Freedom of Religion

Realizing Religious Freedom in the Islamic World

Six policy recommendations.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

I hope that my new book, Religious Freedom In Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today, may help to cool tempers in a culture war over Islam that has been taking place in the West at least as far back as the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Complicating our categories and cooling tempers on cable news shows, though, is not my ultimate aim. Religious freedom is a call for action, not just a criterion. It demands that the dignity of all Muslims as people who submit to Allah, both in the vertical sense of worship and prayer and in the horizontal sense of their relationships and communities, be honored. It demands that the dignity of non-Muslims surrounded by Muslims be honored as well. It promises derivative benefits of peace, democracy, and economic development. It calls Western states to treat Muslim people and communities, both within and outside the West, more justly and promises that in doing so, these states, too, will reap stability and the reduction of violence and terrorism. Religious freedom is good for Islam, good for Muslims, good for non-Muslims living in Muslim societies, good for Muslims in non-Muslim societies, good for relationships between men and women in Muslim societies, and good for relations between the West and Islam.

How can religious freedom be realized? Six recommendations show the way. Derived from the analysis of the book, they are addressed to Westerners but also invite a dialogue with Muslims outside the West. The first four call for changes in thought that break out of ruts in current debates. The last two call for action on the part of Western states and on the part of transnational constituencies for religious freedom.

[1.] Affirm religious freedom as a universal human right, not a western value. In the minds of post-modern critics in western universities as well as certain conservatives, religious freedom is a western value that is either unjust or futile to ask Muslims to adopt. What is needed is a gestalt shift by which religious freedom comes to be regarded not as a Western value but rather as a human value. Religious freedom's enshrinement in international human rights conventions should be looked upon neither as a historical hiccup nor as a product of American hegemony but rather as a manifestation of "the conscience of mankind" that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares human rights to be in its preamble. In the book, I explain why.

[2.] Recognize Islam's capacity for religious freedom. The fact that one religious tradition is less religiously free than the rest of the world at a given time does not mean that it is consigned to religious unfreedom. And the fact that a religious tradition has not taken the West's historical pathway to freedom does not mean that no other pathway is available. In previous posts—and even more so in the book—I point to evidence for religious freedom in the Muslim world and identity "seeds of freedom" that involve potentialities for growth.

I also argue that the form of Islam that is behind violence, terrorism, and religious repression today has historically contingent roots. Much can be attributed to the ideology of Islamism, or Radical Islamic Revivalism, which arose in the early and middle 20th century among intellectuals who were convinced that Islamic civilization had reached a nadir because of both internal corruption and external domination. Islamism became increasingly radicalized and violent, weaponized by transnational terrorist groups, and empowered by its marriage to the modern sovereign state, yielding the pattern of religious repression. Advocates of religious freedom in these settings remain silent, are muzzled, or are exiled. Islamism, though, is not permanent, baked into Islam's founding, or the natural upshot of Islam's texts and traditions. Absent the formidably coercive apparatus of repressive states, this would be far more apparent.

[3.] Recognize that negative secularism is not the answer. Secularism says that religion can become tolerant only when it ceases being religious. Repression and terrorism in Islam will cease only when Islam becomes secularized. What is meant here is the negative, or hostile, form of secularism, as opposed to positive, or healthy secularism. Negative secularism took shape in the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries and gained a new spurt of momentum in the 2000s in the writings of the New Atheists.

Unsurprisingly, when secularism gains power, the resulting regimes are repressive. Most of the purveyors of the past century's most colossal mass atrocities have been aggressively secular: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, and Imperial Japan. Within Islam, we have seen the secular repressive pattern and its aggressive and intentional efforts to promote its program: Turkey's Atatürk, Egypt's Nasser, Iraq's Hussein, Indonesia's Suharto, Iran's Shah Pahlavi, and Syria's Assad. All of these regimes have been authoritarian and associated with severe repression. All of them have radicalized Islamists and elicited violent backlash. Some of them have committed mass atrocities or spurred civil war. All of them have been unstable and eventually overthrown or frontally challenged by their religious opponents. Secularism is not the answer to Islam's problems.

