In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell marking the triumph of western liberalism. The fall of the wall and the iron curtain marked the end of the cold war and the triumph of western liberal democracy over communism. The values of western liberal democracy of guaranteeing citizens’ rights and freedoms were in stark contrast to the communist values that limited these. One image that is seen to capture the fall of the Berlin wall 30 years ago is that of David Hasselhoff singing “looking for freedom” by the Brandenburg Gate as happy people celebrate in the background. Three decades later, many are still looking for freedom.
Freedom of faith or religion is legally acknowledged as a universal right but in reality, it is yet to be enjoyed by all. The types and degrees of violations vary. However, discrimination and or violence based on religion or faith is a reality in the West and East and is impacting their socio-economic mobility and even threatening their very existence.
Formally, the freedom of religion or belief is enshrined in international law. It is enshrined in Articles 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The European Union committed itself, in 2013 through its Guidelines, to advancing the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief through its external action including by funding projects to this end. In May 2016, the EU even created the function of “Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU” tasking the former State Secretary of Slovakia Ján Figel.
Yet, internationally, we are seeing that these freedoms are not being upheld. An independent review into the global persecution of Christians commissioned by the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary at the time Jeremy Hunt, stated that “in some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN.” The report finds that many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against. A century ago, 20% of the Middle East region’s people were Christians – today the figure is below 5%. Extremist groups in countries like Syria, Iraq, Egypt, north-east Nigeria and the Philippines explicitly single out Christians and other minorities as requiring eradication.
Similarly, Muslims in places like Myanmar and China have been facing persecution. In August 2018, a United Nations mandated fact-finding mission found that the military abuses committed in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States towards the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar since 2011 “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.” In China, the Muslim Uighurs have been facing persecution and are being detained in camps. At a hearing in the US Congress in October of this year, testimonies of Uighur women revealed how they were being raped, sexually harassed and forcefully sterilized.
Furthermore, the Jews in the Middle East and Israel continue to have their presence threatened. Israel continues to be threatened not only by the terrorist group Daesh but also by countries like Iran.
The freedom of religion or faith is also not being fully upheld in the West. In Europe, Jewish, Muslims, Christians and citizens of other religions and faith continue to face violence and discrimination. While they may not be facing the same kind of persecution experienced in other parts of the world, the still face violence and discrimination. This is limiting their freedoms and limiting their socio-economic mobility.
For example, Europe’s Jewish population, subject to genocide in the 20th century, continues to face violence and discrimination today. The studies of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights showed that Jews across the EU continue to experience anti-Semitism in the form of vandalism, insults, threats, attacks and even murder. 85 % consider anti-Semitism to be a serious problem and respondents rated it as the biggest social or political problem where they live. The community Security Trust studies demonstrate the steady rise in anti-Semitic incidents since 2013 in the UK – a country that is among the most tolerant in the world as illustrated by studies like the February 2019 Frontiers in Sociology study.
Similar issues are present across the transatlantic in the USA. For example, a recent study by the American Jewish Committee shows that nine out of ten American Jews believe anti-Semitism is a problem in America with 72% of American Jews disapproving of President Trump’s handling of the threat of antisemitism in America. Research conducted by Pew Research Center also showed that most American adults (82%) say Muslims are subject to at least some discrimination in the USA today.
We are also seeing freedoms being limited in the form of the economic and social exclusion of religious minorities. When we look at white-collar workers, even in the EU institutions themselves, the picture is concerning. The lack of diversity as a whole in the EU was reported on in the Brussels media in 2017. According to estimates by those working on racial and religious diversity reported in the media, roughly only 1 % of staff employed directly by EU institutions have a minority background. When interviewed by media on the matter, Syed Kamall (Member of the European Parliament for London at the time) famously said “if you want to see diversity in the European institutions, look at the faces of the cleaners leaving the building early in the morning and contrast that with the white MEPs and officials entering.”
A report by the Fundamental Rights Agency that also came out in 2017 showed that nearly 40% of minorities surveyed reported having faced discrimination in the last five years, with discrimination occurring most often while looking for a job.
Looking specifically at the case of Europe’s Muslim population, who represent almost 5% of the total population and are the EU’s second largest religious group, we see that islamophobia is widely experienced and is, therefore, limiting freedoms. The September 2017 study of Fundamental Rights Agency focusing on the Muslim population in the EU, showed that Muslims face discrimination in a broad range of settings. They found that discrimination was faced particularly when looking for work, on the job, and when trying to access public or private services. Studies also show that Muslim citizens in EU countries are typically poorer than the national average of the country that they live in.
Francis Fukuyama, writing in 1989 about the end of the cold war calls it the “end of history as such: end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western Liberal democracy.” He goes on to say that “the state that emerges at the end of history is liberal insofar as it recognises and protects through a system of law man’s universal right to freedom, and democratic insofar as it exists only with the consent of the governed” (Fukuyama, 1989, 5). 30 years on, we are seeing that we should not be taking the freedoms that we fought hard for, for granted. The end of the cold war did not result in the end of history and automatic access to freedoms. Today’s pictures show that citizens, not only in far away lands but also in the West, are still looking for their freedoms of religion and faith. The reality is, 1989 marked only the start of our efforts to consolidate, promote and protect the freedoms we fought for.
Going forward, we should be championing freedom of faith and religion as passionately as the former UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli of Jewish background championed church policy in 1864. Regardless of one’s faith, regardless of whether they are religious, agnostic or atheist – we must all be on the side of freedoms. The freedom not to believe must be protected as fiercely as must the freedom of religion or faith. And so, we must pay tribute to the spirit of 1989 by taking bolder steps to deliver the freedoms of the promised liberal world order.