Skip to main content

The Varieties of Religious Repression: Why Governments Restrict Religion

Ani Sarkissian
Published by Oxford University Press in 2015

Reviewed by Chan Woong Shin, Social Sciences, Indiana Wesleyan University

Ani Sarkissian’s new book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on religion and politics in general and religious freedom and repression in particular. As Sarkissian argues, existing works have mostly focused on either the place of religion in democratic regimes or more severe forms of religious persecution. By examining diverse types and targets of religious repression in nondemocratic states, Sarkissian, a political scientist and Middle East expert at Michigan State University, helps us expand our understanding of the complex interplay between politics and religion in the contemporary world. She effectively uses several readily available quantitative data sets, coupled with a number of qualitative case studies, to illustrate and support her argument, which is not only convincing, but also pregnant with significant theoretical and practical implications as well. I believe that this book will be particularly valuable to those who are concerned about the precarious status of religious freedom around the world, especially Christian and other religious activists who have played an important role in promoting religious freedom as an important foreign policy issue in the United States.1

As the book’s title suggests, Sarkissian has two main goals: to show how the forms and levels of religious repression vary across nondemocratic countries and to explain why. Although only more extreme cases of religious persecution, such as murder, torture, and rape, are often headlined by mainstream media and decried by governments and advocacy organizations, nondemocratic states are also engaged in much more diverse and seemingly less severe activities of religious repression. Sarkissian groups these two groups into two broad categories: repression of religious expression and association (restricting religious services and holidays, undercutting people’s ability to observe religious laws, banning proselytism and conversion, limiting believers’ exercise of property rights, controlling clerical appointments, and regulating religious speech and education) and repression of the political expression of religion (restricting or banning religious political parties and nongovernmental organizations, limiting religious individuals’ political speech and activities, and hindering their access to political office). Sarkissian’s quantitative analysis of 101 countries and qualitative case studies of 16 of them between 1990 and 2010 well illustrate how different nondemocratic regimes, often lumped together, in fact employ diverse tactics in varying degrees to control religion. Yet she makes a further contribution by examining what kinds of and how many religious groups are targeted by those regimes. Thus, there are states that repress all religious groups within their borders (27 countries), ones that repress all but one (14 countries), ones that repress some (21 countries), and ones that repress none (39 countries). These numbers alone are useful for showing how the popular perception that nondemocracies invariably repress religion is misinformed, much less the policy prescription that turning them into democracies will automatically solve the problem.

Then, what explains these variations? Utilizing rational choice theory, Sarkissian’s answer primarily focuses on the abilities and needs of nondemocratic leaders to repress religion, which she argues are largely shaped by the levels of political competition that they face. She anticipates that higher political competition leads to lower repression and lower political competition to higher repression. Although a correlation exists, however, many of her actual cases deviate from it. For example, Malaysia, Turkey, and Indonesia all exhibit more political competition than Swaziland, Gambia, and Cameroon, yet the latter countries impose far less restrictions on religion. So Sarkissian adds another factor to her theory: the level of religious division and conflict within a society, which she measures using the Social Hostilities Index (SHI) complied by the Pew Research Center. She hypothesizes that more religiously divided societies will be prone to higher religious repression because political leaders in those societies face both more demands for intervention and more opportunities to profit from religious cleavages. Combining the two variables, Sarkissian expects that states with the highest levels of political competition and low religious divisions will commit little to no religious repression while states with the lowest levels of political competition and high religious divisions will repress all religious groups. The countries in between should target some religious groups only. Among them is a unique category of states that may repress all but one religious group. Sarkissian argues that these countries should show higher levels of political competition coupled with higher levels of religious divisions, although she later acknowledges that they can be properly understood only by examining the particular nature of their religious divisions, which cannot be adequately captured by quantitative data alone.

