Free To Believe and Practice, Free Not To

 

Thanks to an email from Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement, I read what he was calling a landmark speech on religious freedom by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (see video version). Her speech was marking the State Department’s release of the 2011 International Freedom of Religion Report, which opens with the words of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

I will make some remarks based on Clinton’s speech, then I will share some thoughts from my ongoing research in Islamic law.

 

“All faiths everywhere have a stake in . . . religious freedom”

Hillary Clinton began with the crucial importance the free exercise of religion has had historically in the US: this freedom “is a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest and a foreign policy priority.” But she also offers a bleak assessment of this freedom’s status in today’s world:

“It's particularly urgent that we highlight religious freedom, because when we consider the global picture and ask whether religious freedom is expanding or shrinking, the answer is sobering. More than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom. New technologies have given repressive governments additional tools for cracking down on religious expression. Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that the pressure is rising. Even some countries that are making progress on expanding political freedom are frozen in place when it comes to religious freedom. So when it comes to this human right, this key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies, the world is sliding backwards.”

A central theme of her speech is the intimate connection between democracy and freedom of religion. In a day when so many countries have embarked on a course toward greater democracy, “from Tunisia to Burma, and many places in between,” decisions about how to safeguard the rights of religious minorities loom large on the horizon and to a large extent will determine how successful their democratic project will be. She mentions a visit two weeks before to Egypt and some emotional conversations she had with Coptic Christians who shared with her their anxiety about the future.

Linking religious freedom with democracy is only the tip of the iceberg, however. Clinton rightly pointed out that a state that is able to impart a sense of dignity and security to all of its citizens is one that is also likely to produce a vibrant civil society, along with political vitality and economic development.

As I was writing in my series on the sociology of religion, our world has become much more “religious” in the last forty years or so. Policy makers are finally becoming aware of this. Barack Obama wisely began his presidency with a watershed speech addressed to a billion and a half Muslims a few hundred feet from the most prestigious center of Islamic learning, the al-Azhar University.

At the same time, “religion” is tough to nail down for social scientists, mainly because as a marker of identity it impacts all these other areas of human society. Where does my faith end and my political convictions begin? Or how do my struggles to put food on the table for my children and my vote for a Salafi candidate for parliament connect? Or how do Christians and Druze position themselves to even survive in the red-hot caldron of Syria’s civil war – mostly between Alawite loyalists to the Asad regime and Sunni opposition movements? Clinton puts it well:

“So this is an issue that transcends religious divides. All faiths everywhere have a stake in defending and expanding religious freedom. I personally feel very strongly about this, because I have seen firsthand how religious freedom is both an essential element of human dignity and of secure, thriving societies. It's been statistically linked with economic development and democratic stability. And it creates a climate in which people from different religions can move beyond distrust and work together to solve their shared problems.”

But the opposite is true too: “The absence of religious freedom can create a climate of fear and suspicion that weakens social cohesion and alienates citizens from their leaders. And that, of course, can make it more difficult to achieve national progress.”

Another important point Clinton makes is the connection between religious freedom and other human rights. “Every time people choose tolerance and respect over fear and animosity, they strengthen human rights for themselves as well as everyone else, because they affirm their shared humanity. . . . When people of all religions can practice freely, it creates an environment in which everyone’s freedom is more secure.” So religious leaders should take the lead in embracing “the principles of peace and respect.” They should both teach it and lead by example.

Governments, on the other hand, must have both legal and enforcement safeguards in place to make sure all citizens enjoy this freedom, no matter what the faith of the majority might be. Here, the role of constitutions is critical. By elevating universal rights, they “they provide guardrails against laws that deprive members of minority groups of their rights.”

This is the theory, of course – the ideals most states say they attempt to follow. The United States, for example, in its zeal to prosecute terrorists (the so-called “war on terror”), has and continues to act in ways that many see as violations of human rights. But what about freedom of religion? One question from the floor to Secretary Clinton was about islamophobia in the US and the firestorm about her own aide, Huma Abedin. "These are ongoing challenges" was the gist of her answer.

