Both Sides of the Culture War Are Partially Wrong About Islam

The bombings of Christian churches in Sri Lanka this past Easter Sunday were the largest terrorist attacks in the world since those of September 11th, 2001 and, like those attacks, were committed by Muslims. ISIS, the world’s deadliest terrorist network, claimed credit for the recent bombings, which it carried out in collaboration with Sri Lankan Muslims.


These bombings are likely to once again inflame a fierce debate over the character of Islam that has been roiling in the West for over two decades. One side, let us call them Islamoskeptics, will say that the attacks remind us of what only fools fail to perceive: Islam is a violent religion. Westerners who let down their guard or indulge hopes of a peaceful Islam are latter day Neville Chamberlains and invite further violence.


Partisans of the other side, whom we may call Islamopluralists, retort that those who characterize an entire religion by its extremists not only grossly distort that religion but also provoke the very violence against which they purport to defend. Islamopluralists would condemn the murderous bombings in Sri Lanka but point out that they were carried out by a tiny portion of the world’s and of Sri Lanka’s Muslims, that Muslims and Christians have enjoyed amicable relations in Sri Lanka, that both minorities suffer under an aggressively Buddhist government, and that Sri Lanka’s Muslims have suffered attacks in recent years at the hands of militant Buddhists. That Buddhists would be militants or aggressive nationalists may come as a surprise to Westerners, who associate Buddhism with mindfulness and California, but in countries such as Burma and Sri Lanka, they rule intolerantly and Muslims are often their victims. Islamopluralists call us to recognize and address the circumstances that lead a minority of Muslims to commit violence rather than arm for a civilizational struggle.


This debate, between Islamoskeptics and Islamopluralists, flares up again every time the headlines announce that Muslims are involved in violence. Think not only of September 11th but also of Bali, London, Madrid, Paris, Berlin, Fort Hood, Ottawa, the Boston Marathon, Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Speech, the murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel, ISIS—and now, Sri Lanka. Carried out, often heatedly, on the internet, talk radio, and cable news, but also in highbrow venues like The National Review and The New York Review of Books, the debate often resembles a culture war.


Much is at stake. The debate is also carried out in politics, and when partisans of one side gain power, their ideas have consequences. In the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Islamoskeptic candidate Donald Trump squared off against Islamopluralist candidate Hillary Clinton. After taking office as president, Trump instituted a ban on immigration from several Muslim-majority countries, tweeted out vile anti-Muslim videos, and voiced anti-Muslim rhetoric, which likely sparked the rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. that took place around the same time. In other Western states, too, the debate over Islam affects relations with Muslim-majority states and the plight of Muslims minorities.


Who is right about Islam? This is the question I take up in Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today, just published by Oxford University Press. There, I propose religious freedom as the yardstick for assessing whether Islam is peaceful and tolerant or violent and intolerant. A universal human right, religious freedom requires people and states to respect the beliefs and practices of those who espouse different answers to the ultimate questions of life, to accord them the full rights of citizenship, and to refrain from invidious discrimination against them. Religious freedom means that nobody pays a penalty for his or her religious beliefs. I pose this criterion for the world’s 47 (or so) states where Muslims are a majority. This is a good test, for in these states, Muslims possess the demographic power to carry out repression if that is what they wish. If freedom obtains here, then the Muslim world’s capacity for freedom is evidenced.


What results emerge? A landscape view shows that on average, Muslim-majority states are less free than the rest of the world and even less free than Christian-majority states. In the 2011 book, The Price of Freedom Denied, sociologists Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke document that 62% of Muslim-majority countries host a moderate to high level of persecution, in comparison with 60% of all other countries and 28% of Christian countries. More sharply, they show that 78% of Muslim-majority countries contain high levels of government restrictions on religion as compared to 43% of all other countries and 10% of Christian countries. Overall, the Muslim-majority world has a religious freedom problem.


A closer look at this world, however, reveals a more complex and hopeful picture. It turns out that 11, or 23%, of Muslim-majority states are religiously free according to a scale devised by the Pew Forum. These are too numerous to be outliers. In the other 36, or three-quarters, of Muslim-majority states that are not religiously free, Islam is not necessarily the reason for the lack. 15 states are “secular repressive,” meaning that they are governed by a regime that aspires to become a modern nation-state and is convinced that religion can only be a hindrance to this quest—an ideology borrowed from the French Revolution. Examples are Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Uzbekistan, and the other “stans” of Central Asian. True, the other 21 of these unfree states are “religiously repressive” because they are governed by an ideology of Islamism that calls for the imposition of a strict and traditional form of Islam by the state. While these states bear out Islam’s capacity for repression, they are 45%, or less than half, of the total. The French Revolution vies with the Iranian Revolution as the dominant form of repression in the Muslim world.


