressive governments base totalitarian policies on materialistic, false notions of the Absolute. For example, the claim by Marxist governments to unlimited powers in the name of the proletariat, as a corollary to "scientific materialism", was never accepted by religions. In 1948, Poland, Yugoslavia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and the Soviet Union had abstained in the vote on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This meant that they did not recognise the rights set forth in this document and did not consider themselves bound to respect them. In the ensuing decades, religious groups in these countries never hesitated to invoke the Declaration and related texts against oppressive acts and policies of their governments. Similarly, Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian régime based on the alleged privileges of a "Herrenvolk" was unequivocally condemned by the Christian Churches. It should be recalled that Pope Pius XII, often unfairly accused of sympathy for the Nazis, had written the first draft of his predecessor’s anti-nazi encyclical "Mit Brennender Sorge" ("With burning concern"). This document was originally published in German, a most unusual break with tradition. It was ordered to be read at all masses in all Roman Catholic churches in Germany. A third aspect of the possible conflict between human rights activists and religious leaders has to do with religions’ emphasis on human duties as well as human rights. The French Declaration of 1789 did state that "freedom is the right to do what does not harm others". But this implicit limit on individual liberty is often forgotten. Many people now seem to think that everyone has an absolute right to self-fulfilment which should not be curtailed by concern for consequences on others. One wonders whether the license to act in ways which are at once degrading to oneself and harmful to others can truly be claimed as a human right. Rebel French students in May 1968 proclaimed "Il est interdit d’interdire" (Forbidding is forbidden). No religion can go along with such a maxim. In fact, prohibitions which religions do edict can be presented as crucial preconditions for actual freedom. "Thou shalt not kill" is the charter for every person’s right to life. "Thou shalt not lie" affirms each one’s right to the truth. "Thou shalt not steal" establishes people’s freedom to enjoy the fruit of their work in safety. "Thou shalt not commit adultery" provides sexual partners and children with material and emotional security in family relationships. In 1864, Pope Pius IX included the following in his "Syllabus" of condemned propositions: "No forces shall be recognised except those residing in matter and the norms of human conduct are to be found in the accumulation and increase of wealth and the satisfaction of pleasures.". This formulation points out the link between philosophic materialism and selfish individualism, each of which denies an essential aspect of religion. It makes clear the philosophical reasons why all religions must be uneasy with radical libertarian positions on issues like abortion, euthanasia and unlimited freedom for the media. Religions normally include a moral concern for the good of all members of society, especially the weak - including children - and the poor, a point which human rights activists often ignore when defining the rights of the adults, the strong and the healthy. Concern for the poor also explains why religions may well question the legitimacy of paying for goods and services whatever price unregulated markets dictate. Free markets may indeed serve the cause of liberty as a whole. But they may also bring about results which can only be seen as gross violations of a basic human right, the right everyone should have to work and earn enough to sustain his or her life and that of his or her family.

3. Religious freedom - the need for enlightened secularism. Religious freedom is a special case. A group claiming to possess the truth may find it difficult to accept that other doctrines - false by definition - could be taught and practised in the land. There is a political side to this issue. Unity of faith may be felt by certain nations and governments to be a requirement for domestic tranquillity. Two years ago, at Driebergen, CCADD celebrated, after a fashion, the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia which, 350 years earlier, based peace in Europe on the principle that all inhabitants of a country should share a common religion with the local ruler : "Cujus regio, ejus religio". In the Greek orthodox convent where CCADD met last year, participants were made to realise how difficult it can be for the Russian orthodox Church to refrain from claiming a privileged status preserving its position as the historic embodiment of the Russian nation’s spirituality. There are elements of discrimination in the religious legislation and policies of Russia which clearly contradict accepted notions of human rights and ought to be removed. But one cannot expect that the Russians will easily accept the American model of free entry and open competition among religions, including those whose self-proclaimed religious character may be considered dubious. Religious sentiment and political concerns combine in a country like Saudi Arabia where the practice of religions other than Islam is not permitted. Catholic Filipino migrants who are brought there in large numbers to do menial work are not even allowed to carry with them copies of the New Testament, prayer books or rosaries for individual use in private. Converting to another religion is forbidden in Buddhist Bhutan. It is punishable by prison terms in Hindu Nepal. It is liable to the death penalty in Islamic Iran, Sudan and Pakistan. The strong pronouncement of the Vatican Council in favour of religious freedom is all the more remarkable. Even in countries with a secularist tradition like France and the United States, religious non-conformity may occasionally be considered threatening. In France, the recent appearance of "new religions" is seen by many with great suspicion, as a danger from which the young, in particular, should be protected by appropriate state policies. The neo-fascist extreme right claims to be upholding national cultural and spiritual values when it fights against anything which is not "authentically French", be it fast-food chain stores or the Islamic religion. In the United States, we saw, some years ago, how the prospect of electing a Roman Catholic president was felt by many to be somehow un-American. The recent designation of a Jewish candidate for the vice-presidency was described by various commentators as acceptable only to the extent that his faith remained a private, personal matter. Reconciling freedom of religion with the political unity of the nation is often said to require a régime of complete separation between Church and State modelled after the principles enshrined in the American Constitution. Seen