[4.] Expand religious freedom in the Muslim world. Islam's simultaneous capacity for and dearth of religious freedom combine to elicit a call for an expansion of religious freedom in the Muslim world. Religious freedom is good for Muslims. It is not Western decadence. It does not require a mimicking of the relationship between religion and state in the United States or any other Western state in all of its particulars—only a floor of freedom from coercion and heavy discrimination. It embodies the positive secularism that enables religious faith, not the negative secularism that constrains it. In a religiously free state, Muslim clerics and their communities have wide latitude to preach, to educate their children, and to finance, organize, and govern their communities. Muslims may persuade non-Muslims to convert to Islam. Their religion is no bar from holding office. They may participate in politics and undertake great efforts to make their societies more faithful to the tenets of Islam.

Religiously free states do not allow Muslims—or anyone else—absolute freedom, and Muslims will have to accept certain restrictions and make certain allowances that they would not be faced with in religiously repressive states. Muslims would be allowed to convert away from Islam without sanction and non-Muslims permitted to persuade them to do so. Members of other religions and Muslims considered heterodox would have full rights of citizenship, including freedom to practice their faith. Women would be allowed to doff their headscarves in Iran and don theirs in Turkey. For many heads of state and religious leaders in contemporary Muslim-majority countries, these limitations will be liabilities and perhaps too high a price to pay for freedom. Hopefully, though, the benefits of freedom for Muslims will become apparent as well to more devout Muslims in positions of influence.

[5.] Western states and the European Union ought to make religious freedom far more central and integral to their foreign policies toward Muslim-majority states. In 1998, the U.S. Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). More recently, the European Union, Canada, the United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Norway have adopted religious freedom into their foreign policies in one way or another. Canada reversed course, though, closing its Office of Religious Freedom in March 2016.

But is a human rights policy enough? The argument of this book is that religious freedom—in the Muslim world and everywhere—depends in good part on regimes and their political theologies. Violations of religious freedom are more than a collection of individual acts committed against individual victims. I have also shown ways in which the abridgement of religious freedom is connected to war, terrorism, violence, and instability, the reduction of which is a core interest of the United States. That religious freedom is a human right, but also much more than a human right, points to the need for new thinking in which religious freedom is integrated into the high politics of national security and alliances.

[6.] Religious freedom should be advocated as universally as possible, including through transnational networks of religious freedom constituencies. Religious freedom is a universal human right. The credibility and effectiveness of policies to realize religious freedom—in the Muslim world, everywhere—depend on these policies being shared in a way that reflects this universality. The best way to ensconce religious freedom in the common conscience of mankind rather than allow it to become one side of a clash of civilizations is to expand the network of people and organizations who share a stake in it. Religious freedom cannot only be the cause of the US and other Western governments.

In the book, I propose a transnational network of religious freedom constituencies, including civil society organizations in countries where religious freedom might be expanded, organizations in free countries that promote religious freedom, international organizations, western governments, and religious bodies. Working together, the members of such a constituency would strengthen one another and pressure unfree regimes from all sides. Historically, international communism operated on this principle, with its international network of parties and local cell groups. Premised upon a bad idea, it was not successful. More can be hoped for religious freedom.

NEXT: For Nanny-Statism, California's Supreme Court Might Be Worse Than the State Legislature

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  1. From its inception Islam offered choice in religion. Convert or die.

    1. Actually that was more a feature of Christianity as soon as it got into power. Christianity invented religious persecution. Previously the emperors were satisfied with a pro forma allegiance to the Emperor and the gods. But when Christianity became the state religion, practice of any other religion, even in secret, was hunted down and the practitioners executed.

      Your view of Islam is the stereotypical one held by Westerners. The OP shows a lot more nuance. For hundreds of years the Islamic world was more tolerant than Christendom. Proof of this is that only non-Muslims had to pay taxes. Think about it.

      1. “Christianity invented religious persecution.”

        That’s bullshit.

        This blog post is about Islam, anyway, not about Christianity. The what-about-ism on these posts’ comments is sickening.

        1. Compare and contrast ist verboten?

          Sure Christianity did not invent religious persecution. That was a feature of all religions right from the start, primarily because religion was the state.

