By Jonathan Gallagher, Ph.D.  

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How religious beliefs are exploited for political and secular ends, and the consequences for religious liberty

When inter-religious violence erupted in Indonesia just a few years ago, the primary response was astonishment. Had not Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists-in fact believers of just about every faith under the sun-lived together in relative tranquility, with mutual toleration marred only rarely by religious difference?

So where did the sudden animosity come from?

Tracing the waves of massacre and death back, it seems that the trouble began with a minor dispute between two villagers. It just so happened that one was Christian, the other Muslim. But that was not the cause of the disagreement. However, as the situation became inflamed, the opposing families began to exploit the religious difference, until the whole pot boiled over into violence against the other side, ultimately defined purely on the basis of religious persuasion.

The end result? Thousands dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, refugees in their own country. Holy wars, forced conversions, rape and mutilation-all apparently because of "inter-religious conflict."

Yet this vivid example clearly reveals that the motive forces behind the violence are not primarily based on religious concepts, but on the use of religion to label and define the enemy.

The end of an authoritarian regime, competition for land and resources, employment issues, inter-tribal disputes, economic disparities-all these have a far more significant causes for the communal violence in Indonesia. Religion is just a convenient "identifier" that sanctions war and murder because of the perceived threat to one's own community.

In the words of Maksum Maksum, chief editor of the Indonesian daily newspaper Jawa Post, "Different communities have difficulty in detaching themselves from religious matters. There can be jealousy and suspicion between religious groups, and a very complex societal problem can develop that is very difficult to resolve."1

Why does it happen? Why the inter-religious violence?  According to Aidir Amir Daud, vice-director of the Indonesian daily newspaper Fajar, "The Indonesian constitution guarantees religious freedom but this is not always applied in practice. Religion is the right of the individual, but other factors such as affluence can cause problems. The key is communication between religious leaders and a working together for socio-economic equality."2

In other words, the root causes are economic, social and political. Religion is simply the tool that is used to gain control.

For a country to move from general tolerance to extreme intolerance in just a few short years speaks of the power of religion, and its ready exploitation by those seeking political authority and control. The fuel is human competition. For where there is enough food, land, water and other resources, the need to fight other communities is much reduced. But as the world becomes increasingly overpopulated, then such scenarios can only increase. Religion is so close to the heart of how any society defines itself that those seeking political power and worldly goals will readily use such a potent weapon. The exploitation of religious belief is not new-witness the jihads and crusades from history-but its greatly increased impact and extent will be the dominant factors for the foreseeable future.

The extreme militant Taliban militia that controls most of Afghanistan also exemplifies the use of religious dictates as powerful, political tools. Claiming that their interpretation of the Islam mandated their actions, the Taliban have essentially barred women from participation in education and many aspects of society; have decreed death to anyone leaving the Islamic faith or encouraging another to do so; have banned access to the Internet; have destroyed the religious heritage of other faith (e.g. the Buddhist statues); and have required religious minorities to wear a distinguishing label, reminiscent of Hitler's yellow star requirement for Jews.

Through the total integration of religion and politics in Afghanistan, there is no opportunity for political dissent, for that equates to religious apostasy. Religion is completely hijacked in the service of the state, an unquestionable tool of oppression and discrimination to which there can be no opposition.

So too in Sudan, which was named in the 2000 report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom as the world's worst violator of religious liberty. The 2001 report indicates that the situation has not improved, but deteriorated:

"The situation in Sudan has grown worse in the year since the release of the Commission's report. The government of Sudan continues to commit egregious human rights abuses – including widespread bombing of civilian and humanitarian targets, abduction and enslavement by government-sponsored militias, manipulation of humanitarian assistance as a weapon of war, and severe restrictions on religious freedom."3

The Islamic government of the north is waging a genocidal war against the south, whose population is mainly Christian and animist. Through a policy of massacre and destruction of villages, the government uses "Islamicization" as a tool to forcibly convert and enslave those captured in the south. Girls are forced into slavery and worse, boys forced to join the army and sent to fight in the south.

The methodology is one designed to eradicate all opposition and to enforce conformity. The tool of choice is religion; religion exploited as a vicious mechanism of destruction and death for all who will not comply.

Many moderates protest that such use of religion is against the fundamental principles of the faith in question. It is undeniably true that all the major religions speak to greater or lesser degrees about tolerance and compassion. Yet when religion becomes aligned with the political extremists, such moderate views are lost in the rhetoric and violence. No one wants to be seen as being in opposition to what is deemed a matter of faith, of being opposed to those who have not only demanded what is Caesar's, but what is God's too.

India provides a troubling picture of religious trends. The development of "Hindu fundamentalism" correlates with the establishment of the BJP, the "Hindu nationalist" party that now forms the government of India. India has traditionally been a tolerant and pluralistic society as far as religion is concerned. It has welcomed religions from beyond its borders, and Hinduism itself has always promoted toleration and acceptance. That is not to say that there have been no conflicts in the past, but generally India has been free from major religious conflict.

