In the West, there is a culture war over Islam. It has played out again and again on cable news, talk radio, the internet, and in newspapers at least as far back as the attacks of September 11, 2001.
In this culture war, there are hawks and doves. Hawks hold that violence and intolerance are widespread in Islam; that Islam is hardwired for these pathologies through its texts and doctrines; that Islam is inhospitable to liberal democracy; and that the West must gird up for a long struggle against the threat of Islam. Doves hold that Islam is pluralistic and diverse. Like all religions, it has extremists, but they are few. Where violence and intolerance do exist in Islam, they feed off local and historically contingent circumstances.
A more nuanced view is available. In this essay, I take a close look at the basis of claims regarding Islam’s violence and its peacefulness, its oppressiveness and its tolerance. The criterion I use for characterizing the texture of the Muslim world is the principle of religious freedom.
Why Religious Freedom?
Many scholars have proposed democracy as the most proper criterion for assessing Islam. Yet democracy’s elections and popular rule often coexist with intolerance toward religious minorities and dissenters—the tyranny of the majority. Religious freedom adds respect for human rights to rule by the demos. It is principled and permanent: a universally valid principle that manifests human dignity. In this essay, I consider the state of religious freedom in the Muslim world—in particular, in Muslim-majority countries. Muslims, of course, are scattered throughout the world, but such states valuably reveal how Muslims treat dissenters and religious minorities when political power is at their disposal.
There is an excellent resource for understanding religious freedom in comparative perspective in the religious freedom scores of the Pew Research Center. Pew’s research team has scored 198 states and territories around the world on a Government Restrictions Index (GRI) and a Social Hostilities Index (SHI), measuring the violations that non-state actors commit. The first of four reports appeared in 2009. Here, I focus on the 2009 data, which allows me to capture the state of religious freedom in Islam prior to the Arab uprisings of 2011. I will then offer some thoughts about how these events changed things and what they teach about religious freedom.
The Broad Picture
From a satellite view, there is a dearth of religious freedom in Islam, a fact that seems to favor the hawks in the culture wars. Brian Grim and Roger Finke, the developers of the Pew scores, use a different index in their 2011 book, The Price of Freedom Denied, to show that a moderate-to-high level of violent religious persecution can be found in 62 percent of Muslim-majority countries, compared with only 28 percent of Christian-majority countries and 60 percent of all other countries. In addition, 78 percent of Muslim-majority countries have high levels of government restrictions on religious practices, compared with 43 percent of all other countries and 10 percent of Christian countries.
Zooming in, however, reveals more complexity and partially vindicates the doves. Eleven Muslim-majority states have low restrictions on religious freedom, illustrating that religious freedom is not rare in the Muslim world. Among the thirty-five other states that are not free—those ranging among “moderate,” “high,” and “very high” in their levels of restrictions—there lies diversity in the reasons why religious freedom is restricted. While it is true that twenty-one of these states are what I call religious repressive—Islamist countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran—the other fourteen are governed by a secular Western ideology and thus do not evidence incompatibility between Islam and religious freedom.
All in all, I propose three different patterns of religious freedom—each corresponding to a particular “political theology”—in the Muslim world: religiously free, secular repressive, and religious repressive. Let us look at each category in turn.
Religiously free states practice what political scientist Alfred Stepan has called the twin tolerations. Religious persons and communities can govern themselves and can express and practice their faith without strong restriction. Yet religious actors have no standing prerogatives that allow them to determine the policies of the state or to exercise temporal authority.
Eight of the eleven religiously free majority-Muslim states are in West Africa: Niger, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, the Gambia, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. The other three are Lebanon, Albania, and Kosovo. While religious freedom varies in this group—in Gambia, for instance, the government enforces some of the rulings of the Supreme Islamic Council, a non-governmental group of religious leaders—none of these divergences prevent these countries from being among the most religiously free in the world.
And they are free not despite or apart from their Islam but because of their Islam. In most of these countries, Muslims are the vast majority while Christians are a significant minority. Islam in these countries typically has a tradition of tolerance toward other religions that goes back centuries and existed well before colonial times. Colonial governments historically allowed broad freedom to practice religion and collaborated with religious leaders. Today, interreligious harmony is common, marked by mutual attendance at religious celebrations, interfaith friendships, and—in some countries—interreligious marriage.
