Religious Persecution Over Time and Countries

Author: Bugra Kalkan*

Is religious persecution a unique phenomenon in Muslim-majority countries? Of course, not! Christian-majority countries and other-majority countries have also serious religion related violence issues. But this does not mean that there is no problem concerning Muslim-majority countries. As a matter of fact, Brian Grim and Roger Finke show that “religious persecution is more likely to occur in Muslim-majority countries than in other countries”. In their book, The Price of Freedom Denied, Grim and Finke suggest that religious persecution is high where formal and cultural regulations on religions are high.

Authors test their assertion by using cross-country data on religions. The first set of data is coming from International Religious Freedom Report and World Religion Database. Between 2000 and 2007, religious persecutions occurred in every Muslim-majority country, while the same indicator was 78% in Christian-majority countries and 86% in other countries. Although numbers are relatively close, the picture gets worse when we look to the severe religious persecution events. The rate of moderate to high level of religious persecution (which means that more than two hundred people have been persecuted) in Muslim-majority countries is 62 %, while it is 28% in Christian-majority countries and 60% in other countries.

The difference between Muslim-majority countries and Christian-majority countries is really striking and needs to be explained further through giving details on countries in different regions. This is an issue for another week, but the comparison can be deepened  by analyzing religious freedom over time and country. In order to do that, Grim and Finke used the data from the report of Global Investigation of Religious Liberty conducted by Yale University Professor M. Searle Bates in 1945. And, the data of Bates’s report compared with the data of 2005 International Religious Report.

According to the authors, the governmental restrictions in Christian-majority countries in 1945 scored 3.2 out of 10 in 1945, while this score decreased to 2.3 in 2005. On the other hand same indicator was 5.6 in Muslim-majority countries in 1945 and it increased to 6.3 in 2005. And the score also raised to 4.6 in 2005 from 3.7 in 1945 in other countries. As you can see, the religious freedom restriction in Muslim-majority countries and other countries has a similar increase trend. But Christian-majority countries have greatly improved the religious freedom. For sure, this is something to consider.

According to the statistics, even at the times of Second World War, the religious freedom was better protected  in Christian-majority countries. It seems that data on religious persecution and data on religious regulation are consistent to explain religious conflict across the world and the time. But there is a question to answer: Why Muslim-majority countries cannot reduce the level of religious restrictions/regulations? This question is hardly a theological one. Because there are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu-majority countries that have serious religious persecution problems. And Muslim-majority countries can vary greatly among themselves concerning religious persecution. As a matter of fact, regardless the religion, religious freedom has been just an exemption through the recorded history, not the principle. That is why, it is so easy to show evidence of religious violence and intolerance for every religion in history.

Rational choice theorists incline to explain religious intolerance by using political explanations rather than theological ones. As it is mentioned in my last article, religious intolerance is seen in politically unstable countries where religion is used as the major source for political legitimacy. In this regard, MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries might have the worst conditions for political stability. Of course, there is unique historical pattern in Islam concerning state-building. But this does not mean that the problem is strictly theological. One must understand the  relation between political structure and human rights, specifically religious tolerance, to evaluate the religious intolerance in  Muslim majority countries. Next week, I will show the statics concerning the relation between religious freedom and political/economic development.

(*) Dr. Bugra Kalkan is a professor of political science in Katip Celebi University, Izmir. He is also a senior academic fellow in the Association for Liberal Thinking, Turkey.