Today that tolerant scenario is fading rapidly. The exclusivistic attitude of the "Hindu national" politicians has encouraged an atmosphere of suspicion and fear, with inter-religious conflict the obvious result. Instead of a being an inclusive expression of religion, Hinduism is now being marketed as the "national faith." Calls are made from the government to resist the work of Christian missionaries.

Any attempts by other religious groups to share their faith and gain converts is strongly resisted, and legislation is already in place in some areas which requires government permission to convert from one faith to another. Antagonism to Christian missionary work is becoming increasingly intense, and viewed as a threat to national security and identity. Pressure to re-convert to Hinduism is strong.

A note left at the site of three bombings in the northern state of Bihar said, "Stop conversions under the pretext of social service. India is a Hindu nation. Christians leave India."

Why? Again, this is no accidental process. The role of religion in society is exploited and corrupted to self-serving ends by those who wish to gain power. By equating faith and nationalism, politicians gain support-for who would dare contradict what is presented as an "article of faith"? Religion is once again hijacked, and the threat to religious minorities is ominous. For in situations of crisis, the majority seeks scapegoats. In a country of more than one billion people, with great competition for food and water, with most resources rapidly being depleted, it does not take much imagination to foresee inter-religious conflict of cataclysmic proportions.

When society reaches breaking point, religious toleration is a scarce commodity.

"Militancy" in religion takes many forms, yet is a very "portable" concept. To have suggested, even just a few years ago, that a militant form of Buddhism could be developed, would have seemed absurd. Such an idea is no longer laughable. Even Buddhism, which is so linked with concepts of peace, tranquility and acceptance, has been hijacked to support nationalistic and political concerns.

For example in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, Buddhism is the state religion. Conversion to other religions is illegal. Attacks on minority religious groups are increasing. Christians have been arrested and beaten. Some have been forced to leave the country.

Again, why? Because the religion of the majority-in this case, Buddhism-is viewed as essential to social stability and order. Nothing is to disturb society, and so a hostile and antagonistic attitude is developed towards other religious faiths. The result: severe restrictions on religious freedoms, and the potential for violent conflict.

On the international scene, such exploitation of religion for political and secular objectives does not augur well for the fundamental human rights. The pressures of overpopulation, resource depletion, famine, disease, pollution, crime and so on all impact society in negative ways that contribute to the desire to hijack religion for personal and national purposes.

Consequently the currently accepted norms of religious liberty and freedom of conscience will come under increasing attack. While nations nominally subscribe to such international instruments as the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, such documents no longer seem to be well respected. One high-ranking diplomat in a recent conversation at the UN referred dismissively to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as "western philosophy," and that her country did not believe it should be bound by such agreements.

Without becoming alarmist, such a situation should be cause for grave concern. When religion is hijacked, so is our fundamental humanity. Religion lies close to the heart of who we claim to be. So in exploiting religion, we exploit ourselves. As a result, multiplied millions are deceived by duplicitous leaders who claim to be speaking in the name of faith. What hope is there for separation of church and state when religion is employed in the service of politicians?

In his latest annual report, Professor Abdelfattah Amor, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance writes:

"The worldwide trend as regards religion and belief is towards increased intolerance and discrimination against minorities and a failure to take account of their specific requirements and needs. Sadly, intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief are ever-present in the world. An appraisal of the status of freedom of religion and belief in the world today reveals a somewhat negative and disturbing picture."4

There is no question that the intermixing of religion and politics will become and even greater part of this "negative and disturbing picture." Amor goes on to describe what he calls "the ever-worsening scourge of extremism. This phenomenon, which is complex, having religious, political and ethical roots, and has diverse objectives (purely political and/or religious), respects no religion. It has hijacked Islam (as in Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, the Philippines and Turkey), Judaism (in Israel), Christianity (in Georgia) and Hinduism (in India) The casualties of this aberration are religions themselves."5

The casualties are religions themselves. And, it should be added, the freedom to believe, practice and worship that go along with religious tolerance and freedom of conscience.

The irony of the hijacking of religion is that the aim-to create a unified society based on the enforcement of one religion-is an illusion. The result is the complete opposite: the fracturing and destruction of society, and the degrading and debasing of humanity. For as any individual's religious freedom is violated, we are all violated. For there can be no truth in force and imposition, in hatred and violence. In the words of Thomas Clarke, "All violence in religion is irreligious, and that whoever is wrong, the persecutor cannot be right."6

That is the true tragedy-that in enforcing religion, hijacking the belief system-then truth is turned to error, right becomes wrong, and the whole set of moral and ethical values are debased and corrupted. The result for religious liberty is devastating.

For hijacked religion is no religion at all.



1. Personal interview, February 14, 2001.

2. Personal interview, February 14, 2001.

3. USCIRF report 2001, p.123.

4. E/CN.4/2001/63, pp.46-47, available at:

5. Ibid, p. 46.

6. Thomas Clarke, History of Intolerance (1819 ed.), Vol. 1, p. 3, available at


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