Religious discrimination has been practiced for centuries in many parts of the world and is a daily reality in numerous cultures. Nearly 70 percent of the world’s people live in countries with heavy restrictions on religious practices, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Those figures measured both government policies, such as Saudi Arabia’s prohibition on operating non-Muslim houses of worship, and social constraints such as more than 50 instances of Hindu temples in Bangladesh being attacked or occupied by opponents.
Roots of both tolerance and religious persecution date back thousands of years. As trade routes in Asia, Europe and Africa helped establish permanent communities of foreigners in commercial hubs, unfamiliar rituals and customs arrived with them. The Persian king Cyrus the Great built a far-reaching empire in the 6th century B.C. that promised acceptance of local religions as it spread across three continents. The Buddhist Indian emperor Ashoka declared in the 3rd century B.C. that “all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.”
Historical Bias Against Beliefs
Beliefs that directly challenged a dominant culture were not so easily tolerated. Plato’s Laws, 4th century B.C. writings that detail model laws for a fictional Greek colony, described people who denied the gods’ existence as a threat to society. They should be imprisoned, Plato wrote, and if their views didn’t change, they should be executed. Early Christian communities faced religious persecution a few centuries later when they refused to make ritual sacrifices for the Roman emperor, a choice most Romans considered immoral.
Even when cultures formally tolerate minority beliefs, tolerance may not equate to respect or equality. That distinction is reflected in the changing experience of religious minorities in Islamic cultures. The prophet Mohammad declared early in the 7th century that non-Muslims in Medina – Jews in particular — would have religious freedom under the Charter of Medina, a document that established the first Islamic state. In return for equal political and cultural rights, non-Muslims were obliged to fight alongside Muslims, except in religious warfare. But as Islamic power expanded over centuries, that bargain changed from place to place and generation to generation. Rulers specified that non-Muslims could retain certain rights as dhimmi, outsiders who accepted a contract that taxed them for receiving protections and services from the Muslim state. Depending on the state and the year, laws dictating those taxes could restrict the freedom to worship openly, to work in government, to wear certain clothing, and to construct buildings and inherit property, among other things.
Europe’s Christian kingdoms discriminated against non-Christians also, again to varying degrees. Christian re-conquest of Spain from Muslims in 1492 led to the expulsion of Jews who had lived there under the dhimmi system. Muslims in Spain were soon required to become Christians or leave, and descendants of the converts were expelled a century later. By contrast, Jews in Poland received guarantees of freedom of religion, travel and employment between the 13th and 18th centuries.
Because western and central Europe’s kingdoms were aligned with religious authorities, church schisms that surrounded the Protestant Reformation sparked cycles of warfare, execution and torture in one country after another. While those governments’ professions of official faith long ago became largely formalities, the Catholic/Protestant divide has been invoked for political purposes as recently as during street violence Northern Ireland in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Later Religious Discrimination
The spread of secular governments since the American Revolution was a reaction to centuries of deaths and treasures lost in religious conflict. But questions about balancing religious freedom against public policy have persisted for generations, from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1879 that forbade polygamy among Mormons to French lawmakers’ 2010 decision to outlaw women wearing traditional Muslim burqas. In the United States, debates over religious freedom touch subjects ranging from prison inmates’ access to instruments for Norse pagan rituals to laws that only allow Native Americans to hold eagle feathers.
Religion discussed at YouDaretoAsk.com and Dare To Ask
With religious questions and debates seemingly able to spring from any part of daily life, Phillip Milano’s YouDareToAsk.com and Dare To Ask column offer unique chances to share questions and viewpoints. While Yforum users post answers based on their experiences, Milano seeks out expert opinions from surprising sources.
Dare To Ask: Do most Muslims consider killing infidels acceptable or even expected?
A question about Muslim views on killing infidels sent Milano to Ahmed Ahmed, an internationally booked Muslim comic who explained that the bulk of Muslims are peace-loving, but added: “The Quran is based on interpretation. … And some people who interpret it are extremists.
“I’m not plotting against Americans, nobody I know is,” Ahmed said, laughing. “But hey, if I wanted to, I’d taint our ketchup supply, because America loves ketchup.”
Dare To Ask: Hey kids, ours isn’t the only religion
To understand whether Christians really want their children to learn about other religions, Milano asked Al Winseman, a specialist in religion with The Gallup Organization who said 90 percent of Americans have a “live-and-let-live” view on faith, and that people who were deeply engaged in their faith reported being more interested in the beliefs of others. For a question about how religious holidays qualify as reasons to have a day off from work, he asked Charles Haynes, senior scholar for The First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., to explain the balance that federal law strikes between the right to worship and the costs and burdens employers can reasonably be expected to bear.
Dare To Ask: Muslims, Jews and ‘fear’ of pork
Broad questions raised on Yform.com can sometimes illuminate experiences that a single person might encounter – or dread in a Woody Allen sort of way. A discussion about religious rules on diet and cleanliness prompted Milano to talk to Azhar Usman, a Muslim comedian who explained the requirement of wudu, or cleaning, before daily rituals.
“It’s done by observant Muslims before prayers – even if you’re at the office,” Usman explained.
“The worst possible scenario is getting busted by your boss with your foot in the bathroom sink. How do you explain that? ‘Excuse me, I’m just making wudu.’ He’d be like ‘You’re doing voodoo?’ “