The Pew Research Center has just come out with a disturbing new poll detailing what it calls a world-wide rising tide of both government restrictions on religious practices as well as societal tensions fueled by religious differences. As noted in the New York Times, of all the world’s regions, government restrictions were highest in the Middle East and North Africa in the polling period 2007 to 2010—the years just prior to the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in late 2010. The poll itself suggests that as of mid-2010, government restrictions on religion were high or very high in most of the countries that experienced uprisings in the Arab world including Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. Social hostilities involving religion were the highest in the Middle East of all the regions of the world.
While the Times story focuses on growing tensions and repressions in the Middle East—the region that eclipses the rest of the world—the poll sadly demonstrates that it is actually a global phenomenon. Social attitudes and government repression increased in each of the five major regions of the world, including in two regions where restrictions had been previously declining: the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, it turns out that some three-quarters of the world’s inhabitants live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion.
And lest one assume that this is a case of the West versus the rest, the poll demonstrates that government restrictions by religion are actually higher in Europe than they are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, social hostilities involving religion are lower in sub-Saharan Africa than they are in Europe.
The Pew study does not really provide a compelling explanation for these phenomena. It points to increased intolerance, such as a constitutional referendum banning mosque minaret construction in Switzerland or the forced closure of churches in Indonesia.
It is striking that as the world becomes more interconnected, it is also becoming less tolerant towards religion and towards religious differences. Perhaps the world’s increased interconnectedness, and the greater ease of flow of people across borders, has made people and governments defensive and fearful of differences, rather than more understanding of them. Regardless of the cause, the increase in government restrictions on religion, led by the Middle East, is a very sad and disturbing development.