      2. Actually that was more a feature of Christianity as soon as it got into power. Christianity invented religious persecution.
        >>>>>>>>>>>>

        So the Christians threw themselves to the lions and were stomping around persecuting polytheists during the reign of Akhenaten?

        lol I think somebody flunked out of middle school history.

        1. You have pretty much a middle school level understanding of history.

          Early Christians were persecuted only because they refused to make the pro forma oath of loyalty. And the persecutions were sporadic and driven not by the effort to stamp out Christianity but by the perception that Christians were being subversive. The Romans had no problems with animists or worshippers of Isis and Osiris.

          1. Besides those accommodating Romans got the whole ball rolling in the first place with the Crucifixion. And, you might want to look up “martyr” in some real history books.

          2. It was more than pro forma oath, as it meant acknowledging the emperor as a god. Were you aware of that, or not?

            Symbolic actions and oaths are important enough that people make a huge deal about them. Should Kapernick just stood for the anthem, the mere pro forma oath of allegiance to America?

            1. Good point, and isn’t the better comparison between Rome and Islam, at least in the sense that each targeted non-adherents?

          3. The important question is which religion today wants to see you dead if you don’t follow it.

            1. That about sums up the issue and probably should be addressed first. Later, we can move onto broader concepts like freedom of religion.

          4. I guess we’re just going to brush past the fact you said something glaringly and demonstrably ignorant.

            1. And most of them didn’t even notice the ridiculous subject change, so I guess that’s a success

      3. riiiight riiight just ask Saul of Tarsus…who became the persecuted when he became a Christian

      4. “Proof of this is that only non-Muslims had to pay taxes. ”

        Why is proof of “tolerance”?

        Putting a burden solely on the non-Muslim is a way to force conversion, not tolerance.

        1. If they kill off the infidels, or expel them, there goes their tax base.

          One might add that taxes were lower in Islamic countries because the religious establishment wasn’t sucking up so much money.

          1. LOL Sorry I asked, didn’t realize you were making that dumb of an argument.

          2. That’s right, they had to keep around some infidels for turning into jannisaries and concubines!

        2. Putting a burden solely on the non-Muslim is a way to force conversion, not tolerance.

          Much like what the Catholic Church did to Jews throughout most of its history.

      5. Yes, captcrisis, thank you for your pointing out the magnanimity of the Roman emperors toward early Christians. They were so supportive they even invited them to the forum occasionally. Although I liked the little joke on tolerance at the end of the comment, the preceding joke could use some work.

        1. Dammit another typo. Meant “Colosseum” Ruined another mediocre joke.

          I realized somewhere between the never ending references to the Crusades and occasional mentions of Christian persecutions of the Swedes and Indians in Goa that the majority of commenters here are not really making any serious effort at actually commenting on the truly bad and misplaced analysis of this religious freedom series. So, I guess it’s only mocking and sarcasm going forward.

      6. Religious prosecutions existed before Christians dummy.

      7. that was pretty much a feature of life at that time. And yes, in Rome, at the time of Christ you could be killed for being a Christian.

        Then 400 years later you could be killed for NOT being a Christian.

        The big diff is that Islam has ALWAYS been that way and still is.

        Does it happen everywhere Muslims are? No, but you’ll notice that ISIS killed a lot of people simply because they weren’t Muslim. It is happing N Africa too.

        But in any event, because Roman tyrants killed you for not being a Christian doesn’t mean Christianity calls for that.

        Islam does.

        Convert the infidel, enslave him, or kill him.

        Its in the Koran.

        Show me that in the New Testament.

      8. Both of you are mistaken.

        Islam never offered the choice “convert or die.” From the beginning, the other Abrahamic religions were tolerated. They were restricted in various ways at various times and places, but forced conversion was never Muslim doctrine.

        But it is not true that only non-Muslims had to pay taxes. There was a head tax for non-Muslims, a Koranic tax, based on income and wealth, for Muslims.

        1. Pettifogging. The choice is indeed to adhere to an Abrahamic religion or die. The difference between “convert or die” and “adhere or die” is not that great to a pagan, Zoroastrian, Hindu, or atheist.