These countries typically have interreligious councils that handle tensions and conduct conflict resolution. Religious leaders enjoy cooperative ties with government leaders, but these ties are generally consultative. Within the last five years, Islamist groups, some of them salafi, have grown in most of these countries, but they all have maintained their high levels of religious freedom.
If the religiously free states show that Islam can be free, the second pattern—secular repression—provides complementary evidence that Islam is not necessarily the cause of all of the religious repression in the Muslim world. The political theology of secular repression runs something like this:
We are a modern nation that is headed for greatness. We will develop a modern economy and everyone will receive an education. We will advance in science, technology, and military might. European states have shown us the path to the future but they will no longer be our masters or colonizers.
This progress requires keeping religion in check. Our citizens may practice religion if it gives meaning to their lives and makes them more virtuous, but religion will not define our public life. Religion is irrational, superstitious, and the source of hierarchies that impede equality. It directs people’s pursuits away from this world and their loyalties away from the state. Perhaps religion can become more serviceable to the public weal, but it must be reformed and modernized and this will require oversight and governance.
The standard bearer of the pattern is the Republic of Turkey, founded by Kemal Atatürk in 1924. After World War II, several Arab states adopted this model. The most influential example is Egypt, but Libya, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, and Algeria follow this model as well. Iran embodied the pattern under the Pahlavi shahs until 1979, as did Iraq under Saddam Hussein until 2003. Indonesia was a secular repressive state under the dictatorship of Suharto from 1967 to 1998. So, too, are the Soviet republics of Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan.
Most practitioners of the secular repressive pattern have been highly authoritarian: Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Egypt’s Nasser, Indonesia’s Suharto, Syria’s Assads. They often carry out their policy of religious restriction with brutal force—and necessarily so, because their populations are far more religious than they are. They will not proclaim their goal to be the eradication of religion in the brazen and ruthless manner that communist regimes have done, though they may well expect religion to disappear. They may even show devoutness in their public appearances: lemonade in the open, whiskey behind closed doors.
They seek to contain and control religion, typically “establishing” a moderate version of Islam and closely controlling the governance of mosques, seminaries, universities, and schools. They regulate the content of curricula, the public expression of religion, the architecture of buildings, and even the dress of their citizens. They will simultaneously suppress more traditional and radical forms of Islam. Secular leaders will present these religious figures as enemies of the state and use them to make the case for authoritarian rule. “It’s me or the Muslim Brotherhood,” Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak would say to his critics.
The third pattern of regime is religious repressive. In Islam, this form of the denial of religious freedom is carried out by a political theology of Islamism. While “Islamism” is a popular term in our culture war, it is definable as a bona fide ideology with a political program. Its program is to promote a highly traditional, rigid form of Islam in all spheres of life—family life, economy, culture, religious practice, education, dress, and many others. Islamism originated in the early to mid-twentieth century in the writings of intellectuals who thought that Islam had fallen into a condition of jahilliya, the darkness that characterized the world prior to the Prophet Muhammad.
Turkey’s abolition of the caliphate in 1924 could not have better embodied the problem: Islam, colonized and fractured by the West, had reached a nadir. Intellectuals who argued thus were Egypt’s Hassan al-Banna, founder of transnational Muslim Brotherhood; Abu Ala Al-Mawdudi, who founded a similar movement, Jamat-e-Islami; and Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb, who took a turn toward a more violent jihadi position and inspired a generation of militants, including Al Qaeda. Everywhere, Islamists believe, the solution to jahiliyya is a return to the first community of believers, who interpreted Tawhid, the oneness of God, as well as the sovereignty of God to require that Islamic law pervade all of life. Islamists want to see secular orders replaced by ones in which sharia is the sole and encompassing source of law and in which religion is not separated from the legal and political spheres. While Islamists view the modern sovereign state as a divider of the umma, the Muslim community, they advocate using the state to spread Islamic revolution until it one day disappears. Resonant are the dreams of Marx and Lenin.
The Islamist political program results directly in the denial of religious freedom. Although Islamists do not argue that the state can or ought to force people to believe, the quest for a thoroughly Islamic environment leads to the repression of non-Muslims and allegedly heterodox Muslims.
