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Religious Freedom in IslamThe Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today$

Daniel Philpott

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190908188

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190908188.001.0001

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Intervening in a Public Debate

(p.1) Introduction
Religious Freedom in Islam

Daniel Philpott

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter details the rationale behind the book’s central question: Is Islam hospitable to religious freedom? It offers three reasons why religious freedom is marshalled to assess Islam. First, religious freedom serves as a good criterion for adjudicating an intense public debate over the character of Islam that has been raging in the West at least as far back as the attacks of September 11, 2001. The chapter details the positions of “Islamoskeptics” and “Islamopluralists,” the two major positions in this debate, and explains why religious freedom captures what is at stake. Second, religious freedom is associated positively with social goods like democracy and peace and negatively with social ills like terrorism and civil war—goods that are disproportionately lacking and ills that are disproportionately present in the Muslim world. Finally, religious freedom is a matter of justice. It is a universal human right, not a parochial Western value.

Keywords:   religious freedom, human rights, democracy, tolerance, Islam, Muslim

IN JUNE 2009, Barack Obama, early in his first term as President of the United States, delivered a most unusual speech in Cairo, Egypt. Instead of directing his words to the citizens of a country, a parliament, or an international organization, President Obama spoke to the members of a world religion. “I’ve come to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” he announced. It was perhaps the first time in history that a US president had chosen an entire religion as his audience. A host of the speech was Al-Azhar, one of Islam’s oldest and most prestigious universities, and a patron who could help Obama project his message to Muslims—all Muslims, everywhere.

Why did President Obama direct his speech to such an unusual set of hearers? The previous year, Obama had campaigned for president on a promise to end the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of his charges against these wars was that Muslims around the world perceived them as being waged against Islam. In fairness, Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, had made great efforts to communicate that the United States was fighting terrorists and a rogue dictator and not Islam, which Bush had called a “religion of peace.” Still, Obama saw a need for a realignment in the relationship between the United States and Muslims—all Muslims, everywhere. “We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world,” he began his speech, and he elicited applause when he declared, “America is not—and never will be—at war with Islam.”

The president proposed that the United States and the Muslim world could reduce tensions together by addressing several issues ranging from violent extremism to women’s rights to nuclear proliferation—to religious freedom. Obama’s inclusion of this last principle—religious freedom—was, to close (p.2) observers of US foreign policy, noteworthy and far from inevitable. Just over a decade earlier, in 1998, the US Congress had passed the International Religious Freedom Act, mandating that the US government promote religious freedom around the world. Although religious freedom was a signature feature of America’s heritage, the bill’s architects reasoned, overseas it had become one of the most widely violated human rights, and the United States had not responded adequately. George W. Bush’s administration spoke warmly and consistently of the principle, though it sometimes subordinated it to the fight against terrorism.

It was unclear, though, whether President Obama would take up the cause, one that critics portrayed as asserting Western superiority over Islam and fomenting a clash of civilizations—exactly what Obama was proposing to leave behind. In his Cairo speech, though, he spoke of religious freedom warmly and forcefully, stressing that the principle is particularly dear to the United States: “[F]reedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion.” The United States hosts 1,200 mosques, he pointed out, including one in every state. Religious freedom’s relevance is not confined to America’s borders, he went on to argue, praising Islam for its tradition of tolerance but also taking to task Muslims who are intolerant of religious minorities, Muslims who practice violence against other Muslims whom they deem heterodox, and certain Western countries who discriminate against their Muslim citizens. “Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together,” he added.

President Obama was right: Religious freedom is a universal principle, rooted in human dignity, that is critical to peace between Western countries and the Muslim world as well as within the Muslim world. This is the premise of this book, which asks: Is Islam hospitable to religious freedom? Such a question could be asked of any religion—or country, or civilization—but for three reasons, it is urgent to ask it of Islam.1

First, a fiery public debate over the character of Islam has been raging in the West at least as far back as the attacks of September 11, 2001, and its outcome matters a great deal for relations between Western countries and the Muslim world. I will argue that religious freedom is not only a good criterion for assessing this debate, but also, when applied, this principle may well simmer it and redirect it toward more constructive relations between the West and the Muslim world.

Second, religious freedom is a “force multiplier” that expands important goods that are now lacking in the Muslim world but whose increase could greatly benefit Muslim countries and their relations with the West. Among these goods are stable democracy, civil and human rights, economic (p.3) development, the advancement of women, reconciliation among people of different faiths, and the reduction of terrorism, civil war, and international war.

