President Obama has yet to fill or even nominate a candidate for the post of Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom. At the same time, in a recent address to Muslims in Istanbul, President Obama said, “We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith. . .”
One way President Obama could be respectful of and show his appreciation for Islam would be to nominate an Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom and support religious freedom in his administration’s foreign policy.
To those who dismiss religious freedom as a “western” concept or the desire only of Christian missionaries, and argue that out of respect we should not “impose” this on Muslims, I would like to provide an overview of the perspectives of some of the many Muslim thinkers, both Sunni and Shia, who argue for religious freedom.
There are Muslims who oppose religious freedom, of course, and they are well-known. The exploits of the Taliban and the Saudi government get press. The views of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are available free online in many languages. But there are also Muslims who favor religious freedom. It is high time the perspectives of the latter get the public attention they deserve.
A key phrase in President Obama’s Istanbul speech was that “we seek broader engagement” with Muslims. If President Obama is sincere in his desire to “seek broader engagement,” his outreach must extend beyond foreign-government-sanctioned and foreign-government-financed Muslim institutions, which tend to have more to do with representing the political needs of authoritarian regimes (often regimes the U.S. government readily supports) than with the actual broader dynamic underway among Muslims today.
If our American “engagement” is to be authentically “broader,” it needs to be open to the diversity that exists in Islam. This would include considering the perspectives of Muslims who favor religious freedom. What follows is an overview of why some Muslims favor religious freedom. These authors have rooted their arguments in foundational Islamic texts, the Quran and Hadith, and principles of Islamic law.
These authors are not arguing for religious freedom simply to secure minority rights (such as those of the persecuted Shia in Saudi Arabia), nor do they argue for religious freedom as a temporary bridge to get them into political power. Quite to the contrary, their arguments support the principle of religious freedom as integral to the practice of Islam, and more broadly as beneficial to humanity. These authors shun the mixing of political and religious authority, and highlight this as a threat to the well-being of Muslims and to their faith lives. In addition, these authors see freedom of Muslims and non-Muslims to enter and exit faith communities as essential if belief in Islam is to have any meaning.
Abdullah Saeed, a professor at the University of Melbourne, and his brother Hassan Saeed, Attorney-General of the Maldives, offer an in depth examination of Islam and religious freedom. Their study, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam, is an exploration of the topic of religious freedom in the Quran and the Hadith. Based on the results of their study, they argue, “ . . . freedom of religion is a fundamental principle of Islam and that the death penalty for apostasy violates this principle.” They conclude that Islam and freedom of religion are not just simply compatible; the findings of their study reach further. They observe, “One of the new positions emerging among many Muslims today is that the Qur’an supports the view that freedom of belief is an essential aspect of Islam.”
Other Muslim writers addressing religious freedom include Mohamed Talbi, from Tunisia, Mohsen Kadivar, from Iran, and Abdolkarim Soroush, also from Iran. Essays by these three authors are now available in English in the excellent compendium, The New Muslim Voices: Rethinking Politics and Modernity, edited by Mehran Kamrava. This compendium includes both Sunni and Shia perspectives on issues of importance to modern Muslims, such as religious freedom. Also in Kamrava’s compendium is an article by Nasr Abu Zayd, an Egyptian, which touches on the issue of religious freedom. (Some of Kavidar’s writings are available at his website in English, though the English translation in Kamrava’s collection is of higher quality.)
These authors critically examine and debunk popular assumptions and inherited traditionalist interpretations about Islam and religious freedom, including the assumption that Islam must respond to apostasy with execution. Kavidar observes, “ . . . these interpretations [of the Quran and Hadith] often fall significantly short of capturing the essence of the Holy Book or a particular Prophetic tradition and, in fact, often contradict them.”
While Saeed and Saeed focus on textual exegesis, Talbi, Kavidar and Soroush elaborate guiding principles for approaching the issue of religious freedom as Muslims. The types of advantages they, as Muslims, see in religious freedom include the following:
1. Religious liberty provides a foundation for authentic belief:
Talbi notes the “inner liberty” of individuals, and observes that recognition of this inner liberty enriches how he, as a Muslim, interacts with non-Muslims. This is not just a matter of peaceful-coexistence, but rather recognition of the “sacredness” of each individual. He writes of bearing witness to non-believers of his Muslim faith neither by sword nor with scratchy, screechy loudspeakers blasting from mosques, but rather “in the most courteous way that is most respectful of the inner liberty of our neighbors and their sacredness.”
Kavidar observes that the notion of religion without religious freedom lacks logical coherence. He observes, “ . . . the freedom to choose one’s beliefs and creed predates religion. It is through this freedom that religion is chosen and belief is established.” Furthermore, he questions, “How could a religion, one that asks of its followers to explore for themselves and to choose their beliefs based on critical reason and thought, deny the necessity of freedom of religion and belief?”
2. Religious liberty frees Islam from political manipulation:
Since religious freedom makes possible faith as individual belief, it transfers the centrality of religion in society away from a cultural or tribal identity, and removes it from the hands of power-hoarders who would use religion as a political football for their personal, near-term objectives. A free environment, namely one that includes religious freedom, makes possible exposure of the falsehoods of those who would manipulate religion for personal gain.
