Fear, Loathing, and Demographics Many of the restrictions and increasingly vicious attacks on people of different religious traditions–especially minority faiths–are motivated by deep fears of the unknown and unfamiliar.
Ryan Colby 202-349-7219 firstname.lastname@example.org
Many of the restrictions and increasingly vicious attacks on people of different religious traditions–especially minority faiths–are motivated by deep fears of the unknown and unfamiliar.
By: Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
If President Roosevelt was right that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, then religious people have a lot to fear these days. Many of the restrictions and increasingly vicious attacks on people of different religious traditions–especially minority faiths–are motivated by deep fears of the unknown and unfamiliar. In this way the suppression of religious identity and ideas in public life creates a danger for the polity–without the ability to discuss beliefs in public, fear of the differently-believing grows silently, only to explode later in times of political instability. One sees this dynamic over and over again in societies that attempt to pretend away religious differences, from the war in Bosnia to the civil war in Syria today. Both of those wars arose in societies where public expression of religious identity had long been suppressed, yet in the end it turned out that religion, and religious liberty, really did matter.
As we have already noted elsewhere, one facet of this fear is rooted in demographics. Those in power or majorities often fear relative demographic growth of those with different religious beliefs. For example, government officials in Burma recently adopted a “two-child policy” that would apply only to Muslims. This even though Muslims are a tiny minority (approx. 4%) of the Burmese population. This population limitation targeting a specific religious minority is a textbook example of demographic panic, as exemplified by this statement from a government official: “This is the best way to control the population explosion which is a threat to our national identity. If no measure is taken to control the population, there is a danger of losing our own identity.”
Similar feelings of fear and loathing towards the religious were recently published in, of all places, The Forward. The author, Jay Michaelson, focused on the demographic trends, saying, “Call them what you will – ultra-Orthodox Jews, ‘fervently Orthodox’ Jews, Haredim, black hats. They will soon become the majority of affiliated Jews in the metropolitan New York area, and the religious majority in Israel. The results will be catastrophic. … [P]retty soon, the hierarchy will overwhelm us. Demographers tell us that 49% of New York’s Jewish children are Haredi (either Hasidic or ‘yeshivish’). Especially in light of non-Orthodox disaffiliation, New York Jewry, within a generation, will be fundamentalist, poor, uneducated and reactionary.” This kind of attacking language is specifically designed to incite demographic panic among non-Orthodox Jews and others, and thus create support for government measures to suppress a certain disfavored religious group.
Aside from its crude and inaccurate description of the Orthodox, this kind of rhetoric and the solutions it offers are self-defeating. Government suppression of religious identity here or in Burma will not make religious identity go away; it will simply drive religious expression underground, and increase the likelihood of an explosion of interreligious strife. The far better course is to publicly respect and honor religious differences among people, not because we seek to approve any one set of religious beliefs or all religions generally, but because because we respect and honor the inherent dignity of each person and therefore the beliefs she holds.