Support at the Institutional Level and its Implications for Other Rights and Freedoms
In drafting the United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it was decided, after lengthy debates between state representatives, that the article on freedom of religion should include the right to change religions. Thus, Article 18 of the UDHR reads “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”. As Margaret O. Thomas looks at Western-Christian and Middle-Eastern Muslim concerns over the freedom to change religions, she asks whether or not such a right can be supported by social, governmental and religious institutions (337). In answering this question, Thomas looks at the complexity of the issues surrounding this freedom. Also, she explores the use of the language of “choice” as a substitute to the language of “change” used in the UDHR arguing that the term conveys autonomous and non-coerced decision-making which nurtures the dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Whereas her arguments and solutions remain quite ambiguous, in this paper I intend to answer her question by arguing that this right cannot be freely exercised in instances where religion is a key component of public identity. Furthermore, I will argue that in those instances freedom to change religions can effectively strip an individual of other basic rights and freedoms. As an alternative to Thomas’s dialogue approach, I will claim that the application of Taylor’s management of diversity model at the institutional level could serve as a vehicle to strengthen the support of this specific religious freedom.
Religion as a Key Component of Public Identity
First, human rights documents on freedom of religion are built on Western Christian sensibilities. Therefore, they assert the right to change one’s religion without considering the way local and regional dynamics affect the various issues accompanying such a change in religious identity. In fact, it can be difficult to reconcile human rights with certain creeds which forbid apostasy - the renunciation of a religious faith. In the West, religious status is not an important public concern. Hence, changing from one religion to another comes with few consequences. On the other hand, in the Middle East, where religion is a major component of public identity, such a change is accompanied by complex personal, social and legal issues which fuel conflict (Thomas, 337-338). These conflicts arise from the lack of support of the freedom to change one’s religion or belief by the dominant religion in the Middle East: Islam. As Frederick Mathewson Denny explains, conversion away from Islam is prohibited by Islamic law. The latter claims to be the “religion of unspoiled nature”, in other words one cannot convert...