In digital age, religious tensions fuel global hostilies

  • Article by: DAVID BRIGGS
  • Updated: November 23, 2012 - 10:30 AM

When it comes to religious tensions, what happens in one part of the world does not necessarily stay in that part of the world.


Photo: Anti-Muslim hostilities around the world have fueled deadly attacks on Christians in Egypt.

Photo: AP, Associated Press

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The killing of a guru in a Sikh temple in Vienna leads to riots across the Punjab region of northern India. An anti-Islamic video produced in California results in global protests. Immigrants from Muslim countries are attacked by vigilantes in Greece, where arsonists burn down a makeshift mosque in Athens.

When it comes to religious tensions, what happens in one part of the world does not necessarily stay in that part of the world.

Influences from abroad in recent years were reported to have contributed to religious hostilities or government restrictions in more than six in 10 countries across the globe, a Pew Research Center found in a new study.

No region of the world was exempt. Foreign influences contributed to hostilities or restrictions in all 20 countries studied in the Middle East and North Africa, and about three-quarters of the 95 nations studied in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe, the study found.

So what is the major influence related to religious tensions crossing borders?

Hint: It’s about much more than a small church in Florida burning a Quran or a Danish magazine publishing cartoons of a revered prophet.

Nativist fears

Issues related to immigration, whether from individuals seeking economic opportunities in more affluent nations or those fleeing civil conflict, reportedly contributed to religious hostilities or restrictions in the largest number of countries, the study found. International immigrants, migrant workers and refugees either played a role in social hostilities involving religion or were targeted by government restrictions on religion in 63 countries, or 32 percent of the nations studied.

The next three most prevalent cross-border influences on increased social hostilities or reduced religious freedoms were related to the spread of religious extremism, actions or pressure from foreign governments and terrorism.

External events such as the publication of the Danish cartoons were tied to social hostilities or government restrictions in 40 nations, or 20 percent of the countries studied.

The study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life examined incidents between July 1, 2009 and the end of 2011 that were reported to have contributed to cross-border social hostilities and government restrictions on religion. The researchers used several sources, including the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group.

The study has limitations such as not being able to demonstrate each incident in one country was a direct cause of hostilities in another nation. However, the research provides one measure to identify how religious tensions can cross borders in a world where ideas and people move around quite frequently, according to the study’s author, Pew senior researcher Brian Grim.

The public’s attention is often focused on incidents such as controversial cartoons or sensational public acts of burning holy books. “I think it will be surprising to many people that immigrants face problems related to religion in so many countries,” Grim said.

Yet a growing body of research reveals that these type of issues are at the heart of religious persecution and restrictions on religious freedom.

When faced with religious tensions, many nations, often influenced by strong cultural and religious pressures from majority groups, respond by imposing restrictions on minority religious groups, Pennsylvania State University sociologist Roger Finke said in his presidential address at the recent meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Denver.

“Religious restrictions are justified as a necessity for curbing violence and maintaining public order, but research finds just the opposite: Social conflict is often a consequence of increased religious restrictions,” said Finke, who is also director of the Association of Religion Data Archives.

In the case of the Pew findings on immigration, Grim noted, “This study is not trying to blame the victim. … It’s more the reaction to the immigrants that is the issue.”

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