How Pew’s religious freedom rankings misrepresent India – Salvatore Babones

Prof. Salvatore BabonesCircumstantial evidence suggests that an ‘unholy alliance’ of international Islamists and Christian missionaries have weaponised the American international religious freedom reporting system against India. – Prof. Salvatore Babones

Is India really the worst country in the world for “social hostility to religion”? The Pew Research Center thinks so. In November, its annual international religious freedom report found that “acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society” were more prevalent in India than in any other country. For the fifth year in a row, India topped Pew’s global Social Hostilities Index.

This can’t be dismissed as just another example of international Modi-bashing. Pew has rated India among the world’s worst offenders on social hostility to religion for 14 years running. According to Pew, Indian society has been hostile to religion for as long as it has been studying the topic.

Maybe that’s why in 2019-2020 Pew commissioned a major national study of religious toleration in India. Pew is unequivocally the world’s most respected independent survey research organisation, and it conducted a truly impressive survey. It interviewed a nationally-representative sample of 29,999 households, achieving a response rate of over 85 per cent.

And it found that “the vast majority of Indians say they are very free today to practice their religion”. This is true of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains: “Indians of all these religious backgrounds overwhelmingly say they are very free to practice their faiths”. Moreover, Pew found that “Indians are united in the view that respecting other religions is a very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community”.

And those italics were in the original report.

So Pew revised its Social Hostilities Index to take the new data into account, right?

Wrong. Pew’s Social Hostilities Index isn’t based on data—or at least, not what serious social statisticians consider data. It’s based on hearsay. Or more accurately: it’s based primarily on complaints made by activists to the US State Department, and summarised in the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom reports.

These reports can hardly be considered a source of unbiased raw data. For example, the most recent State Department documented that across all of India, there were 20 attacks on Christians, seven on Muslims, and five on Hindus. Oh, and it cited reports from seven different Christian activist organisations alleging that there were an additional 293, 279, 208, 200, 135, 75, and 49 attacks on Christians (respectively), though the State Department did not take the time to determine whether or not these allegations may have overlapped.

One suspects that the US State Department gets tired of recording all of the complaints it receives about the ill-treatment of Christians in India. Nonetheless, its International Religious Freedom report documented hundreds of attacks on Christians and a near-equal (and very small) number of attacks on Muslims and Hindus. But that’s not the impression you’d get from reading Pew’s Social Hostilities Index summary text.

In support of its worst-in-world ranking for India, Pew highlighted three specific incidences of religiously-motivated social hostility to religion: the circulation of Islamophobic coronavirus hashtags, Muslims being attacked for spreading coronavirus, and violence surrounding anti-CAA protests.

In other words, despite the fact that allegations of anti-Muslim behavior made up less than a quarter of the specific incidents recorded by the State Department (and a tiny fraction of the total allegations reported to the State Department), they accounted for 100 per cent of the allegations of religious intolerance relayed in Pew’s report.

This, despite the fact that Pew’s own survey research found that 89 per cent of India’s Muslims say they are “very free” to practice their own religion, and 24 percent believe they face “a lot of” discrimination in Indian society. To put this in context, in a separate US population survey, Pew found that 80 per cent of African-Americans, 46 per cent of Hispanic-Americans, and 42 per cent of Asian-Americans believe they face “a lot of” discrimination in American society.

So if Pew’s rock-solid survey data show that India has a tolerant society where the overwhelming majority of Muslims—and, incidentally, an equal proportion of Christians—feel free to practice their religion, why does it continue to rate India the worst country in the world for “social hostility to religion”? And why does it focus exclusively on Muslim examples to justify this ranking?

You’ll have to ask Pew. But it seems no coincidence that the US State Department, the quasi-governmental US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and Pew’s international religious freedom team all share a basic methodology that allows them to cherry-pick individual examples of alleged wrong-doing in formulating their conclusions. This methodology is obviously vulnerable to political manipulation and politicised reporting.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that an “unholy alliance” of international Islamists and Christian missionaries have weaponised the American international religious freedom reporting system against India. To be clear: there is no evidence whatsoever that Indian Muslims have been complicit in this. They have instead been made the “poster children” for an anti-India campaign run mainly by and for others, and offered no input into the process.

The hard data—the Pew Research Center’s own hard data—show that India’s is a tolerant society where people of all religions generally respect people of all religions, and feel respected in return. Feelings of social exclusion among Indian Muslims are much lower than among any major minority group in the United States.

When it comes to allegations of religious intolerance in India, there is simply nothing to report in the data. You have to resort to cherry-picked examples and intentionally-distorted executive summaries to build a case against India. In the absence of hard data, it is perhaps understandable that journalists and intellectuals might have fallen for such a carefully manufactured malicious narrative. Now that we have hard data, it is inexcusable for them to continue promoting it.

> Prof. Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the author of the new study ‘Unholy Alliance: Inside the Activist Campaign to Pry India from the West’. He earned his MS (mathematical sciences) and PhD (sociology) from the Johns Hopkins University.

> READ USCIRF is engaged in furthering Christian proselytisation in India – Arvind Sharma

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