It’s not just how you look, dress, or behave. It’s not even a question of “provocative” issues like non-conforming gender identity, non-conforming sexual orientation, or taking a “radical” stand in asserting that women are entitled to full human dignity also. Nor is it even a question of your minority or “opposition” political views, which are well demonstrated to be an incitement to violence among despots and their supporters. What most us here in established democracies aren’t aware of is that 76% of people in this world cannot freely practice the religion of their choice or leading, or hold secular or atheist views. In many such countries, such persons may well be killed for who they pray to, or for their choice not to pray at all.
On May 12th, a mob in Dhaka, Bangladesh enforced their brand of conformity. Ananta Bijoy Das, a highly respected young banker, blogger, and editor of a science magazine called Jukti (which provocatively means “logic”) met his demise at the hands of machete-wielding religious extremists. His widow, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, also suffered grievous injuries in this attack. Now back in the United States, she has been courageously calling the world’s attention to this outrage. I cannot begin to imagine how brutally agonizing it must be to be hacked to death as was his fate or to sustain such extreme injuries as she did, and I deeply share in her outrage.
Sadly in Bangladesh, as in Pakistan, holding contrary views on religion and secularism can be effectively a self-imposed death sentence. There have been three such “fatalities-of-conscience” in just the past three months. The government of Bangladesh largely turns away; the mob can do what it wants when it comes to enforcing religious conformity. The fact that Bangladesh adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights back in September of 2000 is simply ignored, even though under Article 18 of that document every Bangladeshi ought to be enjoying the state-protected right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This article is specific: everyone in Bangladesh and in most countries around the world who’ve adopted this Convention ought to have a legal right that includes freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, or to hold no religious views at all. No one ought to be subject to coercion that would impair this freedom. That’s what Bangladesh agreed to, but certainly not what it practices.
Pakistan never went even that far, having never ratified this Convention. Mob violence to impose strict religious conformity is commonplace in that country and is practiced largely with impunity, in fundamental contravention to any rational moral concept of what human dignity ought to mean. This represents an existential and very real threat to Shi’as, Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus, and secularists in that country.
It’s easy to forget about the moral “oughts”, and to blur this growing threat to religious, spiritual, or secular conscience with the media’s intense focus on the highly politicized and morally repugnant ideologies and violence of extremists such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabaab, or other similar groups who are convinced that the ends justify the means. While the overlap between freedom of conscience and politically motivated violent extremism is important and relevant, it has the effect of closing down discussion or action on the essential moral question: what’s so wrong in holding a personal conviction that differs from others in your society, but which is otherwise provoking no threat to anyone else? Or to put it more succinctly, isn’t that space inside your scull (or within your soul) the epicenter of freedom?
Sadly, geo-political priorities obscure this debate. The United States is pushing for closer relations with Pakistan and its president, Nawaz Sharif, even if the recently warming US relations with India have some in Pakistan looking instead to Russia. Still, as recently as September 26th of last year, at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Mr. Sartaj Aziz spoke glowingly about a new and better era in US-Pakistani relations – a “silent revolution” in his words. Mr. Aziz speaks with some authority, as he is advisor to the Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs. He touted Pakistan’s democratic credentials, citing how recent legislation has been adopted to “protect women’s rights, to protect domestic rights, to protect minority rights”. Mr. Aziz went on to stress that “we are working very hard in different working groups under the strategic dialogue concept on trade, on education, on energy, on terrorism, on strategic weapons and nuclear weapons”. Mr. Aziz never raised freedom of conscience, and from what I can read of the transcript (I was not present), not a single person in the audience took that opportunity to raise this with him either. I’m not sure which is more disturbing.
The lack of moral clarity in our foreign relations is often stark, and never more so than in this context. If we cannot protect the innermost convictions, leadings, and truths of an individual – to the extent that those convictions do no harm to others – we have lost the core of human dignity in our entire discourse on international affairs.