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Volokh Conspiracy

Religious Freedom In Islam?

Why we should dare to ask the question.


[An excerpt from Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today:]

In June 2009, Barack Obama, early in his first term as President of the United States, delivered a most unusual speech in Cairo, Egypt. Instead of directing his words to the citizens of a country, a parliament, or an international organization, President Obama spoke to the members of a world religion. "I've come to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," he announced. It was perhaps the first time in history that a US president had chosen an entire religion as his audience. A host of the speech was Al-Azhar, one of Islam's oldest and most prestigious universities, and a patron who could help Obama project his message to Muslims—all Muslims, everywhere.

Why did President Obama direct his speech to such an unusual set of hearers? The previous year, Obama had campaigned for president on a promise to end the United States' wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of his charges against these wars was that Muslims around the world perceived them as being waged against Islam.

In fairness, Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, had made great efforts to communicate that the United States was fighting terrorists and a rogue dictator and not Islam, which Bush had called a "religion of peace." Still, Obama saw a need for a realignment in the relationship between the United States and Muslims—all Muslims, everywhere. "We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world," he began his speech, and he elicited applause when he declared, "America is not—and never will be—at war with Islam."

The president proposed that the United States and the Muslim world could reduce tensions together by addressing several issues ranging from violent extremism to women's rights to nuclear proliferation—to religious freedom. Obama's inclusion of this last principle—religious freedom—was, to close observers of US foreign policy, noteworthy and far from inevitable. Just over a decade earlier, in 1998, the US Congress had passed the International Religious Freedom Act, mandating that the US government promote religious freedom around the world. Although religious freedom was a signature feature of America's heritage, the bill's architects reasoned, overseas it had become one of the most widely violated human rights, and the United States had not responded adequately. George W. Bush's administration spoke warmly and consistently of the principle, though it sometimes subordinated it to the fight against terrorism.

It was unclear, though, whether President Obama would take up the cause, one that critics portrayed as asserting Western superiority over Islam and fomenting a clash of civilizations—exactly what Obama was proposing to leave behind. In his Cairo speech, though, he spoke of religious freedom warmly and forcefully, stressing that the principle is particularly dear to the United States: "[F]reedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion."

The United States hosts 1,200 mosques, he pointed out, including one in every state. Religious freedom's relevance is not confined to America's borders, he went on to argue, praising Islam for its tradition of tolerance but also taking to task Muslims who are intolerant of religious minorities, Muslims who practice violence against other Muslims whom they deem heterodox, and certain Western countries who discriminate against their Muslim citizens. "Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together," he added.

President Obama was right: Religious freedom is a universal principle, rooted in human dignity, that is critical to peace between Western countries and the Muslim world as well as within the Muslim world. This is the premise of this book, which asks: Is Islam hospitable to religious freedom? Such a question could be asked of any religion—or country, or civilization—but for three reasons, it is urgent to ask it of Islam.

First, a fiery public debate over the character of Islam has been raging in the West at least as far back as the attacks of September 11, 2001, and its outcome matters a great deal for relations between Western countries and the Muslim world. I will argue that religious freedom is not only a good criterion for assessing this debate, but also, when applied, this principle may well simmer it and redirect it toward more constructive relations between the West and the Muslim world.

Second, religious freedom is a "force multiplier" that expands important goods that are now lacking in the Muslim world but whose increase could greatly benefit Muslim countries and their relations with the West. Among these goods are stable democracy, civil and human rights, economic development, the advancement of women, reconciliation among people of different faiths, and the reduction of terrorism, civil war, and international war.

Third, religious freedom is a matter of intrinsic justice. It is a human right that enjoys a prominent place in international conventions and safeguards the dignity of persons and communities. Justice is most at stake for religious minorities living amid Muslim majorities, Muslims who dissent from the orthodoxy of surrounding Muslim populations, Muslim minorities within non-Muslim-majority countries, and predominantly Muslim populations ruled by secular dictatorships, which Western governments sometimes support.

Is there religious freedom in Islam? I will consider this question from different angles. Roughly the first half of the book looks at those countries—about 47—where Muslims are in a majority.

This is a fair test. If countries in which Muslims have the popular power to dominate others prove to be religiously free, then the case for religious freedom in Islam accrues strength.

My answer will be nuanced, thus offering a calming balance and constructive sobriety to today's public debate. From a satellite view, the landscape favors skeptics of religious freedom In Islam. Of 47 Muslim-majority states, only 11, fewer than one-fourth, have high levels of religious freedom according to the standards of the Pew Research Center. Sociologists Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, in their book of 2011, The Price of Freedom Denied, report that 62% of Muslim-majority countries manifest a moderate to high degree of persecution, compared with 28% of Christian-majority countries and 60% of all other countries. They cite an even sharper comparison showing that 78% of Muslim-majority countries contain high levels of government restrictions on religion, in comparison with 43% of all other countries and 10% of Christian countries.

Shall we conclude, then, that Islam is inhospitable to religious freedom? No. Such a judgment is too simple and obscures both the presence of religious freedom in the Muslim world and the reasons for its absence. Zooming in from a satellite view to a close-up perspective that shows the history and circumstances of Muslim countries, Islam comes to look more diverse. If there is a relative dearth of religious freedom in the Muslim world, Islamic doctrine is not necessarily the cause of it.

We will discover, for instance, that some 42% of the Muslim-majority states that have low levels of religious freedom are (or have been until very recently) governed by regimes that harshly impose on their populations not a radical form of Islam but rather an aggressive form of secularism inspired by sectors of the West. We will also discover that 11, or 23% of, Muslim-majority countries are religiously free not despite Islamic teachings but because of their particular understanding of Islamic teachings. Here, Islamic beliefs undergird tolerance for Christian and other minorities and for Muslims outside the Islamic mainstream. It is also true that 58% of the countries with low levels of religious freedom are "Islamist," meaning governed by a strongly conservative form of sharia, but even these have modern origins and are too simply deemed the real and true Islam. We will discover, too, Muslim movements, parties, and intellectuals who espouse and advocate for religious freedom as well as places and times in which Muslim communities have accorded high levels of protection for religious minorities.

Skeptics and optimists of religious freedom in Islam, then, are both right and both wrong. Taken as a whole, at the present moment, the Muslim-majority world is less free and more violent than the rest of the world taken as a whole. Yet, both the reality and the potential for greater religious freedom can be found in the Muslim world as well. Finding a more satisfying synthesis than either side of the public debate provides—rooted in a fair and even view of Islam, identifying sources of potential for the expansion of religious freedom, pointing to a more constructive Western approach to Islam—is the aim of the book.