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The Link Between Pluralism, Democracy, and Social & Economic Development

24 Nov, 2015

“It is essential – and most of the time in their own interest – that enterprises and private firms contribute to a business culture that values diversity and is willing to accommodate and promote religious freedom.” – RFBF Senior Research Fellow Dr. Pasquale Annicchino

The following is the transcript of the address by RFBF Senior Research Fellow Dr. Pasquale Annicchino at the Treviso conference organized by the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs on September 18th-19th 2015, titled “Pluralism, democracy, social and economic development and the interaction between freedom of religion and business.


As the title I have been assigned by the organizing committee of the conference is rather broad and complex, I have decided to focus on two very broad issues which would need to be further developed, but unfortunately I can only briefly survey them due to time constraints. We all know from our different constitutional systems the complexities entailed in promoting a culture of respect of diversity which includes a robust protection of the right to freedom of religious expression and how, once a consensus on the relevance of this right has been reached, to the complexities of accommodating this right and balancing this with the rights of others. Let me therefore focus on two very specific questions:

  • How do we promote a culture of robust protection of freedom of religion or belief?
  • How do we accommodate diversity, and especially how do we accommodate it especially in the workplace?

Let me start with the first question, dividing it in two points:

a) The world is witnessing an incredible and, I would say, skyrocketing amount of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief. I do not need to remind this audience how in several parts of the world the rights of people believing or not believing, and therefore the rights of atheists, are violated by groups who are trying to impose their ideology infused with a sick understanding of religious belief on other people, and especially, of course, on minority groups.

We all have in mind the faces of Yazidis on the Sinjar mountain siege or those of Middle Eastern Christians escaping from Daesh. I want to stress that, of course, many of the geopolitical problems that the world faces today are not only problems that stem from religious political variables, but a clear understanding of what is at stake from the religious point of view, and from the point of view of the protection of freedom of religious expression, helps us in understanding the political scenario and resonate on sounding policy options.

b) Once we have realized the relevance of this human right, what can we do to promote and advance it, especially in countries where we witness widespread and ongoing violations? Some countries such as the United States, the U.K., the Netherlands and others have enacted specific legislation, while the European Union has recently approved the EU guidelines for the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief in the external action of the European Union.

These are all important policy tools, but it is important to acknowledge that there is no magic solution for the improvement of the condition of human rights and freedom of religious expression. The first and most important effort has to focus on the promotion of a political culture of respect of the individual and the individual’s ethical, moral and religious choices.

Recent studies suggest that society with a higher level of protection of these rights have stronger civil societies and perform better economically. So far, no direct causation has been found between the protection of religious freedom and better economic performance, but recent studies suggest that a correlation is very likely[1]. Religious freedom is found to promote economic advancement by boosting other freedoms that are essential to economic development. Where religious freedom is respected, people find it more natural to respect political, artistic, and social freedoms. This is a basic reason why international freedom rankings are highly correlated. Countries with high levels of religious freedom have high level of political freedom, and vice versa. Religious freedom advances economic development by making people comfortable with diversity of opinion, the expression of new ideas, and challenges to vested interests.

Once we have acknowledged that freedom of religion or belief it is an important right to protect, we have also to understand how we do it within our different constitutional legal orders. Here, I would say, it is probably going to be difficult to have a global level playing field where the right is always protected and in every part of the world protected at the same level. It is, and will always be, a political struggle worth fighting. What we need to do is to better equip our public law provisions and our private law instruments. In this context, of course, the most important role is the one played by public institutions which produce legal norms and enforce them, but an important contribution can also come by private businesses and enterprises. It is essential – and most of the time in their own interest – that enterprises and private firms contribute to a business culture that values diversity and is willing to accommodate and promote religious freedom.

The Religious Freedom and Business Foundation[2] has already started many initiatives in this field with the aim to contribute at the development of a culture which values that diversity. Examples of such include: i) Corporate commitments in support of freedom of religion or belief; ii) Corporate pledges; iii) the creation of Global Forums on Business, Interfaith Understanding and Peace; iv) Global Business and Interfaith Peace Awards.

These are only some examples aimed at tackling the problem of violations of freedom of religious expression, but also at recognising the opportunity for an inclusive political culture which aims at accommodating diversity. In the struggle for freedom of religious expression, enterprises and businesses can therefore also have an important role. It is up to them to engage into this venture.


[1] See B. Grim, The link between economic and religious freedom, World Economic Forum Agenda, available at: https://agenda.weforum.org/2014/12/the-link-between-economic-and-religious-freedoms/ and also B. Grim, G. Clark and R.E. Snyder, Is Religious Freedom Good for Business? A conceptual and empirical analysis, Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, 10, 4, 2014, pp. 1-19, available at:  http://www.religjournal.com/pdf/ijrr10004.pdf

[2] The Religious Freedom & Business Foundation educates the global business community about how religious freedom is good for business, and engages the business community in joining forces with government and non-government organizations in promoting respect for freedom of religion or belief. For info see https://religiousfreedomandbusiness.org/.