    2. Recommendations addressed to Westerns? Most perplexing. Let me try to grasp this, non-Muslim adherents (otherwise known as the victims of Islamic violence and intolerance) now have a responsibility to reform the faith? Sounds strangely like recommending interference with religion at a level that is directly counter to anything resembling freedom of religion.

      1. Make that “Westerners”. Haven’t seen a good Western in a while.

        1. Silvarado, Pale Rider and Tombstone are the last good ones. 25 years ago or more.

          1. What about Quigley Down Under? Not perfect but it had moments.

            1. That was good too. Same era.

              The climax when the Alan Rickman is surprised that Qugley can shoot a pistol weell was classic.

          2. The Cohen brothers western inspired shorts on Netflix are great.

            1. Western revisionism? Not sure that makes a great western.

          3. Young Guns should be right up there too.

            Still, nothing beats High Noon, even The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

            1. Nope – The Searchers beats High Noon.

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  2. “Negative secularism took shape in the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries . . .

    Unsurprisingly, when secularism gains power, the resulting regimes are repressive.”

    Odd to hear this from a lawyer, sworn to uphold the freedoms in the Constitution, a product of the European Enlightenment.

    1. Which Enlightenment? The Founders were influenced by the Scottish branch of the Enlightenment, which right out called itself the Common Sense school. The French branch of the Enlightenment was *way* more controversial in the founding generation.

    2. The Enlightenment was good overall but the form of secularism opposed to religion even when not a part of the government was bad and gave birth to Communism.

  3. Wow, that negative secularism thing is pretty bad with Hitler, et al.

    Good thing we’ll work on positive secularism instead.

    1. The Japanese Emperor is a God.

  4. Imperial Japan was secular? Sheesh.

    1. Imperial Japan is probably the best counter-example to the “Buddhism is the only peaceful religion” meme.

      1. And it was not remotely secular.

        Abrahamic religion? Nope.

        Secular? Nope.

        Hardcore Shinto? Yep.

        I wonder if they even invoked deities in their battlecries? Kamikaze….. wonder what that means….

        1. It means “divine wind.” A reference to the defeat of the Mongol invasion.

          1. that’sthejoke.gif

    2. I was surprised to read this, too. State Shintoism was one of the nastiest religious doctrines out there. Nasty enough that one of the conditions of surrender was that Japan would disestablish State Shintoism, especially in claiming that the Emperor was a living God, that the Japanese people are uniquely blessed and are therefore superior, and that the Japanese Islands are similarly blessed.

      Recently, the Japanese Right has been looking to reinstate elements of State Shintoism. It’s always been fuzzy, considering that the Emperor and his family are the top officials in the religion, but the secular government has been elbowing its way into Shinto ceremonies as well.

  5. Also, where is it required that western governments provide any sort of positive support for religious freedom?

    Definitely we should prevent prosecution and/or discrimination simply based on a person’s religion.

    But there has NEVER been a government mandate to support and encourage participation in religion.

  6. Islam is what Islam does.

    What Islam could or should do just doesn’t seem of much importance.

  7. What is it about these people? Muslims believe that Islam IS universal, and so no ‘universal human rights’ make sense outside of Sharia. Islam is no Methodism – it is not a ‘church’ religion. It is a way of life, an ordering of society. It divides the world in two – the believers, and the other. The other only have rights to the degree that they may one day become Muslims.

    In Egypt, when converts from Islam to Christianity have been buried in Christian cemetaries, Muslims have dug up the bodies and re-buried them in Muslim grounds. That’s what you’re up against.

    1. “The other only have rights to the degree that they may one day become Muslims.”

      That is not the case. As you can discover from any decent treatise on Muslim law, it provides rights to Dhimmi, members of the other tolerated religions that have agreed to accept Muslim rule. In Muslim Spain, there were still large numbers of Jews and Christians at the time of the Reconquista, after centuries of Muslim rule.

      It was the Spanish Christians who insisted that the non-Christians convert, leave, or die.

  8. “Imagine” comes to mind.

  9. Just have them all put Coexist bumper stickers on their cars. That will fix everything in the Muslim world.

  10. “only a floor of freedom from coercion and heavy discrimination”

    That’s consistent with Islamic law, at least for followers of the Abrahamic religions. And, historically, Muslim rulers were generally tolerant of Zoroastrians and Hindus.