from abroad, however, America appears as a country where Christian values permeate all aspects of social life. In the US, politics and religion are mutually supportive to an extraordinary extent. In a country like France, the notion that religious and secular concerns should be kept rigorously separate often brings about open conflict between public authorities and religious communities. Stating that religion should be confined to personal belief and private worship is tantamount here to denying freedom of religion. The fear of religious activism easily leads to actual persecution. It is worth noting, in this regard, that the campaign against Scientology and other new religious sects was launched in France not by leaders of the established religions but by teachers in the public school system and other secularist elements in political parties. Disastrous experiments with radical secularism in France over the past two hundred years would seem to suggest that distinguishing between the secular and the religious spheres should not go so far as to keep them totally separate. There is need for both mutual respect of the legitimate autonomy of each domain and a minimum of co-operation in matters of common concern. How this is organised will have to depend on local circumstances. No human society is immune from intolerance. Denying religious freedom to dissenting groups is just an example of the tendency which in all places, at all times, nurtures racism, xenophobia, aggressive nationalism and other sentiments disruptive of national harmony and international peace This is why, among others, Pope John Paul II often presents religious freedom as a test of a country’s respect for human rights in general. In his message for the World Day of Peace, January 1, 1999, he wrote : "Religion expresses the deepest aspirations of human persons. It determines their visions of the world. It directs their relations with other human beings. Fundamentally, it gives the answer to the question of the true sense of human life in its personal and social aspects. Religious freedom, therefore, is at the very heart of human rights. It is inviolable to such an extent that it demands recognition of the right even to change one’s religion if so required by one’s conscience. This is because everyone must in all circumstances follow the dictates of his or her conscience and no one can be forced to act against it."

Other religious leaders take a similar position in favour of religious freedom in the name of religion itself. One example is the influential Muslim spokesman Soheib Bensheikh who, in Marseilles, France, denies that Muhammad could ever have said "Whoever change their religion, kill them." as commonly claimed. He observes that this is contrary to the Prophet’s own practice and to the clear recognition, in many Koranic verses, of freedom of choice in religious matters. One should view with sympathy the efforts of enlightened Muslim leaders who want to remain faithful to the fundamentals of Islam while acknowledging the people’s demand for the respect of essential human rights and the need to establish and strengthen secular institutions as a way to ensure it.

4. Promoting human rights in the present religious context. Recognising that religion may seem, in some cases, to sanction what appears to many of us to be intolerable violations of human rights should not lead us to see religion per se as an enemy of freedom and to advocate agnosticism as the way to bring about universal recognition of individual liberty and democracy. In fact, all great religions are on the side of justice, liberty, solidarity and the respect of human dignity. The Judeo-Christian tradition, in particular, has played a vital role in the development of the concept of human rights All religious traditions can be enlisted in the fight for the implementation of essential rights everywhere. To this end, religious leaders must be helped to look critically at their respective religious heritage. Some traditional positions may be the result of history rather than divine revelation and can be made to adjust to present exigencies in terms of human rights. Advantage could be taken of the experience of modern secular States, including Muslim countries where the teaching and practice of the predominant Muslim faith is perfectly free but where the government will not use its powers to enforce the rules governing the Muslim way of life. Foreigners, however, must realise that imposing their own conception of democracy and human rights to other nations, especially newly independent peoples, is contradictory. Besides, democracy as we know it does not necessarily work for peace and freedom. In deeply divided countries, multiparty elections may reinforce ethnic distinctions and result in abuse of power by one group at the expense of others. Western countries must also realise that certain aspects of their way of life do not appeal to other, non-Western nations, including some with a Christian heritage. Linking the concept and practice of human rights too closely with excessive individualism, hedonism and materialistic consumerism, as practised in the industrialised West, will be seen by many as an attack against important values which religions, in particular, rightly defend. Those interested in Christian approaches to defence, disarmament, peace and security should perhaps think about how to disassociate themselves from these deviant trends. Christian in Western countries have every right and even a duty to press for the respect of internationally agreed human rights everywhere. In so doing, they might try to use once again the broader and probably more universally acceptable notion of the "Four freedoms" which President Roosevelt set as a humanistic ideal against naziism and fascist totalitarianism. "Freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want" include not only legal rights to do this or that, but also moral rights to enjoy things like peace, development, a safe global environment, etc. They cover the moral duties of states as well as their legal obligations. President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms thus include all essential human rights, as well as other contributing factors to peace without which human rights cannot prosper, such as security arrangements and disarmament, dialogue among cultures and civilisations, respect for international law, strengthened international institutions, co-operation for development and the eradication of mass poverty. Violations of human rights are not the consequence of religion. But human rights and religions do interact. They can profit from questioning each other’s assumptions in a friendly and respectful way. This will help them to refine and purify their respective messages and establish a basis for a common contribution to the advancement of human dignity and the progress of human societies. Religious people and human rights activists can work together to that effect, and if they can, they must.