Though North Korea is undoubtedly the most egregious violator of religious freedom, and though several other countries like Burma, Russia, and China are singled out for acts of violence against religious minorities, the report worries about a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the Middle East, but also in Europe. France and Belgium have passed laws that are clearly discriminatory toward Muslims too.

That said, Clinton is right to point out that evidence shows “that conflict is more likely when states have official religions and persecute religious minorities.” This is the case in many Muslim-majority countries.

 

The ongoing debate among Muslims about Islamic law

I’ve written a good deal about this before (in a blog and a long journal article), so just a few thoughts here. This summer I am reading some of the recent books (only in Arabic) of the most popular Muslim jurist, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. A 2009 edited book about him was entitled “Global Mufti.”

That is because he left his native Egypt in the 1960s to settle in Qatar, where his weekly program on Al-Jazeera TV, Sharia and Life, is watched by over 80 million people worldwide. Then in February 2011 more than half a million Muslims thronged Tahrir Square in Cairo to hear him lead Friday prayers and preach. Though not directly connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, his thinking is plainly in line with theirs.

I am studying Qaradawi as I have a paper to present on him at a conference on Islamic law in St Paul, Minnesota in September and a chapter to contribute to a forthcoming book on the “Objectives of Sharia” movement in that field. I mention this only to illustrate how crucial the issue of religious freedom is the Muslim world.

Qaradawi has consistently positioned himself as the leader of the “moderate” wing of the “Islamic awakening.” So on one side he castigates the Salafis (now very prominent in Egypt and elsewhere) for being so attached to the letter of the text of the Qur’an and Sunna (collections of reports on what the Prophet said and did) that they distort the spirit of Islam and drive away people that otherwise might be persuaded to convert. On the other side, he blasts the liberals who in the name of the Sharia’s objectives play fast and loose with the text and in the end cancel out anything they don’t agree with.

Qaradawi, as I read him, speaks from both sides of his mouth. The “moderate (or ‘middle way’) school” which he promotes, in his words, “believes in the unity of the human family; by virtue of creation all of it belongs to the One Lord, and by virtue of its blood line to one Father. It adopts tolerance between the religions and dialog between civilizations.”

Having said that, all the penalties that are clearly spelled out in the texts for specific crimes (the famous hudud, or “limits”) stand today and forever. One of those is the death penalty for apostasy (leaving the Islamic faith), not found in the Qur’an, but in the Sunna.

I’ve written elsewhere that the founder of the islamist party that now rules Tunisia, Rashid Ghannoushi, wrote a book when he was imprisoned by President Ben Ali (The General Freedoms of the Islamic State) in which he proclaimed democracy and human rights – including religious freedom – as at the heart of Islam. The law of apostasy, he wrote, is a misunderstanding of the early history of Islam. It was about a perilous time of war between a young and fragile Muslim community and its determined enemies. People who “left Islam” were in effect joining the enemy. That’s political treason, considered a capital offense by just about every nation. The Qur’an is plain: “There must be no compulsion in religion” (Q. 2:152).

I have no doubt that Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s president, also a card-carrying Muslim Brother, agrees with Ghannoushi and with, I would add, the majority of Muslim leaders in the world. Qaradawi is a reminder, however, that old ways die slowly.

 

Freedom to enter and exit

Secretary Clinton had good reason to refer to the 1948 document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Apart from the obvious (but often difficult in practice) importance of protecting all minorities, especially religious ones, there is also the need to spell out the right for people to change allegiances – to convert to other faiths. The UDHR affirms, “this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.”

I’ll leave the reader with a blog written by Mustafa Akyol, the Turkish author of the book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. Here Akyol is incensed by the intention of the Iranian authorities to execute an Iranian pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, because he grew up a Muslim. In his words,

“This verdict is not just shocking to modern ears, but also humiliating for all those Muslims who believe in human freedom. For how can a faith be noble if it dictates itself on people and kills those whose conscience dictates another faith? And how Muslims can be proud of their religion if is a community with a free entry but no free exit?”

This is a reminder to us all – whatever our own local challenges to a full implementation of religious freedom – that giving everyone the opportunity to freely believe and practice their faith (or not to!) is a “key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies.” In light of Secretary Clinton’s dire assessment of the current state of affairs, we all have an urgent task before us.

 

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