Protecting the Rights of Religious Minorities is Crucial to Protecting Democracy Itself

When the beliefs of a religious majority infringe upon the rights of smaller groups, civil society must push back.

Filipino Muslim women celebrate during a peace gathering at a mosque in Manila, Philippines

Filipino Muslim women celebrate during a peace gathering at a mosque in Manila, Philippines. (Ezra Acayan/Alamy Live News)

The freedom of religion and belief—that people have the right to believe and worship, or not, as they so choose—is an integral component of democracy. Often, discussions on the concept of religious freedom focus on bringing together Christians, Muslims, and Jews to discuss their differences—in other words, creating interfaith dialogue. While such efforts are important, a full understanding of religious freedom and its importance to democracy encompasses more than just promoting and enabling interfaith dialogue. When talking about freedom of religion or belief, it is also critical to look at the very real social and political impacts of a trend that undermines religious freedom: religious majoritarianism, a view that dismisses minority protection and elevates the beliefs of only the majority. 

Real-world impacts 

The elevation of the rights of one religious group at the expense of others often has substantial impacts on the rights of minority group members. For example, in Aceh, Indonesia, all female students, regardless of their religion, are required to wear hijab in schools; similarly, in the majority–Roman Catholic Philippines, although the public is largely in favor of the right to divorce and people are generally supportive of LGBT+ individuals, the government uses conservative Catholic views to justify continued bans on both divorce and same-sex marriage. While a central element of any democracy is that majority rules, that must always be joined by minority protection. Imposing the religious beliefs, practices, or values of the majority group on an entire population does not offer adequate protection for the rights of the minority. 

The use of governmental power to advance the views and interests of only one group creates a less stable, more divisive society. It pits communities against one another and leads to more marginalization and discrimination. It undermines democracy, which is the system best suited to allow differing groups to coexist and to provide a platform for civilly managing differing views while protecting the rights of all people. The misuse of governmental power for the benefit of only one group also leads to worse outcomes for human rights. Ultimately, when the rights and freedoms of minority groups are curtailed, democracy itself suffers.  

The role of civil society 

In order to push back against threats to religious freedom, it is crucial for community-based civil society organizations to advocate for more inclusive societies in which allmajority and minority group membershave equal rights. Civil society organizations have an important role to play in advocating for democratic values, equal rights, and full respect of religious belief. In particular, it is essential to understand that religious freedom ultimately means the full respect of people of all faiths or of no faith, despite differences of views that exist among people of differing faith perspectives. Working with democratically oriented religious groups—including marginalized minorities and majority groups—can help to counter the negative impacts of religious majoritarianism and more effectively promote strong social cohesion. 

Freedom House is currently leading a consortium of organizations implementing the Asia Religious and Ethnic Freedom award, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Providing support to local organizations to create more inclusive societies is at the core of our approach; we currently provide funding to 28 local organizations to implement 17 projects across 8 countries in the region, on subjects ranging from increasing access to justice for marginalized communities to strengthening livelihood skills among diaspora groups who have been forced to flee their homelands due to religious or ethnic persecution. Each project is connected in that they respond to discrimination that, at its core, is driven by the denial of equal rights and protections to members of religious minorities 

International organizations also have a parallel responsibility: as we provide support to locally based partners to lead changes within their own communities, we must ensure that we are bolstering democratic principles, supporting organizations that truly respect religious freedom, and respecting the diversity of views within that society. We must also ensure that we are not reinforcing religious majoritarianism, and avoid partnerships with organizations that are unwilling to protect minority views.  

Discussing the relationship between democracy and the freedom of religion and belief can be complex and challenging, but it is deeply important. Understanding the impacts of religious majoritarianism must be central to global religious freedom and democracy efforts, and can help to provide a more inclusive understanding of what religious freedom is truly about. For civil society organizations that work to enhance religious freedom around the world, it is essential to choose partners that adhere to democratic principles and reinforce the understanding of religious freedom as including all people. The freedom of religion and belief is an integral component of democracy, and it must be protected for all.