The cacophony of sounds at Easter in contemporary Cyprus is tremendous. From fieldwork on the island in 2015, I recall how church bells first peal out around 11:00 p.m. in the villages and towns across the island to call congregants to the vigil service. A celebratory tintinnabulation sounds again at midnight to mark Christ’s resurrection. And the tolling from belfries reverberates well into Easter Monday, a steady backdrop to the myriad paschal processions and other festivities that comprise the largest religious event of the year for Orthodox Christians.  

A visitor to the island in the 1930s, however, would have been confronted with a very different religious landscape. Church bells would still have called worshippers to Easter services, but their ringing would have been carefully regulated and monitored by British colonial authorities. The coordinated ringing of bells from churches within a region would only occur under precise conditions set out by each district commissioner. No capricious toll of jubilation from a village church would mark local celebrations, at least not without risking up to a year of imprisonment.

The subdued Easter atmosphere in Cyprus during the mid-twentieth century was triggered by street protests against British colonial rule that swept across the island in 1931, culminating in the burning down of Government House in Nicosia. Church bells were used to summon demonstrators rather than congregants on that occasion. British colonial officials swiftly responded with punitive measures, many of which restricted religious activities on the island. The regulation of when and where church, as well as school, bells could be rung through what came to be known as the “Bells Law” is but one example I discovered when sifting through the colonial administrative records that remain in the Cyprus State Archives. Other measures sought to control the election of future archbishops and to reduce ecclesiastical influence on secondary education. These efforts continued until Cyprus gained independence in 1959.

British restrictions on religion in Cyprus highlight at least two contradictions in imperial state-building efforts. The first was the desire to use religion to prop up foreign authority while simultaneously curbing its power to mobilize and frame local dissent. The second discrepancy concerns the idea that religion is a category that can be clearly identified and separated from other realms of human activity.

Both patterns continue to resonate in contemporary politics, despite critiques by a growing cohort of scholars. Mark Fathi Massoud’s Shari’a Inshallah: Finding God in Somali Legal Politics offers a powerful reminder of how the use of “religion to build states and then separating religion from law is a colonial project.” The book left me thinking about the many other ways international relations and foreign policy are shaped by the ongoing presence of structures and relationships of power created through colonialism.

In this essay, I focus on one topic often critiqued for reproducing colonial knowledge, value structures, and practices—the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). I approach this topic as someone entangled in the very frameworks and institutions that have been criticized. My academic work interrogates how state actors construe and respond to opposition movements that draw on religion, as well as the conditions under which certain types of religious discrimination are more or less likely. Yet through both paid consultancy projects and voluntary advising, I also routinely engage directly with government agencies charged with promoting and protecting FoRB around the world. Through my middle-ground position, I have tried to draw attention to many of the challenges noted by critics of the FoRB agenda but through the language and approaches valued in policy circles. This includes quantitative study of how widely held views about the relationship between FoRB, peace, and development do not hold even when applying the definitions of religious freedom commonly adopted by government agencies.

More often than not, however, I have found these efforts stymied by various blind spots in how policymakers understand and combat FoRB violations. Here, I focus on three of the more common. Each reveals a similar contradiction in values and policies to the British regulations in Cyprus nearly a century ago that I have observed through my research, and which may very well be observed in other colonial contexts. Overcoming them will require the type of sustained and collective efforts called for through this and other fora.  

Just the worst

The first blind spot concerns the ways in which international efforts to protect and promote FoRB heavily focus on what policymakers deem to be the worst violators. The US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, for instance, annually publishes its list of “countries of particular concern.” These are the states that the office singles out for their engagement in or toleration of systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. Open Doors International’s World Watch List, in a similar fashion, identifies the fifty worst countries for Christian persecution each year.

On the one hand, attention to the extreme cases is understandable. The most severe persecution captures headlines and our imaginations—from Uyghurs in China to Yazidis in Iraq. These communities, of course, face real and troubling challenges. But the overwhelming focus on these cases is not without cost. Our preoccupation with the “worst” FoRB violators shifts attention away from the insidious ways that religious discrimination festers far closer to home. As Massoud observes, “the complex and often misunderstood role of religion is as real in fragile or authoritarian states as it is in Western democracies.” A  number of recent quantitative studies confirm this warning.

Not only is religious discrimination common in Western democracies, but it is also increasing. This is evidenced by rising levels of antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe and the United States. It can also be seen when considering less-discussed types of FoRB violations. For example, a recent Pew report finds numerous Western democracies are among the twenty-seven countries in which government and social harassment of religiously unaffiliated people occurred in 2020. These nations include Croatia, Cyprus, Italy, Ireland, Iceland, and the United States.

Despite such trends, democracies—especially those that lead FoRB efforts—often evade rigorous scrutiny. This double standard undermines international advocacy while at the same time creating a permissive environment at home for FoRB and other human rights violations, as recently argued by Corey D. B. Walker and Jolyon Thomas, among others.

With us or against us

A second blind spot appears in the common refrain among international FoRB advocates to “name and shame” abusers. This preferred policy mechanism aims to deter FoRB violations by inflicting reputational costs on countries that do not adhere to international norms. In parallel with these efforts, national and subnational coalitions have proliferated in recent years. Examples include the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and the UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum. These organizations ostensibly aim to better coordinate the defense of FoRB around the world.

A major issue with these approaches, of course, is that they can reinforce and reify a false dichotomy between “good” and “bad” or “civilized” and “uncivilized” actors in the international system. Countries on government watch lists are portrayed as actors in need of reform. They are presented with the choice of either being on the side of social justice and human rights or not. Yet no country can claim to be completely free of religious discrimination. In fact, a recent study by Jonathan Fox demonstrates that many of the Western countries leading the above-mentioned efforts tend to have higher levels of restrictions on the religious practices or institutions of minority religions than democracies and even some non-democracies in Latin America, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.

What is more, there are strong reasons to remain skeptical of naming-and-shaming efforts. Peter Henne, for instance, has pointed out that these efforts rarely reduce FoRB violations given that religious discrimination continues to rise annually, at least as measured by global datasets. Rochelle Terman has drawn attention to the ways that norm politics can backfire by provoking resistance and worsening human rights practices in a targeted country.

What’s religion got to do with it?

Religion, perhaps counterintuitively, is a third blind spot in how decisionmakers understand and combat religious discrimination. More specifically, it is the overemphasis of religious identities and inequalities that can undermine efforts to protect certain communities. Religious characteristics intersect with race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other attributes. Oppression today of Rohingyas, Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghurs, and Kazakhs involves a mix of factors. So too do recent attacks on Black churches in the United States.

In my experience, contemporary policymakers are rarely oblivious to the fact that identities are multidimensional. What decisionmakers struggle with, however, is how best to navigate this complexity when designing and implementing specific policies.

The consequences of not doing so are, of course, dire—as Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, for instance, has demonstrated in the case of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Overemphasizing religious beliefs and identities can exclude minority voices within a faith tradition, as well as exacerbate tensions, intolerance, and violence. The challenge moving forward is to develop ways to take religion seriously while at the same time addressing policymakers’ blind spots lest we repeat history.