The standard bearers of religious repression in Islam are Iran and Saudi Arabia, Islam’s respective Shia and Sunni superpowers. Both rank among the seven least religiously free countries in the world according to Pew rankings, both have regimes based on a strongly Islamist political theology, and both seek to spread Islamism around the world. Other major Islamist states include Sudan, Nigeria (in twelve northern states), and eleven other more minor Islamist states, including the Gulf states.
While the existence of religiously free and secular repressive states tend to support the doves’ view, religiously repressive states makes the strongest case for the hawks’ view. There can be no question that Islamist thought is inimical to religious freedom and that Islamist states are arch-violators of religious freedom. It is in these states that we find brutal violence against minorities of other faiths and Muslim dissenters as well as the atmosphere of fear that the threat of violence elicits. Islamist political theology motivates this violence and fear. Hawks are also justifiably suspicious of arguments that explain away Islamism—as the result of poverty and underdevelopment, for instance. Some Islamist states are among the richest states in the world. There is little evidence that Islamism is stratified economically within states, while studies of which Muslims support and practice terrorism show that terrorism is only weakly correlated with poverty.
However, the landscape of this set of states also takes on complexity through a close-up view. Side by side with the characteristics that hawks rightly identify are those that doves like to stress. One is history. Contrary to the hawks’ once-and-for-all view of Islamic doctrine, Islamism arose in the modern world, criticized the modern world, and adopted features of the modern world—for instance, its quintessential political form, the sovereign state—in order to advance a program of overcoming the modern world.
Contrary to hawks’ insistence that violence and intolerance is widespread in Islam, the majority of these states’ inhabitants are not Islamists. Islamist parties have never polled well in elections, and Islamism attains power far more often through the authoritarian apparatus of modern states.
Perhaps the best way to synthesize this complex mix of hawk and dove positions is to say that Islamism poses a real and direct threat to religious freedom but that Islamism is far from all of Islam.
The Arab Uprisings to Today
The Arab uprisings began at the end of 2010 in Tunisia with a frustrated fruit-vendor’s self-immolation. Five years after the protests of early 2011, almost all these predominantly Muslim countries were not more religiously free. The dreams of democracy proclaimed by those courageous people who first took to the streets were largely dashed as well. Of the six countries where uprisings occurred, uprisings succeeded in four: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. They failed in two: Syria and Bahrain. In all but one of these cases, Tunisia, democracy failed to advance. Do these results bolster the judgment that Islam is inhospitable to religious freedom?
Here again, zooming in on the cases reveals more complexity. It is true that traditional Muslim forces—radical jihadi militant groups, Salafists, and Islamists in general—obstructed freedom’s emergence in the Arab uprisings. This leaves a great deal unexplained, however. The secular repressive dictatorships that ruled Arab countries for decades bear much of the blame for the failure of religiously free democracy to advance. Decades of secular repression in Egypt, Libya, and Syria suppressed Muslim parties inclined toward democracy or religious freedom and drove some Muslims into violent or obstructive reaction, and, when regimes in Egypt and Libya fell, left a gargantuan task of governance to parties with little political experience.
Further, in Tunisia, the one country where democracy emerged, a great deal of credit for this outcome goes to the Ennahda Party, an Islamic party genuinely committed to liberal democracy. It had developed a commitment to democracy and religious freedom prior to the uprisings, was willing to enter into coalition with secular parties, worked to open up the system for religious participation in the wake of brutal secular repression, and was willing to stand down when it lost the elections of fall 2014.
The fate of religious freedom in the Arab world, then, cannot be explained simply as an upshot of Islam or of Islamism. Rather, it resulted from the interplay among factions holding political theologies of religious freedom, secular repression, and religious repression. Where religious freedom champions were strong enough and could position themselves favorably to the advocates of the other two parties, as was the case in Tunisia, religious freedom could be advanced. In most cases, though, partisans of religious freedom did not enjoy such advantages. Here, the Arab Spring turned out to be an Arab Winter.
We cannot rule out the idea that religious freedom might help to melt the snows of repression. It is this hopeful thought about religious freedom in Islam that I will take up in tomorrow’s essay.