Soroush offers the frank observation that, “The contest of freedom eliminates the masters of mediocrity, the pompous windbags, and the incompetent overlords . . . .In a closed and oppressive system . . . truths do not get a chance to shine against falsehoods.”
The Saeeds note the harm caused to Islam by political abuse—not only in the eyes of non-believers, but also in the eyes of Muslims: “ . . . the misuse of Islam by political authorities in the Muslim world to suit their own political agendas plays a significant role in driving some Muslims away from Islam.”
3. Religious liberty enriches Muslims’ faith:
The arguments these authors present supporting religious freedom suggest that religious freedom offers an enriching—not a threatening—environment for the Islamic faith.
Soroush observes (echoing Quran verse 2:256), “Religion is, by definition, incompatible with coercion. Freedom has two virtures: it endows life and the choices we make in it with meaning.” Kavidar notes, “If free will did not exist, sin and atonement would be meaningless. Religion and faith are meaningful only when people can freely choose them.” And Talbi observes, “Faith, to be true and reliable faith, absolutely needs to be a free and voluntary act.”
Societal freedom, argues Soroush, is as an environmental necessity for internal spiritual life, and the lack thereof is a threat to Muslims seeking to live out their faith. He argues, “Living under tyranny plunges the whole society into such iniquity and causes such legitimation and institutionalization of corruption that fighting the internal battle becomes impossible.”
4. Religious liberty promotes respect for Muslims:
Respect for Islam and Muslims is a recurring theme in these authors’ arguments for religious freedom. Religious freedom provides an environment to protect Islam from political manipulation and settling for mediocrity. These authors honor their faith and consider it unworthy of mediocrity.
Soroush discusses the complexity of truth and the resulting need for pursuit of truth to be a shared enterprise. He writes, “Freedom is there not only for people to say their piece and blow off steam. It is there because they need each others’ help against darkness and falsehood.”
Integrally linked to their respect for Islam is these authors’ respect for Muslims alongside all human beings. Hence they highlight the benefits of religious freedom for all society and note their concerns of harm to society where freedom is denied. Kavidar asserts, “ . . . freedom of thought and religion are beneficial for society at large and ought to be sought after.” He observes, “limiting the choice of religion and belief leads to discord, deceit, and hypocrisy. Those who would be persecuted or killed for spreading false beliefs have no choice but to feign obedience to whatever religion happens to dominate at that the time. Hypocrisy undermines and destroys faith. Robbing people of their right to choose their religious beliefs only results in the spread of discord and hypocrisy.”
The Egyptian Muslim author, Nasr Abu Zayd, now exiled to Europe, also emphasizes in Kamrava’s anthology the detrimental impact on society when there is a lack of freedom for “religious discourse.” He observes, “Censorship and stagnation go hand in hand. Because religious discourse is tied to public discourse, all facets of society deteriorate as a result of censorship. Only confident and free societies have an ability to repel stagnation and decay . . . People must be free to challenge opinions in the marketplace of ideas. Islam must protect this right.”
5. Religious liberty reflects respect for God’s sovereignty:
These Muslim writers also believe that religious freedom reflects respect for God’s sovereignty. Kavidar comments on the Islamic belief that God rewards good and punishes evil and observes that denial of freedom would run counter to this understanding of who God is. He writes, “If there were only one path that everyone had to follow—the right path—then there would be no need for independent judgment, and for God’s rewarding of good and His punishment of evil.”
Soroush notes that valuing reason and truth reflects trust in God, “Where both reason and the truth are held to be weak, freedom cannot be cultivated.” He writes, arguing for an intellectual rather than a bloody jihad, of the need to “struggle and wage Jihad against falsehoods, and put our trust in God. We must know that fraud will not succeed nor the iniquitous prevail. This is the meaning of tavakkol (trust in God).”
For Talbi too, his support for religious freedom is related to his understanding of who God is. He observes, “From a Muslim perspective, and on the basis of the Qur’an’s basic teachings . . . religious liberty is fundamentally and ultimately an act of respect for God’s sovereignty and for the mystery of God’s plan for humanity, which has been given the terrible privilege of shaping entirely on its own responsibility its destiny on earth and hereafter. Ultimately, to respect humanity’s freedom is to respect God’s plan. To be a true Muslim is to submit to this plan. It is to put one’s self, voluntarily and freely, with confidence and love, into the hands of God.”
These Muslim voices represent an important segment of a critical population. If President Obama wishes to follow through on his stated desire to “respect Islam” and “broaden engagement” with Muslims, he should look at the too-little-known writings of these authors. He can lead our government’s outreach to Muslims beyond listening only to authoritarian political leaders of Muslim populations, such as those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Appointing an Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom who could engage with these voices of Islam would be one concrete step in the right direction.
Jennifer S. Bryson is the director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Islam and Civil Society Project. She is a contributor to Public Discourse.