The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Is There Religious Freedom in the Muslim World?

Let's look at real Muslim countries.


Is Islam hospitable to religious freedom? This is the central question of my newly published book, Religious Freedom In Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today. To answer the question, the book looks closely at the Muslim world today.

I focus on how governments treat the question of religious freedom in countries where Muslims are a majority. There are about 47 of these countries, and they are concentrated in the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa, and Southeast Asia. Muslim-majority states serve as a strong test for religious freedom: How are dissenters and religious minorities treated in states where Muslims are the majority of the population and have the means of coercion at their disposal? If regimes in these states allow religious freedom, then the case for the Muslim world's openness to religious freedom is strengthened.

For measurements of religious freedom, I look to the Government Restrictions Index of the widely respected religious freedom rankings of the Pew Research Center. It was in part through Pew numbers that I derived the first part of my argument about the Muslim world—that, in the aggregate, Muslim-majority countries are much less religiously free than the rest of the world.

The second part of my argument is that when one zooms in from a satellite view of the Muslim world to a close-up view, one sees more diversity—a diversity that offers hope for religious freedom in the Muslim world. Pew's numbers are also important for this second argument but do not alone deliver it. To see the diversity in the Muslim world, one must look not only at the magnitude but also at the manner in which governments restrict religious freedom. By manner, I have in mind what we may call a regime's political theology, that is, a doctrine of political authority, justice, and the proper relationship between religion and state that is derived from more foundational theological and philosophical commitments.

I propose three categories of regimes as they are defined by their political theology. The first is "religiously free" states, which make up 11 out of 47 Muslim-majority states. These fit Pew's category of "low" restrictions on religious freedom on the GRI and are categorized by a political theology of religious freedom, meaning that they espouse, promote, and protect the freedom of people and communities to practice their religion.

Seven of these countries are concentrated in West Africa. Most of them have strong Muslim majorities—in some cases, more than 90% of the population—yet they are striking for their strong levels of respect for Christian and other minorities and for Muslims who dissent from prevailing orthodoxy. Notably, levels of religiosity are high in these countries; sub-Saharan Africa is the most religious region of the entire world, according to the Pew Research Center.

Thus refuted is a widely shared wisdom in the West that says that only secularization—meaning the decline of religious belief—can bring religious tolerance. In West Africa, it is not the absence of Islam but rather the kind of Islam, that explains tolerance—namely, an Islam informed by Sufi spirituality, which stresses inner sincerity and the free character of belief. West Africa's tolerance can also be explained by the historical pattern of Islam's arrival in the region. Unlike in the Middle East, where Islam spread through conquest, here it came through bands of traders and missionaries who had to make accommodations with the surrounding authorities. The pattern continues through this day.

The 36 Muslim-majority states that are not religiously free fit Pew's categories of "moderate," "high," or "very high" levels of restriction on the GRI. These states manifest different political theologies, though, and so can be divided into two categories.

One of these—the second of my three categories—can be called "secular repressive" states. Numbering 15 in 2009, these states proffer a political theology of secularism, rooted in the West, holding that the public influence of Islam ought to be stifled so as to make way for nationalism, economic modernization, and modernity in general. The standard bearer of this model is the Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923 by Kemal Atatürk on secular principles. Egypt followed suit under Nasser in the early 1950's, as did other Arab countries. The Central Asia republics—the "stans"—emerged as secular repressive following the end of the Cold War. What these countries show is that where religious freedom is lacking in the Muslim world, Islam is not always the cause of it. The French Revolution, not just the Iranian Revolution, is the problem.

The other kind of Muslim-majority state that curtails religious freedom—my third category—I call a "religiously repressive" state. These states numbered 21 in 2009 and manifested a political theology of "Islamism" that envisions law and government policy as a vehicle for promoting a strongly conservative form of Islam in all spheres of life—family life, economy, culture, religious practice, education, dress, and many others. These are the countries that most Westerners have in mind when they think of Islam as being repressive. Here, the Iranian revolution has prevailed. Iran and Saudi Arabia are indeed the prototypes.

These three categories, each based on a political theology, are at the heart of my argument about Islam and religious freedom. They show, first, that religiously free states do exist in the majority-Muslim world. They make up almost one-fourth (23%) of that world and so are more than outliers. Then, the religiously unfree portion of the majority-Muslim world must be understood in its complexity, too. About 32% of Muslim-majority states are secular repressive ones, fueled by an antireligious ideology borrowed from the West. The other 45% are religiously repressive, imposing traditional Islam.

This close-up view ought to yield both honesty and hope. It is honest in that it allows that religious repression is still widespread in the Muslim world. It is hopeful in that it shows that Islam is not always the source of the repression and is indeed sometimes the source of freedom.