Why do so many journalists ignore questions of faith
when discussing bigotry and discrimination?
They shouldn’t, scholars say.
When it comes to human rights, religious freedom is the “crazy uncle,” the one at the table who expresses ideas that can be both fascinating and disturbing, according to a key speaker at the International Consortium for Law and Religion Studies conference in September in Cordoba, Spain.
Even though many today oppose the concept of religious freedom, dismissing it as unfashionable and even dangerous, Brett Scharffs said it is foundational to the principle of non-discrimination. Religious freedom protects the right to worship and the right to hold beliefs that sometimes fall outside cultural mainstreams.
Scharffs, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies (ICLRS) at Brigham Young University in the United States, was addressing a plenary session at the global conference, titled, “Promoting mutual respect between diverging conceptions of the relationship between religious freedom and other fundamental rights: The contribution of the civil society.”
The Utah-based Center focuses on studying the intersections of law and religion from an international and comparative law perspective. Founded more than two decades ago, it promotes freedom of religion and belief for all people in all places.
This was the sixth conference for the separate ICLARS group, headquartered in Europe, which is an international network of scholars and experts on law and religion. ICLARS is an independent and ideological neutral institution, whose aim is to study the legal, social, political, and cultural implications of freedom of religion from a plural perspective. ICLARS sponsors a major biannual conference that brings together hundreds of scholars and religious leaders to discuss the pressing issue of religious freedom in the context of human rights.
Five journalists from the International Association of Religion Journalists, joined the other participants to discuss and debate the role of journalists in promoting peace. The IARJ, with generous support from the Center, held its conference the same week in Cordoba, an historic Spanish city in which Muslims, Jews and Christians longed lived together, sometimes in conflict, but often in peace and mutual respect.
The ICLARS conference was devoted to countering the rise of polarization in almost every arena of 20th century societies. Organizers expressed concerned social division is increasingly affecting citizens’ religious and ethical choices. And that radical positions —both religious and anti-religious— are expanding, leading many to believe those who think differently are enemies.
With participants focused on “designing the future of inter-cultural societies,” many speakers addressed the complex ways tensions can emerge between religious freedom and other human rights — such as freedom of expression, the right to respect for private and family life, the right to sexual identity, marriage, labor rights, education and freedom of conscience.
“In the realm of freedom of religion or belief, contemporary societies experience numerous challenges if they want to truly qualify as inclusive, for radical positions—religious or antireligious—are on the rise,” said Javier Martinez-Torron, Law professor of the Complutense University of Madrid and president of the organizing committee of the Córdoba conference, who at the end of it was elected as the new president of ICLARS. “Those who think differently are regarded as actual or potential enemies.”
During the plenary panel, moderated by María-Paz López, Berlin correspondent of Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, the three speakers offered perspectives both global and related to their own countries.
Ignacio Foncillas, a Spanish lawyer and investor based in the United States for the last 30 years, currently CEO and co-founder of the Elcano SPAC fund, analyzed the practical incidence of religion in the business world.
“We have to accommodate proportionally the religious rights of the workers in a way that does not create conflicts within the personnel; alleged neutrality as impartial position towards religions in the workplace is problematic,” he said. Foncillas suggested the establishment of “dialogue forums” for the various social groups in the company to reach in good faith “small and practical solutions” and avoid that timetables or holidays become a problem.
Bieito Rubido, a Spanish journalist, editor-in-chief of the Catholic News website El Debate, argued that “from the perspective of communicators, religious freedom is subjected in Spain and in Western countries to intense intimidating pressure: religion ‘has bad press’, even despite its cultural dimensions.”
In the case of Spain, he mentioned in this regard the Holy Week in Andalusia or the Camino de Santiago as “events of undeniable value whose development must be guaranteed.”
In his remarks, Scharffs, the U.S. speaker, said religious freedom is like the “canary in the coal mine” — an early warning system for social disharmony. When individuals’ religious freedom comes under threat, he said, it is likely other forms of discrimination will soon follow.
It’s crucial to defend the concept of tolerance, the scholar said. Even while many argue that respect and love are higher concerns, upholding tolerance can be more effective — and less coercive — than placing ultimate value on respect and love.
Scharffs spelled out four approaches people can adopt to effectively take part in inter-cultural exchanges with potentially challenging people, whom he jokingly referred to as proverbial crazy uncles, or even “crazy aunts” – any individual whose expressed beliefs others may find irksome.
It’s always important to show empathy – to recognize the other person comes with often vastly different life experiences, said Scharffs, a former attorney for a New York law firm who has taught at Yale University and written more than 50 articles and book chapters. A second approach, he said, relies on putting effort into getting to know the other.
“Don’t start with your differences,” Scharffs said. A more positive line of engagement involves “bonding over similarities and finding common ground.” That could mean possibly discovering you and the other person are both fans of the football team, Real Madrid.
A fourth mode for interconnecting, Scharff said, is “to focus on something the other person cares about, to learn something from them.”
He is concerned about the rise of “identity politics” in many societies, because there can be a downside to fixating on the identity and self-interest of one group instead of on the common good. Identity politics, he said, “often ends up creating a sense of winners and losers,” a zero-sum-game in which one person’s gain is equivalent to another’s loss.
Instead of putting “human rights” front and center in modern-day debates, Scharrfs suggested that it can be less polarizing to keep in mind the value of “dignity” when entering into inter-cultural exchanges.