Historic reasons for the Catholics’ mixed record in human rights matters. A number of the French revolutionaries who drew up the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen set out to fight not only the monarchy but the Catholic Church as well. The preamble of the Declaration pays tribute to an enigmatic "Supreme Being" which is purposely not the Christian God. What it says about religious freedom reflects the misgivings of its drafters : "No person shall be harassed for his or her opinions, even religious, provided that their manifestation does not disrupt public order as established by law." The present French constitution recalls the 1789 document. It states that "France is a secular republic. It respects all beliefs." The existing legislation in this area provides for "freedom of worship". These texts clearly take a very narrow view of religion and the role it can play in society. In 1791, laws were enacted to shut down all convents and monasteries and to confiscate all Church property. Priests were requested to swear allegiance to a "Civil Constitution of the Clergy" which placed the Church under State tutelage. Many refused. They were arrested and soon put to death without judgement. In violation of the 1789 Declaration, Christianity was purely and simply abolished in 1793. At the same time, a political régime of terror was put in place, with the guillotine as its sinister symbol. Order returned in 1802 when Napoléon Bonaparte established an authoritarian government and made a religious restoration possible. From then on, French politics alternated between periods of democracy with a strong anti-religious bias and periods of authoritarian monarchy with a more friendly attitude towards the Church. In 1905; for example, the secularist government of the Third Republic once again nationalised all Church property and sent into exile all members of religious orders. Judges known as practising Catholics were removed. Military officers and civil servants attending Sunday mass were denied promotion. Catholicism and democracy were reconciled only at the time of the First World War when secularists and religionists joined in the common fight against the German invaders. Even today, it is frequent to see secularist human right activists take a stand against religious practices which they see as a denial of individual freedom, like, for example, when teachers’ unions oppose the wearing of so-called Islamic scarves by female pupils in public schools. Such people are not far from thinking that doing away with Islam, if not all religions, is a precondition for implementing human rights everywhere. In Italy, also, the search for human rights and democracy was often turned into a war machine against Christianity. Garibaldi, the hero of Italian unity, referred to the catholic clergy as "vomito negro", the black vomit which is one symptom of cholera, a disease devastating the country at the time. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Pope was forced out of Rome three times by revolutionary movements. In 1864, Pope Pius IX published his famous "Syllabus", a catalogue of "modern errors". He condemned side by side attempts by authoritarian governments to restrict the freedom of the Church and such liberal concepts as freedom of the press, if used to propagate immoral or anti-Christian ideas. On the opposite side, radical libertarians appeared to have adopted the anarchists’ motto : "Ni Dieu, ni maître" (we want neither a God nor masters). Leo XIII, Pius IX’s successor, noted that the prevailing capitalist system reduced workers to unacceptable levels of poverty. He supported their right to organise at a time when this was considered taboo by apologists for an unfettered market economy. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical "Pacem in Terris", in 1963, was the first Catholic pronouncement to explicitly endorse human rights as defined in the UN-sponsored Universal Declaration of 1948. This position was later ratified by the Vatican Council. Pope John Paul II even made it a cornerstone of his pontificate. There is however no reconciliation between the Church and the advocates of some controversial elements of the human rights ideology. Such differences often appear in the context of UN Conferences on specific issues. The observer of the Holy See often voices objections against some points in the draft final declarations. Other participants would deny the right of the Church to be heard in such debates. They seem to think that religion has nothing to say on social issues and should be confined to worship. This is, of course, not acceptable to Catholics and, I suppose, to all Christians as well if they wish to demonstrate in practice their obedience to Christ’s command to love one’s neighbour and give it concrete effect.