Brian Grim is a senior researcher and director of cross-national data at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. He’s also a principle investigator for the international religious demography project at Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.
Katherine Lanpher (KL): Now I know that you are involved with a recent report called “Rising Restrictions on Religion.” Explain this conundrum to me: we can have a rising importance in the role of religion and life around the world and at the same time we can have a rising restriction on religion. How does that work?
Brian Grim (BG): One interesting study we did a few years ago was in 10 different countries asking people about the importance of being able to practice their religion versus the importance of living in a country where other people can practice their religion freely, and not surprisingly there's a difference. People value the ability to practice their own religion more highly than they do the ability of others in their country to practice their religion. So you could call it somewhat of a religious intolerance gap.
KL: And speaking again about the role of religion in divided societies, there’s a staggering number of people who are facing restrictions in their religion in the world right now.
BG: Yes, this study looked at restrictions on religion two years ago in 198 countries and we found that in about a third of countries, people live with high restrictions on the practice of religion, either coming from governments or from groups in society. But because many of the countries where there's high restrictions over the populace, about 70% of the world's population lives in these countries with high restrictions.
KL: Now, we took a close look at two Muslim majority countries in this program, Malaysia and Egypt. What similarities, if any, do you see in their restrictions on religion?
BG: One similarity is it's very difficult to change your status religiously in both countries. So in Malaysia for instance if you are a Muslim you have to go special courts to say that you want to stop being a Muslim. Then many times the courts won’t recognize a conversion. It also means in Malaysia, for instance, that the marital law is that a non-Muslim cannot marry a Muslim. So if you want to marry a Muslim you have to convert to Islam. This creates a type of social separation that’s difficult to bridge across.
KL: Among the things you’ve written is a book called The Price of Freedom Denied, in which you argue that restrictions on religion are associated with higher levels of violent religious persecution. What examples from what we've look at this program do you think best shows this connection?
BG: I think China gives one clear example. There’s religious freedom for, as the constitution says, “normal religions” – what the government considers to be a normal religion. However the government considers some religions to not only be abnormal but dangerous. So some groups like Falun Gong are considered to be a dangerous sect that subverts the stability of the country. So when the government does not have a law that's fully protecting religious freedom for all groups then that sets up the possibility to designate some groups as dangerous and then the government can take action against them.
KL: What solutions, if any, do you see to these rising restrictions, increasing tensions?
BG: In the report that we’ve just released, we looked at several types of laws that have an association with higher levels of social hostilities and government restrictions and also increasing levels. And one is just the basic constitution – whether or not it provides a clear protection for religious freedom. But then another are laws that penalize blasphemy and apostasy or criticism of religion. And we found in countries that have such laws as these, the restrictions went up substantially more than they did in countries that had no such laws. So I can’t say whether or not that is any sort solution. But we certainly see those types of laws being associated with increases in restrictions.
KL: So it sounds like you are coming back to your unofficial tolerance index.
BG: Yes, religion can be restricted not just the governments but by people in societies. So that the tolerance that people have towards other religious groups in society is a very important indicator of the overall freedom to practice one's religion in a country.