Third, religious freedom is a matter of intrinsic justice. It is a human right that enjoys a prominent place in international conventions and safeguards the dignity of persons and communities. Justice is most at stake for religious minorities living amid Muslim majorities, Muslims who dissent from the orthodoxy of surrounding Muslim populations, Muslim minorities within non-Muslim-majority countries, and predominantly Muslim populations ruled by secular dictatorships, which Western governments sometimes support.

Let us look closer at these reasons for urgency.

A Public Debate

On the morning of Sunday, June 12, 2016, Americans woke to gruesome news. In the wee hours of that morning, a gunman had killed 49 people and wounded 3 others in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It was the deadliest shooting in US history. Soon it was revealed that the killer, named Omar Mateen, was a Muslim. During the shooting ordeal, he had declared his fealty to the Islamic State and his outrage over US interventions in Iraq and Syria.

What ensued in the media was a debate that has been taking place again and again in the United States and other Western countries in recent years.

“Is it any surprise that a Muslim did this?” asked one side. Political correctness and multiculturalism have blinded people to Islam’s violent character despite the headlines before their eyes: attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, in the past couple of years and a long litany of terrorist incidents around the world in previous years.

Amplifying this criticism was the concurrent presidential campaign, one of the most rhetorically bombastic in US history. In a speech the next day, candidate Donald Trump used the occasion to repeat his charge that radical Islam was threatening the United States and to excoriate his opponent, Hillary Clinton, for being unwilling to use the words “radical Islam” in describing terrorism. Victor Davis Hanson, writing in the City Journal, echoed Trump’s point: “The inability of Barack Obama and the latest incarnation of Hillary Clinton to utter ‘radical Islam’ or ‘Islamic terrorism’ in connection with Muslims’ murderous killing sprees again is exposed as an utterly bankrupt, deadly and callous politically correct platitude.”2 The same mentality, these critics averred, had prevented law enforcement officers from investigating Mateen prior to the shootings. They did not want to be branded Islamophobic, tantamount to racism.

(p.4) Islam was not the problem, shot back the other side, but rather Omar Mateen, a deranged and disturbed young man. Islam, like every religion, is peaceful and tolerant, though it also has its extremists. Islamist terrorism is a “twisted interpretation of one of the world’s great religions,” President Obama said shortly after the attacks, echoing themes from his 2009 Cairo speech. Candidate Hillary Clinton charged that anti-Islamic rhetoric and Trump’s calls for draconian immigration and antiterrorist policies “[play] right into the terrorists’ hands.”3 Obama responded angrily to calls for him to voice the term radical Islam: “What exactly would using this label accomplish and what will it change? Will it make ISIL less committed to try to kill Americans? Would it bring more allies for military strategy than . . . is served by this? The answer is none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction.”4

Although this debate may seem to be one of right versus left, the reality is more complicated. Stoking controversy was not only the identity of Mateen but also that of his victims. Mateen’s atrocity took place nearly a year after the US Supreme Court had accorded same-sex couples the right to marry and at a time when the issue continued to burn in courts, legislatures, and many other forums. Gay rights helped to scramble familiar ideological coalitions. Voices on both the right and the left cited Mateen’s atrocious deed as evidence of Islam’s homophobia, and voices on both sides volleyed back that the problem was not Islam but rather the hostility to gays that resided either in American culture or else simply in the heart of Omar Mateen. What remained salient, though, was the divide over the character of Islam: Voices lined up clearly as hostile or sympathetic.

This debate often resembles a culture war. It is carried out in public—on the Internet, cable news, radio talk shows, and newspaper opinion columns. It is polarized, with its two sides squaring off sharply with little common ground between them.5 As in other theaters of the culture war, combatants fire flaming words as their weapons, aiming as much to ignite the zeal—and the votes and the media consumption—of their supporters as to explode their enemies. The dispute has flared up every time an act of terrorism committed by a Muslim hits the headlines. Al-Qaeda’s attacks of September 11, 2001, launched the hottest phase of this public debate. Subsequent events have fanned it: the United States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in fall 2004; bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005; Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed published in 2005; the Regensburg Address of Pope Benedict XVI in September 2006; the controversy of 2010 over the building of an Islamic Center near the site of the September 11 attacks in lower Manhattan; Fort Hood; Benghazi; The Boston (p.5) Marathon; Parliament Hill in Ottawa; the Islamic State; San Bernardino; Paris; Nice; Berlin.

Much as in the Cold War, this public debate has hawks and doves, which I herein call “Islamoskeptics” and “Islamopluralists,” respectively.6 Table I.1 summarizes their positions in four parallel tenets.

