Pressekonferenz Wahl-O-Mat

15.6.2004

The Limits of Religious Freedom

Im Rahmen der Veranstaltung "Constitutions and Confessions" in Potsdam

Die Konflikte zwischen religiösen Gruppen nehmen zu, weil fundamentalistische Bewegungen in westlichen und Entwicklungsländern immer präsenter werden. Thomas Krüger, bpb-Präsident, beleuchtet in seiner Rede das Verhältnis zwischen Politik und Religion als Lösungsansatz in dieser Auseinandersetzung.

  • Deutsche Version

    1. Introduction

    For a long time, bloody conflicts about the true faith seemed to be a thing of the past – at least in Western countries. For decades, the significance of religion in Western societies has been declining. Many therefore believed that these problems would disappear of their own accord because there would no longer be fertile ground for disputes about religious principles.

    Yet conflicts between religious groups are occurring ever more often: because fundamentalist religious movements are becoming increasingly prominent in Western countries, as well as the threshold and developing countries; because there are always strong religious motives at the root of conflicts pursued by violent means; because religiously motivated civil wars can be found all over the world (in North Ireland, the Balkans, India and Africa, for example); because churches and religious organisations are making ever clearer public commitments and politicising religion; and finally because of the considerable growth of Christianity and Islam to be observed in what is known as the Third World.

    However, it is not just a question of disputes between religious communities. Western societies have pluralised themselves, and the number of people without religious affiliations or beliefs is rising. They too are asserting their claims and wish to live free from religious interference. These are grounds enough to reconsider where the limits of religious practice should be drawn and to call on religious communities to moderate their demands.

    Today, therefore, we are being forced to engage in a comprehensive debate about the relationship between politics and religion, and have to think seriously again about the limits of religious freedom. The freedom of religious practice is a fundamental right and a human right, one recognised in all democratic constitutions and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

    However, this freedom is not boundless. Religious freedom is restricted by the competing fundamental rights and human rights of other people who feel their basic freedoms are violated by the performance of religious practices and expression of religious beliefs. Today, the state has the task of safeguarding and reconciling competing fundamental rights.

    2. Basis in fundamental and human rights

    This is actually unusual, for the right to the practice of religion is one of the noblest human rights. This was not always the case. Only the terrible wounds of the confessional wars in Europe led to the conclusion that the free practice of religion is a fundamental right that should be respected by the state and other groups. Not until the Enlightenment in the 18th century did it come to be accepted that the state ought to respect the beliefs of its citizens. It is a dictate of human dignity, as set out for example in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany, that the state should treat its citizens respectfully as individuals. This means that the state must respect its citizens as individuals and it will only do so if it also respects their religious beliefs. Article 4 of the Basic Law therefore proclaims that, "Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, shall be inviolable. The undisturbed practice of religion shall be guaranteed." Religious freedom is a highly personal right.

    The Western constitutional tradition dictates that fundamental rights and human rights may only be restricted if their exercise violates the fundamental rights and human rights of other individuals. For example, the fundamental rights of others are violated by forced marriage, polygamy, female circumcision, blood revenge, the exclusion of women from public life and inadmissible religious or political influence exerted by teachers in schools.

    3. The headscarf debate in Germany

    At present, the discussion about the limits of religious freedom in Germany is being driven by issues relating to state schooling. The question here is: How much religiosity does the Basic Law allow in state schools? In this area, the fundamental right to the free practice of religion conflicts with parents´ right to decide how their children should be educated, which is also a fundamental right, and with the fundamental right of freedom from religious and political influence in state schools. These questions are currently being discussed in the wrangling about headscarves in schools. A Turkish woman teacher in Baden-Württemberg arrived for lessons wearing a headscarf and was sacked from the education service because, in the opinion of the government of Baden-Württemberg, she had disregarded the limits of religious freedom. The case went before the German Federal Constitutional Court, which ruled last year that, "The wearing of a headscarf ... in school and during lessons is subject to the protection of freedom of faith."

    Some of the Länder – the German constituent states – are dissatisfied with this judgement and wish to adopt laws that ban public servants from wearing headscarves at work. Other Länder only want the ban to apply to state schools and intend to permit Christian and Jewish symbols. In Bavaria, the wearing of crosses and nuns´ habits will continue to be allowed.

    Parents and education authorities have made use of the right to "negative freedom of faith", under which pupils may avoid exposure to the acts of worship and symbols of a faith they do not share. Women´s rights activists, such as Alice Schwarzer, go even further, describing the headscarf as the "banner of the Islamist crusade" and an instrument for the repression of women.

    Similar arguments are made in France, where rigorous action is taken against Islamic symbols in state schools. The "foulard islamique" – the Islamic headscarf – is regarded there as a challenging symbol of religious particularism that is contrary to the ideals of the French Republic.

