What if focusing on wrongdoing boosts global intolerance more than it curbs? What if religions instead took a strengths-based approach, showcasing uncommon practices that have led to positive outcomes?
Political instability. Economic stagnation. Intellectual paralysis. Conflict and terrorism. Worldwide, religious intolerance is driving new levels of crisis.
Intolerance takes many forms. It includes both social hostilities and government restrictions. Military uses of force against minority religions have resulted in property damage, detention or arrests, ongoing displacement, physical abuse and killings.
In particular, South and Southeast Asia, home to one-third of the world’s population, is experiencing “fierce and intensifying political and social restrictions that affect all religious communities including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims. Nonbelievers are also affected,” reports Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI). Intolerance is especially prevalent in Myanmar and Pakistan, he says, where people experience “some of the most violent religious persecutions in the world.”
According to Farr, “In the 21st century, we are witnessing the emergence of a ‘perfect storm’ of skepticism, hostility, indifference and ignorance concerning the meaning and value of religious freedom.”
Against this backdrop of human tragedies, RFI has established itself as a preeminent organization that’s advancing religious freedom throughout the world. It starts with simply being there, on the ground.
Instead of focusing on the most flagrant wrongs in a country or region, RFI’s strategy is to identify and build on strengths and regional “wins.” This means developing and advancing compelling, practical arguments for religious freedom based on the best empirical and theoretical research available — in essence, countering bad ideas, and the consequences of those ideas, with better ideas, says Farr.
In the simplest terms, RFI describes its approach as “research, educate, impact.”
“We equip local stakeholders, especially rising generations of leaders, to understand and value religious freedom, and to impact culture and policy,” Farr explains.
With support from Templeton Religion Trust, RFI has launched an action team to apply its model to the South and Southeast Asia region. Their mission: to identify key challenges and untapped opportunities for advancing religious freedom. A key result has been detailed reports on eight of the most important countries in the region: Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
What’s more, the team looked at the region as a whole. The overriding premise was that fully understanding the drivers and dynamics of religious freedom violations in one place depends on carefully investigating why similar locales may have better religious freedom conditions.
One significant takeaway of this effort was shining a light on Indonesia as an increasingly positive outlier on issues of religious freedom in the region. Further, RFI concluded that the spiritual leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama — the largest independent Muslim organization in the world with some 90 million members — are the most robust and innovative drivers of Indonesia’s resilient traditions of religious pluralism.
Building on the insights in their reports, the team is now working to build mutual trust and partnerships with local influencers across the region. Already, this foundational network includes more than 275 individuals and more than 200 organizations that are together building a shared action plan.
Ongoing efforts include sharing the evidence and equipping stakeholders through diverse channels of impact:
For Christians in the city of Cimahi as much as Muslims in Maryland, for people in all places and of all faiths — RFI’s goal is to secure religious freedom for everyone, everywhere. Its challenges, and its successes, lie in convincing stakeholders that religious freedom can help them achieve their own goals–– political, economic, strategic and religious. This means, in essence, convincing them that religious tolerance can help them.
It’s a promising premise for reversing trends in a world where, too often, too many bad players appear to be gaining too much ground.