Table I.1. Islamoskeptics vs. Islamopluralists

Tenet →


Extent of violence and intolerance in the Muslim world

Source of violence in the Muslim world

Muslim attitude toward democracy

Recommendation for the West



Hardwired in Islamic doctrines


Gird up for enduring conflict


Limited; the Muslim world is diverse

Local and contemporary circumstances


Pursue dialogue, find common ground, own up to the West’s past injustices

Islamoskeptics believe first that violence and intolerance are widespread in Islam. Referring to President George W. Bush, Christian leader Pat Robertson quipped, “I have taken issue with our esteemed president in regard to his stand in saying Islam is a peaceful religion. It’s just not.”7 In this school, it is dangerously naive to view Islam’s violent extremists as a small and aberrant faction. “[T]hat faction, militant Islam,” writes Islamoskeptic journalist Andrew McCarthy, “is plainly far more robust and extensive than the scant lunatic fringe the U.S. delusionally comforts itself to limn; and its killings, far from condemnation, provoke tepid admiration if not outright adulation in a further, considerable cross-section of the Muslim world.”8

Islam’s proneness to violence, a second tenet of Islamoskepticism runs, is hardwired into Islam’s founding texts and so is unlikely to change or to vary from place to place. Writer and former US government official Reuel Marc Gerecht takes to task westerners who “won’t probe too deeply, and certainly not critically, into how the Quran and the prophet’s traditions, as well as classical Islamic history, have given all believing Muslims certain common sentiments, passions, and reflexes.”9 One of the most prominent Islamoskeptics, Somali-born writer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, holds that violent extremism is a “symptom of a much more profound ideological epidemic that has its root causes in Islamic (p.6) doctrine.”10 A common charge is that Islam’s violent nature results from its stress on divine commands and its lack of a robust role for reason. Violence is rooted in Islamic theology, claims this school, and is not simply a product of poverty, corrupt regimes, or Western colonialism.

A third tenet follows: Islam is inhospitable to democracy. “Enthralled by diversity for its own sake, we have lost the capacity to comprehend a civilization whose idea of diversity is coercing diverse peoples into obedience to its evolution-resistant norms,” writes McCarthy, citing global polls showing a high percentage of Muslims favoring a strict form of sharia law. In recent years, Islamoskeptics have criticized Western liberals for naively expecting democracy to arise from the Arab Uprisings of 2011—once but no longer called “the Arab Spring.” “Islamism, if mentioned at all, was dismissed as irrelevant; experts in the studios and newsrooms at home were positive that this Arab Spring marked the success of secular and progressive values just like those they themselves had,” comments British author David Pryce-Jones.11

The fourth tenet of Islamoskepticism is a prescription for action: The West must gird up for a long struggle to defend its liberties and civilization against the Islamic threat. Islam “cannot be placated. It must be fought and, sadly, it must be fought continuously and fiercely,” wrote Martin Peretz, editor of The New Republic, not long after the attacks of September 11.12 Dialogue and accommodation will do little to change Islam’s hostility. If westerners engage in dialogue at all, it must be a tough dialogue, one that raises the hard issues of Islam’s violence and illiberalism. Otherwise the outcome will be, as National Review editor James Burnham warned, “the suicide of the West.”

At times, Islamoskeptics will acknowledge some diversity within Islam. Ali, for instance, proposes a catalogue of fundamentalist “Medina Muslims,” more peaceful “Mecca Muslims,” and reformist “modifying Muslims.” Among Islamoskeptics, though, such acknowledgments are a stage whisper, in contrast to their declamations of Islam’s true nature, which are loud and central. Even Ali stresses that all schools of Muslims must deal with the violence that dominates the tradition.13

Islamopluralists, by contrast, hold that Islam is diverse, not predominantly violent—their first tenet. The “majority of mainstream Muslims hate terrorism and violence as much as we do,” argues Georgetown University scholar of Islam John Esposito.14 Like all religions, Islam has its extremists, but they are in a small minority. Karen Armstrong, who also writes on Islam, cites a Gallup Poll showing that only 7% of Muslims thought that the September 11 attacks were justified.15

Where violence and intolerance do exist in Islam, a second Islamopluralist tenet holds, it feeds off local and historically particular circumstances. One (p.7) month after the attacks of September 11, 2001, journalist Fareed Zakaria wrote a cover story for Newsweek entitled, “The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?,” in which he identified economic backwardness, illiteracy, the demographic “youth bulge,” corrupt autocrats, and the failure of socialism, nationalism, and modernization as the conditions in the swamp from which the monster of religious violence grows.16 Armstrong adds colonialism, secularism, and western states’ support for autocrats.17 One might add the Cold War, which often rendered Muslim-majority states pawns of the superpowers. For Islamopluralists, then, violence is not inherent in Islam’s teachings.

