What if Osama Bin Laden had been raised in a Saudi Arabia that allowed for religious freedom? What if, instead of being steeped exclusively in the toxic teachings of Wahhabism and Sayyid Qutb, he had been exposed to other forms of Islam, to critics of Islam, to other forms of religious belief, and to liberal religion-based arguments about justice and the common good?

Would 9/11 have happened?

There are good reasons to believe that the answer is “no.” Religious freedom, the evidence shows, can be an antidote to religion-related extremism, including terrorism. Despite this, the United States has made little effort to advance international religious freedom as part of either its counter-terrorism strategy or its democracy assistance programs in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. Both the Obama administration and Congress have been unwilling to back a serious religious freedom policy, even though the potential benefits are enormous and the costs would be very low.

The explanation lies in a perfect storm of official inertia, grounded in political correctness, a lack of imagination, and—worst of all—indifference.

First, the evidence. Recall how the 9/11 Commission defined the danger:

The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is … Islamist terrorism—especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology … [which]  draw on a long tradition of extreme intolerance within one stream of Islam (a minority tradition), from at least Ibn Taimiyyah, through the founders of Wahhabism, through the Muslim Brotherhood, to Sayyid Qutb. That stream is motivated by religion and does not distinguish politics from religion, thus distorting both. … It is not a position with which Americans can bargain or negotiate. With it there is no common ground—not even respect for life—on which to begin a dialogue. It can only be destroyed or utterly isolated.

Religious liberty cannot destroy the terrorists, but it can help isolate them and their ideas. Empirical sociologists Brian Grim and Roger Finke have demonstrated in their work a causal connection between the absence of religious freedom and the incubation of religious terrorism. Where there is a closed religious orthodoxy, as in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, extremist ideas flourish. But the reverse appears to be true as well: When all religious actors and ideas enjoy equal access to public life, including democratic political life, liberal political theologies emerge and the appeal of extremism diminishes.

Electoral democracy can help undermine extremism and encourage liberalism, but elections alone are not enough. In order to take root, democracy must embrace the fundamental tenets of liberalism, including a bundled commodity of fundamental freedoms that include religious liberty. Several Muslim societies are struggling to establish democracy, and while some are making good progress, particularly Turkey and Indonesia, none has embraced religious freedom in full. Each continues to suppress religious minorities and to silence Islamic reformers, some by prosecuting them for blasphemy. Of course, if the voices calling for liberalization are silenced, the winners are Islamist extremists and, often, terrorists.

Are Grim and Finke right? If so, how does religious liberty help democracy take root and undermine terrorism?

Timothy Samuel Shah, Monica Duffy Toft, and Daniel Philpott, scholars in the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs, have shown in their book God’s Century that the exclusion of religious actors from politics can encourage a turn to violence and extremism. Seeing no outlet for their ideas and objectives in the democratic public square, some religious individuals and groups—perhaps already inclined toward violence because of the political theologies to which they are attracted—will become fiercely anti-democratic and all the more radical.

For example, the radicalization of Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s and 1960s can be attributed in part to his experience of the West, to which he applied his extremist understanding of Islam. His writings matured into a blueprint for terrorism, however, during the repressive reign of Egypt’s Gamal Nasser, who banned the Muslim Brotherhood, threw Qutb into prison, and sanctioned his torture. The current head of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was imprisoned and tortured by Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat.

On the other hand, the active involvement of religious actors in democratic politics can undermine the extremist tendencies already present in their political theologies, and can encourage them to adopt more liberal policies. This de-radicalizing tendency of democracy may result from the need to win votes, which typically requires a more moderate and diverse platform that goes beyond political theologies per se. For example, Turkey’s ruling (and Islamic) Justice and Development Party has won support from skeptics by adopting free-market economic policies.

De-radicalization and liberalization also may result from the limits necessarily imposed by a functioning, healthy democracy, particularly the constraints imposed by the foundational democratic principle of full equality under the law for all religious individuals and groups. For example, if the Muslim Brothers truly want the advantages of a stable democracy (an aspiration that currently remains ambiguous), they will ultimately have to accept the core principle of full equality for other Muslims and non-Muslims, whether in the majority or minority. If they do not, democracy is unlikely ever to flourish in Egypt, and Egyptians will never experience its long-term benefits, including economic growth, security, and social harmony.

Perhaps most important of all, political theologies are more likely to liberalize when they are forced to compete in a marketplace of religious ideas. If religious leaders are required to defend their teachings—for example, their views on the meaning of justice, freedom, equality, and the common good—against competing conceptions (religious or not), their teachings are less likely to remain extremist. A monopoly on thought is not good for any body of ideas, including political theologies.

Given the evidence that religious freedom can contribute to de-radicalization, American foreign policy should be integrating international religious freedom into its governance strategies for the broader Middle East. Unfortunately, it is failing to do so. In his June 2009 Cairo speech, President Obama said that “freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together.” He’s right; but words do not substitute for policy action. It took the Obama administration two and a half years to get in place its ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom—the senior official who implements American policy on religious freedom—and when the ambassador finally stepped into her office, she found herself working for a lower-ranking official, far removed from the Secretary of State. While other similarly ranked officials, such as the ambassador-at-large for women’s issues, work directly under Secretary Clinton, the ambassador for religious freedom remains isolated and under-resourced.

Meanwhile, minority Christians, disfavored Muslims, and other groups are being persecuted around the globe. In 2009, the Pew Forum reported that 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where their religious freedom is severely restricted, often by violent persecution. An August updatesays that the problem is getting worse. Political upheaval in the Middle East will likely lead to catastrophe unless the religion-state problem is resolved. Yet the administration does not see the urgency. Obama and Clinton have prioritized other foreign policy issues, investing the administration’s energy and resources in projects like climate change research, closing Guantanamo, “engaging Islam,” and internationalizing gay rights.

Of late, Congress also has done little to advance the cause of religious freedom. In 1998, it passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which provided the statutory basis for U.S. policy. Recently, a bipartisan group in the House sponsored a bill with amendments that would force the State Department to prioritize religious freedom—putting the ambassador under the Secretary, allocating democracy funding to religious freedom, and mandating training for American diplomats.

Unfortunately, neither Senate Democrat nor House Republican leaders appear to see the value of passing these amendments. In mid-September, all State Department language was summarily stripped from the bill, leaving only the reauthorization of an advisory panel called the Commission on International Religious Freedom. The Commission is important and should be reauthorized, but it is only an advisory body, unable to drive U.S. policy.

If policy is to have an impact on religious persecution, the emergence of stable democracies in the Middle East, or the defeat of Islamist terrorism, the Department of State must take the lead. At the moment, there is little sign of that happening. The great tragedy is that the proposed bill, if successfully passed in full, could help both reduce the deaths and injuries of young American men and women, and curtail the extraordinary sums we are spending to fight terrorism.

Can religious freedom prevent another 9/11 attack? If Congress passes the State Department’s amendments to the law, we’ll be given a chance to find out.