Religious Minorities

Religious Minorities

In international human rights law, religious minorities are guaranteed the freedom of religion. This means the freedom to practice one’s religion, and also the right to not be discriminated against because of their religion. Yet, unfortunately, religious minorities throughout the world continue to be discriminated against, whether it is by state laws, or by individuals and also non-state entities in society. The rights of religious minority groups has become an ever so important one in international relations. In this article, we shall discuss the right to freedom of religion in the context of international law, as well as in domestic laws. We will then also examine different cases where questions of religious minority rights exist.

The Right to Religion in International Law

International human rights law is very clear about the importance of protecting one’s right to practice (or not practice) their religion (or a religion) freely. There are many places where this can be found. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

In addition to the rights instilled within the UDHR, later human rights documents–such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also provide such support (Mayer, 2013). For example, Article 2, part 1 of the ICCPR states that: “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Article 26 of the same ICCPR document states: “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Article 18 of the UDHR speaks about the right of freedom of religion: “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” (in Mayer, 2013: 170).

Along with the UDHR and ICCPR, additional international documents further stress the necessity and importance of religious minority rights. For example, The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981) was written to specifically address religious rights, along with other related rights; the document is a cornerstone in the fight against intolerance.

Article 1 of the document states that:

               1.     Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought,
          conscience and religion.  This right shall include freedom to have a
          religion or whatever belief of his choice, and freedom, either
          individually or in community with others and in public or private,
          to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice
          and teaching.
               2.     No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair
          his freedom to have a religion or belief of his choice.
               3.     Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be
          subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are
          necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the
          fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Article 2 (1) states that “No one shall be subject to discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons, or person on grounds of religion or other beliefs.” Further articles continue to condemn any discrimination based on religion or one’s beliefs. Article 4 calls for states to ensure that they are taking steps to ensure that religious freedoms are protected (Mayer, 2013).

Thus, some of the earliest documents within the modern day human rights movement clearly stress the importance of the right to freedom of religion.

Yet, so many people continue to live in places where they are not truly free to practice their own religions.

Religious Minority Rights

One of the problems in arguing that religious minority rights are (and must be) guaranteed is that individuals can find cases where religious minorities are not able to practice their faith freely. This can be seen in different cases, but it seems as if most of the attention is on religious traditions such as Islam. For some, they are not willing to recognize that Islam has within its tradition ample support for treating non-Muslims as equal.

In this section, we will discuss religious freedom from the context of Islam.

Islam and the Freedom of Religion

One of the discussion points surrounding the freedom of religion for religious minorities has been the question of whether Islam as a faith-based system allows for religious minority rights, and if there is discrimination against non-Muslim religious groups. One of the primary arguments used by those who utter comments of Islamophobia is that Islam calls for the harming of non-Muslims. Yet, when looking at the evidence of “what Islam says” through the Quran and life of the early Muslims, it becomes evident that there was a great deal of support for non-Muslims.

For example, in early Islamic history, Muslims and non-Muslims (such as Jews and Christians) lived within Muslim communities. In the Quran, certain religious groups are called the “People of the Book,” or those who have received some religious message or scripture. These groups are elevated in status. As Mayer (2013) notes, the “people of the book…were allowed to persist in their beliefs. In Islam, these faiths are regarded as being based on earlier divine revelations, which were deemed to have cultivated in God’s final revelations to the Prophet Muhammad” (137).

For example, Surah 3 of the Quran views the People of the Book in the following fashion:

“…Among the people of the book are an upright company; they recite God’s verses through the night while prostrating themselves. They Believe in God and the Last Day, and enjoin kindliness and forbid abominations, and hasten to do good things. These are among the righteous ones. For no good thing that they do will be passed without thanks; for God knows the pious…” (in Donner, 2010: 70).

Surah 29 of the Qur’an offers a similar message:

Do not debate with the people of the book except by what is best (i.e. with courtesy?)–except those of them who do evil. Say, “We believe in what was revealed to us and revealed to you. Our God and your God is one, and to him we submit” (Donner, 2010: 72).

Interestingly, some scholars argue that the early Muslims (and those living under Muhammad in Medina) were far less concerned about terms such as “Muslim,” “Jew,” and “Christian,” but rather, were more focused on the Oneness of God. As Donner (2010) writes: “The Qur’anic evidence suggests that the early Believers’ movement was centered on the ideas of monotheism, preparing for the Last Day, belief in prophecy and revealed scripture, and observance of righteous behavior…The earliest Believers thought of themselves as constituting a separate group or community of righteous, God-fearing monotheists…” (68-69).

Following the death of Muhammad, Muslims leaders who expanded their territories and control of land encountered many non-Muslims. For many of the Muslim leaders, they placed the status of dhimmi on the non-Muslims. Dhimmi “accorded toleration in return for submitting to Muslim rule and accepting a number of conditions” (Mayer, 2013: 137). For example, the non-Muslim communities often had to pay what was called the jizya tax. Because they were not expected to fight in the military on behalf of the Muslim government, paying this tax was the cost of military protection. Even this, there is debate on whether non-Muslims could serve in lower ranks within the military (Mayer, 2013).

Dhimmis were also given additional rights to keep their own religion, customs, and practices. This is not to say that there was no discrimination against these religious minorities. However, “Muslim rulers, when judged by the standards of the day, showed far greater tolerance and humanity in their treatment of religious minorities than European rulers did” (Mayer, 2013: 138).

Violations of Religious Minority Rights

There are many places in the world where religious minorities are not allowed to freely practice their faith and religious traditions. In this section, we shall provide examples of many religious communities who are suffering. We will begin with a discussion of religious minorities in some Muslim-majority states, but will provide other examples of Atheists, Jews, Muslims, and others who have been discriminated against.