Both sides of the culture war, then, are partially right and partially wrong, at least on the criterion of religious freedom in today’s Muslim-majority states. That these states are religiously unfree in the aggregate supports Islamoskeptics; that they are diverse supports Islamopluralists. Both positions point to prescriptions. The dearth of religious freedom shows the need for its increase. The diversity in the Muslim world—the presence of some religiously free states, the fact some are unfree because of secularism, not Islam—shows the possibility of its increase. The case for its increase lies in justice. Religious freedom is a human right not only in the legal sense that it is articulated in the world’s major human rights conventions but also in the moral sense that it protects the dignity of persons and communities in their search for and expression of religious truth. Scholars also have shown that religious freedom fosters goods that Muslim states disproportionately lack, including democracy and equality for women, and reduces ills that these states disproportionately suffer, including terrorism, civil war, and poverty.


How is religious freedom to be promoted in the Muslim world?


In the Western media, one often hears it said that what Islam needs is a Reformation. In another variant, what Islam needs is an Enlightenment. Both claims point to Western history as a pathway for Islam. In the West, intolerance once reigned, the logic runs, but then a revolution took place that brought freedom. Should Islam undergo a similar revolution, it, too, would realize freedom.


Muslims might be forgiven, though, for not finding attractive pathways in either historical experience. The Reformation brought the fracture of Christendom and a century and a half of religious war before a handful of Protestant thinkers became pioneers of religious freedom. The Enlightenment was hardly a boon for religious freedom either. Philosophers like John Locke advanced religious freedom for dissenting Protestants, but others, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, called for regimes that would suppress traditional religion in favor of secular ideologies. Rousseau even proposed a new civic religion that would direct citizens’ loyalties to the state and called for the death penalty for apostates of this religion—the Enlightenment’s own inquisition. Rousseau’s proposal was taken up by the French revolutionaries, who executed Catholics in the thousands. The French Enlightenment provided the legitimating rationale for “the secular repressive” model of regime in the Muslim world.


Should Westerners refrain, then, from commending their history to Muslims? In fact, the history of the West contains one pathway to freedom that may prove promising for Islam. It can be found in the religious community that the Reformation and the Enlightenment considered their greatest enemy: the Catholic Church. It was at a late date in history, 1965, that the Catholic Church endorsed religious freedom, which it did at the close of the Second Vatican Council when it promulgated its Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. The Church’s long voyage to this declaration will not be instructive for Muslims in every respect. Islam has no single authority like the pope who teaches doctrine for the entire community. In several ways, though, Muslims have faced the same obstacles that prolonged the Church’s reluctance to embrace religious freedom, and in certain ways, Muslims might be persuaded to follow the Church along its trajectory.


One parallel between Islam and Catholicism is that both faiths stood at the center of great civilizations that long predated modernity. In medieval Christendom, the Church and temporal authorities like kings and princes viewed themselves as partners in upholding a Christian civilization that would lead its members to salvation. At times, temporal authorities would enforce the faith against challengers. Heretics (baptized Catholics who openly rejected settled teachings) were subject to the Inquisition. Some rulers in some times and places—early modern Spain for instance—expelled Jews and Muslims from their realm. In the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholic and Protestant authorities enforced religious uniformity in their realms through the death penalty.


Both Islam and Catholicism were then sharply challenged by modernity. Liberal republican parties based on the French Enlightenment attacked both the Church’s doctrine and its position in society in the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe, Mexico, and South America. 19th century popes like Gregory XVI (1831-1846) and Pius IX (1846-1878) perceived religious liberty to be part and parcel of secularism, relativism, and anti-clericalism and condemned it as “absurd,” “erroneous,” and “shameful.” Again, Muslims have been repressed—imprisoned, tortured, and barred from political activity—by regimes based on Enlightenment ideology. Muslims also widely view religious freedom as bound up with Western rejection of traditional morality, especially in sexuality and marriage, and sometimes as a Trojan horse for well-funded Christian missionaries. Like the 19th century popes, they see religious freedom as an element of an odious package.


Critical to the decision of the bishops at the Second Vatican Council to endorse religious freedom in 1965 was their ability to detach religious freedom from the secularism of the Enlightenment and to recognize that the principle could be defended on the basis of the Catholic tradition. To mount this defense, they retrieved and nurtured “seeds of freedom”—concepts and practices that express religious freedom in a significant way but that come up short of a fully developed and widely accepted human right of religious freedom. They looked back to early Church Fathers like Lactantius and Tertullian, for instance, who articulated the virtual equivalent of the modern human right of religious freedom while living under the sword of the Roman Empire. They built upon the Church’s consistent historical position that the act of faith must be free and that no-one may be coerced into converting to the faith. They also learned from the historical lesson of the United States, where the Church flourished and grew under a constitution that did not establish the Church and provided religious freedom for everyone. Skeptics at the Council argued that religious freedom would bring moral license and indifference to the Church’s teachings, but proponents responded that these problems were separate from the issue of religious coercion and would not be fueled by the endorsement of freedom—and they carried the day.


Muslims would be far more likely to accept religious freedom if they, like the Catholic Church, can be convinced that the principle is rooted in their own tradition and is not an import from the secular West. They might look to seven seeds of freedom in their own tradition. Each seed contains religious freedom in some respect but falls well short of its full flowering. Islamoskeptics will stress what each is lacking; those who are more hopeful will stress each one’s potential.