Sarkissian’s quantitative analysis broadly supports her hypotheses. Still, it is not hard to identify states that defy the predicted patterns. Thus, she complements her initial findings with a series of in-depth case studies. Four countries in each of the four categories are carefully selected to demonstrate how political competition and religious divisions interact to produce specific repressive policies in concrete historical and regional contexts. Azerbaijan, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia represent countries repressing all religions. Russia, Georgia, Turkey, and Indonesia exemplify countries that repress all but one religion. Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain, Nigeria, and Singapore repress some religions. Albania, Senegal, Peru, and Cambodia, repress no religious groups. It is not possible even briefly to summarize the findings from those 16 case studies as they are packed with important facts that have not been widespread. Those who are only interested in a particular country’s situation will be greatly benefited by a wealth of knowledge Sarkissian provides.

As a whole, the book makes a couple of overarching contributions. First, it effectively discredits the notion that religious repression is the exclusive property of a certain region or religion. Sarkissian specifically devotes a portion of her conclusion to discussing the role of Islam. Despite being majority-Muslim countries, Albania and Senegal do not repress religious minorities. Indonesia has varied in its level of religious repression although it has been a majority-Muslim country throughout. Without denying the importance of political theology, Sarkissian persuasively shows that religious repression is often caused by political reasons, rather than theological ones. Second, even as Sarkissian focuses on the role of governmental leaders, she equally highlights the importance of religious divisions and other societal factors in determining the fate of religious believers in nondemocratic countries. This not only adds to existing theories, but also has important policy implications. For one, democracy promotion defined as increasing political competition may not necessarily lead to more religious freedom. The sufferings of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring are a good example. Even though the book does not provide any definite solution to such a complex problem, it offers democracy promoters a proper warning that any political reform effort must be based on a careful analysis of the society’s historical and contemporary societal dynamics. The same insight should also prompt religious freedom activists to question their predominant reliance on a strategy known as “naming and shaming,” which is publicly rebuking and pressuring a target country’s government to change its behavior. Often the underlying assumption is that pressure from outside, if strong and sustained, can curtail religious repression by raising its costs. Yet, Sarkissian’s findings suggest that such intervention can backfire if it unintentionally creates more religious divisions and conflicts within the society. Thus, a government-focused strategy should be complemented, if not supplanted, by a civil society-oriented approach that has been advocated by organizations like the Institute for Global Engagement.2

Despite its merits, the book leaves a couple of things to be desired. First, it is not altogether clear how Sarkissian picked her 101 nondemocratic states. She used four different data sources to come up with her list of countries. One of the sources is the Polity dataset, which she also uses to measure the levels of political competition across those 101 countries. The Polity Score ranges from -10 to +10 and, according to Sarkissian, the authors of the dataset recommend that countries with scores between +6 and +10 be categorized as “democracies.” Yet, 37 of the 101 states analyzed in the book are assigned scores higher than +6 and it is not clear why Sarkissian decided to include them in her list of nondemocratic regimes. This leads me to ask further whether it is really necessary to distinguish democracies and nondemocracies in the first place. Sarkissian claims that the two political regimes are significantly different, yet it should be empirically tested whether democracies manifest fundamentally different patterns of religious repression, if they ever engage in it. Second, I also wish that Sarkissian had used more advanced statistical methods to demonstrate the relative significance of her two main independent variables—political competition and religious hostilities—in determining different levels and types of religious repression. She only uses a single scatter plot to present her findings and prove her hypotheses (Figure 2.1 on page 44), and it seems subject to different interpretations. Nevertheless, The Varieties of Religious Repression is a work of informed and relevant scholarship and both scholars and practitioners will find it valuable even if they do not agree with every argument the book makes.

Cite this article
Chan Woong Shin, “The Varieties of Religious Repression: Why Governments Restrict Religion”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:3 , 302-305


  1. Allen D. Hertzke, Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).
  2. The Institute for Global Engagement was established in 2000 by Robert Seiple, the first U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. See its website at for more information.

Chan Woong Shin

Indiana Wesleyan University
Chan Woong Shin is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Gordon College.