It is important to note that when looking at cases of religious minority rights violations, a person committing the violation does not speak for an entire faith system. How one person justifies an action in no way suggests that everyone in that religious umbrella holds the same beliefs. 

Violations Against Non-Muslims

Despite the discussion above on the significant support for equal religious minority rights in the Islamic faith, cases exist where eMuslim-majoirty state leaders have discriminated against non-Muslims. Here are just a few examples:

Religious minority equality in the UIDHR: 

The writers of the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (or the Cairo Declaration) did include a discussion of non-Muslims, but did not specifically lay out a discussion and/or article on the rights of religious minorities. For example, “Article 10.a states that the religious rights of non-Muslim minorities are governed by the principle that there is no compulsion in religion, which is based on the Qur’an 2:256” (Mayer, 2013: 140-141).

So, from this, one would think that the writers and backers of the Cairo Declaration are fully accepting of non-Muslims as being able to keep their own religious beliefs and practices. However, there are questions about who exactly would be given rights protections. Because the “people of the book” was traditionally interpreted to mean Jews and Christians (along with Sabians and Zoroastrians), this raises questions about how these governments might view non-Muslisms who fall outside of these religious traditions, particularly since these states only seem to recognize certain religious systems as “divinely inspired” and not others (Mayer, 2013).

However, the Cairo Declaration has written in it additional language that might lead one to question just how sincere the drafters of the document were to religious equality. For example, Article 19 of the document also states that “Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature” (in Mayer, 2013: 147). This language makes it difficult to believe that they would then view other religious traditions as equal.

Iran: Article The Iranian Constitution does reference rights for the people of the book, which includes Zoroastrians, Jews, as well as Christians. Even there, these groups can recognize and adhere to their religious for personal matters, as well as for their education (they can be religiously educated). The problem in Iran however is that the national government’s laws are founded on Shariah or Islamic Law.

Since everyone is bound by national law, “This means that the ahl al-kitab [(people of the book)] are subject to discriminatory Islamic rules. The nonrecognition of religious minorities other than the ahl al-kitab in this shari’a-based system excludes them from any constitutional protections” (Mayer, 2013: 142). 

This becomes more and more of a problem for religious minorities in Iran when political and religious leaders make statements in which non-Muslims are not viewed as (or spoken about as) equal to Muslims (see Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati’s statements, in Mayer, 2013).

The Iranian government also bans non-Muslims from serving in the national army (Mayer, 2013), which is another way the government’s national laws discriminate against non-Muslims. 

Pakistan and religious minorities:

One of the incorrect assumptions that people often make is that religious groups who are discriminated against are always of a different faith-based system. However, as we shall see below–looking at cases in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia–minority Muslim sects are frequently the targets of religious discrimination.

An Islamic religious minority group–the Ahmadi have been targets of religious discrimination in Paksitan for over a century. While the group itself considers itself as part of the Islamic tradition, some other Muslim groups see them as non-Muslim. This group “was founded by Mizra Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908) in India. Ahmadis, their opponents charge, treat their founder as a prophet, thereby violating the Islamic doctrine of the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad” (Mayer, 2013: 146). Because of pressure by some Islamist voices in Pakistan, the government has at times acquiesed to calls of viewing the Ahmadis as non-Muslims. For example, in 1974, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had the constitution amended, and in the new constitution, said that the Ahmadis were non-Muslim. Later leaders such as President Muhammad Zia ul-Haqq published a decree in which he said the Ahmadi group should not “pose” as Muslims” (Mayer, 2013: 146).

Saudi Arabia and religious minorities:

Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the Muslim-majority states that provides little rights for non-Muslims. For example, in the Saudi Arabia Basic Law, defending the Islamic faith is an obligation for all citizens in the Kingdom. Furthermore, there are no specific protections for non-Muslims based on religion. As Mayer (2013) writes: Non-Muslims, who are largely expatriates and who face discriminatory treatment on the basis of alienage, continue to be bereft of legal protections. They can be subjected to police harassment for such acts as worship in private. The large contingent of migrant laborers working in menial jobs, many of whom are non-Muslims, suffers from severe abuses and brutal exploitation” (Mayer, 2013; 148). The lack of religious rights protections also goes for Muslim sects such as the Shia Islam (Mayer, 2013), who are frequently targets of discrimination. 

The Islamic State and religious minorities:

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a terror organization that has attempted to use Islam to justify its horrific actions against those the organization is fighting, as well as Muslims and non-Muslims living under their rule. They have carried out horrific attacks against religious minorities and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria. For example, in 2014, Amnesty International published a report entitled Ethnic Cleansing On A Historic Scale: Islamic State’s Systematic Targeting of Minorities In Northern Iraq in which they document human rights abuses committed by the Islamic State in Mosul, during the period of June 2014-September 2014. 

The Islamic State killed many of the men in the different towns and villages in and around Mosul. They also took many other individuals. According to the report, many were Yezidi Christians. According the same report, the Islamic State engaged in rape, and also other forms of sexual abuse.

The group views Christians as unequal to Muslims, and has attempted to get people to convert to Islam. As Amnesty International (2014) notes, “Most of the members of non-Muslim communities being held by IS who have been able to communicate with their families have reported consistent pressures on them by their captors to convert to Islam. The pressures have ranged from promises of freedom to threats that they will be killed if they do not convert.”

In fact, in June of 2016, the United Nations has said that the Islamic State has committed crimes of genocide against the Yazidi community in both Iraq and Syria; their actions have destroyed the Christian community (Nebehay, 2016).


Religious Minority References

Amnesty International: Ethnic Cleansing On A Historic Scale: Islamic State’s Systematic Targeting of Minorities In Northern Iraq. Amnesty International. 2014. Available Online: 

Mayer, E.A. (2013). Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

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