“There is no compulsion in religion.” Nowhere in the text of any religion can one find a more plain and direct statement that religion cannot be forced than this verse in the Quran, Surah 2:256—one that Muslims throughout the tradition have appealed to in favor of religious freedom. Along with other verses in the Quran that testify to the free character of faith, it is a seed of freedom. The tradition’s opponents of religious freedom have appealed to still other verses in the Quran that call for violence against the unbeliever, which they believe to override Surah 2:256. Against them, “religious freedom” advocates retort that these darker verses are directed against sedition and external military aggression, not simply members of other faiths.


A second seed of freedom is the life of the Prophet Muhammad as recorded in the hadith, or sayings of the Prophet. Once Muhammad established rule in Medina, he negotiated a constitution that set forth religious freedom, including for Jews, and he never put anyone to death—and on several occasions refused to punish people—for apostasy. Islamoskeptics counter that Muhammad was a conqueror and that he executed hundreds of opponents on one occasion. Islamopluralists counter that Muhammad was just that (a conqueror) and that however justifiable, or not, his military actions may have been, they were not aimed at forcibly imposing religion.


The history of Muslim toleration of non-Muslims is a third seed of freedom. From the time of Muhammad’s conquests, Muslims have offered members of other religions the status of dhimmi, an arrangement by which they could practice their religion freely while paying tribute to the government. Over history, dhimmi status has ranged from reasonably tolerant to cruel subordination. We do well to remember that virtually no religion advocated full freedom and equal citizenship for non-members until modern times. Still, religious freedom in Islam will require an evolution towards this full equality.


The fourth seed of freedom are periods in history in which Muslim countries have hosted religious freedom. The 11 contemporary religiously free Muslim-majority countries are probably the greatest concentration of free polities that the Muslim world has ever known, although they are still fewer than ¼ of all Muslim-majority states. Seven of them are in West Africa, where freedom and equality for tiny religious minorities and dissenters from Sunni Orthodoxy are enabled by Sufi spirituality and a culture of interreligious harmony and tolerance. Historically, liberal Islam arose—and subsequently disappeared—during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the Ottoman Empire, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Central Asian Republics. The flowering of this seed would mean that religious freedom would become widespread among Muslim-majority states today.


Contemporary Muslim intellectuals who espouse full religious freedom are a fifth seed of freedom. They are to Islam what pioneers of religious freedom such as John Courtney Murray, Jacques Maritain, and Heinrich Rommen were to Catholicism in the mid-20th century. Nobody knows what proportion of Muslim intellectuals proponents of religious freedom constitute. One of the most prominent among these pioneers, Abdullah Saeed, estimates that the vast majority of Muslim jurists still favor the death penalty for apostasy. Saaed cannot return to his home country, the Maldives, out of fear. Hope may be found, though, in 138 prominent Muslims who signed the 2007 “Common Word” statement affirming peace, justice, and religious freedom, and in the 280 prominent Muslim scholars, religious leaders, and heads of state who signed the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration affirming the rights of religious minorities. A 2013 Pew Forum poll shows evidence that popular majorities of 85% and upwards favor religious freedom in 39 Muslim-majority countries across every major region of the Muslim world. Here again, a seed exists.


A sixth seed is legal support for religious freedom in the Muslim world. Among Muslim-majority states, 21 have constitutional provisions that “compare favorably” with international standards of religious freedom according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, while 39 have signed and ratified the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This of course means that even more Muslim-majority states do not have constitutions that favor religious freedom, while many Muslim-majority states have signed separate human rights declarations—such as the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights of 1981—that are weak on religious freedom. It is also true that legal provisions in favor of religious freedom are perfectly compatible with repression in practice, as evidenced by countries like Pakistan that proclaim religious freedom in their constitution while passing draconian blasphemy laws.


A final seed of freedom is the separation of religion and state. Islamoskeptics often declare that Islam lacks such separation and contrast it to Christianity, in which Jesus established two spheres when he taught his followers to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. However, subsequent to Islam’s first century, Muslims virtually everywhere have lived under separate temporal and spiritual authorities. This may not be the separation characteristic of modern liberal democracies, or involve religious freedom, but it is a step towards that freedom, a seed of freedom.


Nurturing these seeds of freedom is in the interest of wide variety of parties—Western states in their relations with Muslim-majority states, Muslim minorities in Western states, religious minorities in Muslim-majority states, and Muslim-majority states in their efforts to reduce terrorism and civil war and to promote democracy, economic development, and the advancement of women. This nurture requires both honesty and hope, recognizing that the Muslim world still largely lacks religious freedom but also carries capacities to increase it. Catholics may testify from their long historical experience that such change is both possible and compatible with the profound meaning of religious faith.


Featured Image: Jubair1985, Bangladesh hosts World Congregation of Muslims, 15 January 2012; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Daniel Philpott

Daniel Philpott is Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation and is writing a book on a Christian concept of justice.

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