By Tarunjit Singh Butalia, Chairman Interfaith Committee of the World Sikh Council – America Region
Religious freedom is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” This declaration assumes freedom of thought, conscience and religion to be equally important. Free speech, however uncomfortable, is necessary for these freedoms to be exercised.
The coin of religious freedom includes the right to practice one’s faith freely on one side of the coin and on the other side allows for one to change religious affiliation to some other faith or no faith at all. These two sides of the oin are equally important.
Interestingly, free speech is viewed sometimes as being critical of faith beliefs and practices while being slanted toward encouraging a change in religious affiliation. This misconception exists to a large extent because the two sides of the coin are viewed as “freedom of religion” pitted against “freedom from religion.” The two need not be exclusive. Protected free speech encourages both of them.
Nearly every major world religion began with the founder(s) of the faith proclaiming a power higher than human spirit. This proclamation of free speech was considered in many cases by the contemporary rulers and religious leaders of that time as undesirable, and they made efforts to curtail such speech, resulting in religious persecution. Most world religions have undergone such persecution during their infancy.
Religious communities need to stand up for one another to neutralize such religious persecution. As an example, the Ninth Sikh Guru, Siri Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib, was martyred in 1675 by the South Asian Mughal rulers of his time because he stood up for the right of Hindus to practice their faith even though he disagreed with the rituals of the Hindu faith. This was a shining example in the history of world religions when the founder of a faith laid down his life for the free practice of another faith.
A genuine exchange of ideas, thoughts and rationale dialogue clearly promotes religious freedom. Then comes a little more complex form of free speech: proselytizing, or the sharing of one’s faith with the objective of converting another person to one’s faith. All faiths self-promote and some choose to proselytize. One should be free to share one’s faith — that’s how most world religions have prospered and become spread across the globe. More complex is hate speech. If someone wants to proclaim their religious bigotry in public, they should be able to do so. It then becomes incumbent on multireligious representatives and civic leaders to come together to counter such invective. Most difficult of all is free speech that encourages violence. As soon as free speech turns into violent action, it is not protected free speech any more. At that point, it may be appropriate to curtail such violent action, but not protected free speech.
Tarunjit Singh Butalia is the chairman of the Interfaith Committee of the World Sikh Council – America Region; moderator of Religions for Peace – USA; the vice-chairman of North American Interfaith Network; a member of the board of trustees and executive committee of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions; and a member of the Board of Scholars and Practitioners of The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.