    The borders between politics and religion have been surveyed anew and the limits of religious freedom redrawn since the religious map became pluralised and religions began making ever more political claims. In Europe, it is above all politicised Islam and a growing proportion of the Moslem population that are calling the traditional predominance of Christian values into question and provoking counterreactions that lead to new limits being placed on religious freedom.

    However, the churches are also pressing into the public realm, particularly because they know they no longer have strong bonds with the majority of the population.

    4. The neutral state

    The state and the courts are responsible for the restriction of fundamental rights – quite particularly the right to the free practice of religion. Various models for the treatment of religious freedom have developed in the Western world.

    While in France a strict secularism has developed that relegates religion to private life, Germany has seen the evolution of a "positive neutrality" with a relationship of partnership being cultivated between religion and the state. While strict secularism bans all religious values and symbols from public life, under the German model religious communities have access to state schools. In America, by contrast, there is a wall between politics and religion.

    The American state proceeds according to the principle of the absolute non-interference of the state in religious matters. Here in Germany, by comparison, the principle of the state recognition of religious communities applies. In recent times, the discussion about the neutrality of the state has been conducted around the subject of the EU constitution. Christian politicians have pleaded for the constitution currently being debated to contain an explicit reference to God. They claim that the values of Judeo-Christian culture form the foundations on which Europe is built.

    But if, as in Germany, the churches are recognised and subsidised by the state and their intervention in public matters is expressly desired, any attempt to define the limits of religious practice then runs the risk of becoming partisan. For all religious communities push to have their values and ideas about life respected by society. And this results in the limits of religious practice being overstepped.

    5. Limits of religion: compatibility with democracy

    These attempts to set limits on the free practice of religion have yet another dimension. As largely secularised polities, the Western democracies are based on the centuries-old separation of state and church, of worldly power and religious salvation. This is not found in other cultures and the non-Christian religions. In his book "The New World Disorder", Tzvetan Todorov identified the separation of state and religion as the most important precondition for democracy. By contrast, in one of his video messages Osama Bin Laden described it as a "great disaster" that struck the Islamic world 80 years ago. With this, Bin Laden was criticising the establishment of the secular state by Kemal Atatürk in Turkey.

    In religiously pluralised societies where there are growing numbers of people without religious affiliations, democracy and the political order cannot – by their own standards – be anchored religiously. Integration and social cohesion have to be organised in other ways, namely through political structures.

    This has several consequences. Even if the state recognises that believers´ actions are guided by their religious beliefs, this can on no account mean that religious communities should be able to dictate a particular policy to a democratically elected government. Limits are placed on the religious communities in this respect. They must also renounce constitutional or other kinds of privileges. They must respect the dividing line between political power and religious salvation. At the same time, the political system should not presume to legitimise itself religiously.

    Certainly, the democratic state must guarantee and safeguard people´s ability to exercise their religious freedom so that the religious communities can assert their values in public. But if churches or religious communities conclude this gives them the right to control public morality, they will come up against the effective limits on which a democracy must insist.

    Nevertheless, there remains a tension between the freedom of religious practice and the primacy of democratic self-determination that is not easily to be resolved. The West must call on Islamic religious groups to acknowledge democratic principles. It must indicate where the limits lie to religions that do not recognise the separation of state and faith. These limits are based on the insight that religious precepts should not automatically determine the political order and should be bound by respect for human rights. It is not possible to strive for religious salvation by political means.

    This is why Samuel Huntington stated back in 1996 that, "The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam."

    The message of the terrorist attacks committed by fundamentalist groups is very clear. Those who wish to see "holy war" merely as a special form of religious observance are far too naive. The separation between political power and religious salvation that, above all, restricts religious claims to political influence is not found in Islamic societies. They therefore have no independent sphere of civil society in which disputes about differing views of life and faith can be conducted.

    6. The function of civic education and the Federal Agency for Civic Education

    In view of the "durability of the religious impulse" in Western societies, the Federal Agency for Civic Education is also paying attention to the topic of religion. In a pluralist society, civic education should promote understanding between different religious cultures and, at the same time, clarify the values of pluralist democracy.

    The Federal Agency for Civic Education is therefore supporting this event with a financial contribution. It has already held a series of events with cooperation partners at which the complex, intertwined relationships between politics and religion have been illuminated by discussions of exemplary cases.

    Another series of events held at various locations – "World Religions in Discourse" – is concerned with dialogue between the world religions and basic issues of democracy in a pluralist society. And with our "Open Space" events we are mainly seeking to appeal to young Muslims, who are able to use these occasions to articulate their interests, wishes and problems. Our various series of publications include information and teaching materials on Islam, Jewish communities in Germany and the topic of "Islam and Politics".

    The practice of religion is a fundamental right and a human right. But in many cases this right is being exploited today to justify claims to political power and violate the fundamental rights of others. We should therefore develop an awareness of its limits and a praxis that allows us to define them. For even fundamental rights need a framework.


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