    But “Members of other religions and Muslims considered heterodox would have full rights of citizenship, including freedom to practice their faith” is not so clear. Islamic law permits practice but limits it in various ways, and it treats Muslims differently from Dhimmi. So it isn’t clear how much of what you want is consistent with Islamic law.

    I wonder how much mileage you can get out of pointing out that, historically, Islam was more tolerant than Christianity, that “no compulsion in religion” was part of Islamic doctrine and not part of Christian doctrine.

    1. I wonder how much mileage you can get out of pointing out that, historically, Islam was more tolerant than Christianity, that “no compulsion in religion” was part of Islamic doctrine and not part of Christian doctrine.

      Living in submission is, as they say, far better than dying.

  11. Prof Philpottt (2019) : I also argue that the form of Islam that is behind violence, terrorism, and religious repression today has historically contingent roots. Much can be attributed to the ideology of Islamism, or Radical Islamic Revivalism, which arose in the early and middle 20th century among intellectuals who were convinced that Islamic civilization had reached a nadir because of both internal corruption and external domination. Islamism became increasingly radicalized and violent

    Winston Churchill (1899) “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog?? Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the faith: all know how to die but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.

    1. How was Churchill able to identify a violent proselytising strain of “Mohammedanism” in 1899, if radical Islamists only thought up the idea of using violence to advance the faith “in the early and middle 20th century” ?

      Come to think of it, if violence was in the 20th century, a new thing for Islam (since the initial conquests of Mohammed and his immediate followers) how did the Ottomans come to be knocking on the gates of Vienna more than a thousand years after the death of Mohammed, in 1683 ?

  12. Most of the purveyors of the past century’s most colossal mass atrocities have been aggressively secular: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, and Imperial Japan.

    Others have raised their eyebrows at “Imperial Japan” in that list, but I’d also like to quibble with the others. First, Saddam Hussein doesn’t belong in that list. He was a minor league player by 20th century colossal mass atrocities standards. You could come up with at least a dozen bigger players than Saddam. And the biggest players – Hitler, Stalin and Mao – were all different from a religious point of view.

    Hitler – though formally secular – can be seen as the High Priest of a religion, without a God (except himself.) There was a great deal of mystical c**p in Nazi ideology, leaving aside the mass murder and global war. Stalin was a more orthodox figure – a self serving, but true, priest of a new secular religion, in which he did believe. There’s no good reason to believe that the Soviet Union woud have turned out importantly different if Lenin had lived, or if Trotsky had beaten Stalin. They were all true believers in the new faith. Mao is different in that his communism is much easier to understand simply as a career path to fulfil his own Godhead.

    1. Aside from the Fuehrer’s explicit ideological requirement to cleanse the world of the “Jewish disease” ; the essential feature in all this slaughter, not just from the Top Dogs but also the supporting bureaucracy is that the underlying ideology imposes no constraint on slaughter for the cause. Religions, too, have ideology in the form of doctrine.

      But religions (except as with Mao when you’re your own God) generally impose some kind of external constraint on what may be done. Of course, the constraint may sometimes permit the slaughter of infidels, but even so, thee’s a rule external to the self.

      So, absent better, give me a religious tyrant with a God external to himself, ahead of a tyrant who acknowledges no spiritual master.

  13. Stop condescending to muslim apologists and attacking its critics.

  14. I don’t think you have dealt with the central problem: the intolerance of certain beliefs is central and essential to Islam. The greatest sin is shirk, so any religious belief that posits a partner for Allah is simply intolerable in Islam doctrine ? all of it, Koran, Hadith, everything. Your proposal seems to be, Muslims should stop that. A fine idea, but not much of a plan.

  15. This just in:

    “Banda Aceh (Indonesia) (AFP) Six couples were publicly whipped in Indonesia’s conservative Aceh province Monday for relations outside marriage, with at least two women unable to walk after the painful punishment.”

    https://www.breitbart.com/middle-east/2019/03/04/
    indonesias-aceh-whips-unmarried-
    muslim-couples-after-hotel-raid/

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