Tackling Hate Speech Through Faith

Tackling Hate Speech Through Faith

By Katyayinee Richhariya

In a recent statement by the Facebook (FB) Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Andrew Bosworth, he posits that the question of hate speech is one of “demand.” This forces us to think more deeply about the problem of hate speech from a societal lens – why has hate become profitable in contemporary society? This statement also comes in the wake of several internal documents of FB being made available to the US Congress which highlight FB’s failure to curtail hate speech in peaceful and war-torn societies alike. As a trend observed in Ethiopia or Myanmar and elsewhere, these instances of  hate speech on FB often use religious identities as a premise. Engagement with religion and faith-based actors would be more feasible in tackling the issue of hate speech from the level of societal demand and could lessen reliance on top-down approaches of the big tech curtailing hateful content. 

The current global order is dealing with a set of new challenges that nascent and evolving democracies bring. One of these challenges is religious fundamentalism, which is both a progenitor and by-product of hate speech. Connotations of medievalism, which stigmatized religion as a concept too archaic for the modern world to deal with, and an amorphous definition of religion, prevented the international institutions to develop a coherent normative framework to deal with this question of the role of religious identities in the global order. On the one hand, we have the Western model of complete separation of religion from the political or public sphere. On the other hand, we have democracies surviving on the ethno-religious fault lines created by political leadership for electoral mobilization. 

According to the research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018, about 28% of the countries globally experienced high incidences of hostilities motivated by religious hatred, mob violence related to religion, terrorism, and harassment of women for violating religious codes. These instances were spread throughout both countries experiencing a current conflict and those with relative peace. Amidst the discourses that treat religion as the cause of conflicts, the visit of Pope Francis to Iraq, where he met the Grand Ayatollah of Iraq Ali al-Sistani and gave the call for interfaith unity to highlight the environment of peace that engaging faith in an shrewd manner can create, was hailed as historic.  

On the question of why religion engenders conflicts, scholars are divided on whether religion itself or manipulative interpretations by extremist groups constitutes the root cause for ethno-religious conflicts. In his book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, William T. Cavanaugh talks about how the conventional wisdom of religion as propagating violence and hatred was further promulgated by the colonial powers as they formulated their conception of modernity. On the other hand, we have scholars like Richard Dawkins, who while studying religion from an evolutionary and anthropological perspective, posit that the concepts like martyrdom, just war or religious wars have contributed to religion becoming the root cause of violence. While non-religious conflicts have witnessed a steep decline since 1975, religious conflicts have risen since then in an almost similar proportion.  

The history of interfaith dialogue is not new. Many efforts at healing, reconstruction or dialogue have been spearheaded by religious leaders. For instanceafter the devastation caused by the Crusades in the 13th Century, Saint Francis of Assisi went to meet Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, the nephew of Saladin, the Muslim conqueror who led the Crusades against the Christians in Levant. Pope Francis himself has been on visits to Jordan, Egypt, UAE and Morocco. Some of these visits have held important symbolism, such as when the Pope and the Grand Ayatollah met at Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, indicating the effort to move beyond the theories that have pit Islam against Christianity as two different civilizations. 

There are a few factors that further complicate the engagement of religious traditions in the process of peacebuilding. First, is the need to keep in mind the potential for such interventions to start having a political value and become tools of politicking in themselves. For example, Pope John Paul II was actively involved in the campaign against communism in Cuba and Poland. He attached the importance of fighting against communism by labelling it as an immoral and cursed system of living. He continuously reiterated the need to reinstate Christian beliefs like freedom and equality of humans, to which communism was opposed. Second, the assumption that certain beliefs promote peace while others promulgate violence is contested by scholars and can create biases during interfaith dialogues. Timothy Sisk in his book, Between Terror and Tolerance: Religious Leaders, Conflict, and Peacemaking, argues that religions, irrespective of whether they propound hierarchical beliefs or equality are vulnerable to distortions by the religious leaders. He also argues that most often, the position of religious leaders often contradicts with the source of religious beliefs – that is the sacred texts. Others like Nicholas Sambanis have further expanded on the scope of this vulnerability by including the role of political actors using religion as an instrument of political gain. Finally, amidst the deluge of stakeholders claiming to be religious leaders, choosing who to negotiate with becomes a crucial decision. 

To combat this final issue, the Rabat Plan of 2012 presents us with certain principles of engagement to use with religious stakeholders. Although nascent and vaguely formed, these principles provide the world with a starting point by outlining the framework for dealing with speech inciting religious hatred by following “a bottom-up, multi-stakeholder and consultative process.” The Rabat Plan was launched by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHR) and succeeded the United Nations movement of “Faith for Rights.” It emanated out of five regional workshops in Vienna, Nairobi, Bangkok, Santiago, and Rabat. It is a plan of action that deals with incitement of religious hatred and focuses on legal and strategic responses by producing a congenial environment for dialogue. The Rabat Plan adds on to the five principles of Faith For Rights movement that advocated transcending theological divisions to focus on the similar beliefs of various faiths, introspectiveness, speaking in one voice, supplementing interfaith dialogues with concrete actions and acting only at the behest of our conscience, without any undue pressures. It is based upon the realization that freedom of expression is subject to restrictions as defined in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and goes on to create a threshold test containing six principles. These principles seek to determine the extent “hatefulness” in any speech and include: the context of the speech, the socio-political standing of the speaker, intent of the speech, content, and form, extent of which the speech is bound to be translated into actions, the likelihood or imminence of harm and funding or the source of resources of the religious leaders. It considers freedom of expression and freedom of religious belief as supplementing one another, simultaneously exploring legal options for governments to penalize incendiary speech. The materialization of such engagement also depends upon the will of the political actors who seek to use religion as a potent tool of electoral mobilization and the eagerness of civil society to prioritize certain tenets of identity for the larger purpose of conciliation. At the technological level, there are attempts to create antifragile systems to fight disinformation. There should be similar attempts made at the societal level to make it resilient; a society which not only averts conflicts premised on religion but also promotes interfaith tolerance even in regimes that thrive on religious divisions

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