Third, Islamopluralists are more optimistic about prospects for democracy in Islam. In the book Islam and Democracy, Esposito and fellow scholar of Islam John Voll point to Islamic concepts like shura [consultation], ijma [consensus], and ijtihad [independent interpretive judgment], as favoring democracy, as well as to several actual democracies in Muslim-majority countries.18 Islamopluralists often also cite liberal democratic trends among Muslims in the 19th and 20th centuries, which, they point out, were later quelled by Western-backed authoritarian rulers.

Islamopluralists’ recommendation to the West, their fourth tenet, is to end politics that oppress Muslims and create a violent backlash and to engage in a two-way dialogue that can increase the sphere of shared understanding. They counsel against “orientalism,” the term that the famous Palestinian-born Western public intellectual Edward Said used to describe a Western colonialist mentality that rendered Muslims as backward and intolerant and that justified imperialism.19 In fact, argue Islamopluralists, the orientalist mentality and the policies that it spawns only serve to inflame violent backlash; shrill Islamoskeptics create the very problem that they identify. In a true dialogue, the West would own up to its own history of contributing to the problems of Muslims. It would also draw upon and develop further the sphere of beliefs shared by the “Abrahamic” faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—a sphere whose size Islamopluralists find impressive.

As with the post-Orlando debate, the argument between these schools is not the same as that between right and left. The ranks of Islamoskeptics include political conservatives and Christian conservatives, to be sure, but also feminists, atheists, gay rights activists, and other voices from the political left. Likewise, the ranks of Islamopluralists include multiculturalists and left-wing university professors but also those conservatives who decry the war on terror as an overextended foreign policy and who find common cause with Islam on marriage, sexuality, and family.20

Are there more nuanced positions whose complexity eludes both camps? Of course there are.21 Some of them appear in the pages that follow. Still, it is (p.8) striking how much public commentary replicates these schools, not only on talk radio, the Internet, and cable news shows, but also in universities and high-brow publications like The New Republic, National Review, The New York Review of Books, and The Weekly Standard.

This public debate matters. When a partisan of one side gains power, changes in policy and in relations between the West and Islam ensue. Once Donald Trump had taken office in January 2017, he translated the loud Islamoskepticism of his campaign into action through an executive order that halted the admission of all refugees for 120 days, temporarily banned immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, and indefinitely banned refugees from Syria, a predominantly Muslim country convulsed in civil war. Then, and throughout his first year in office, Trump voiced anti-Muslim rhetoric, even tweeting out anti-Muslim videos. Just after his election, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a report showing that hate crimes against American Muslims had surged over the previous year, one in which Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric had been voluble.22 The spirit of Obama’s Cairo speech was dead, at least in the White House.

Which school is right about Islam? Is it possible to sort out the question? Religious freedom comes to our assistance. Religious freedom is the civil right of persons and religious communities to practice, express, change, renounce, and spread their religion. It is a strong criterion for whether a religious tradition and its members are violent and repressive or peaceful and inclusive. To accept religious freedom is to respect enduringly the full citizenship and human rights of people who embrace profoundly different answers to the most important questions about human life. The question at stake in the public debate, then, can be rephrased: Is Islam receptive to religious freedom?

Is religious freedom really the right criterion? It might seem that democracy is a better concept through which to take stock of the public debate.23 One of this debate’s pivotal issues, after all, is Islam’s compatibility with democracy. Democracy alone, however, does not capture what is at issue. Recent global history reveals numerous countries that have adopted some practices of democracy, like contested elections and a peaceful transfer of power, yet continue to violate the religious rights of their populations, not least their religious minorities. Illiberal democracies, Zakaria calls them.24 The Muslim-majority world contains several such illiberal democracies, including Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. Religious freedom, by contrast, demands something more—respect for the rights of people whose religious faith differs from the dominant faith of a country.

What about tolerance—another word that flies about in public debate? Tolerance will not do, either. It is too tentative, implying a truce that stabilizes (p.9) but is temporary. One of history’s most famous instances of tolerance was the Edict of Nantes in 1598, in which French King Henri IV ended a generation of religious civil war by allowing Protestant Huguenots permission to worship in a predominantly Catholic France. Two generations later, in 1685, Henri’s grandson King Louis XIV revoked Nantes, outlawing and expelling the Huguenots. Religious freedom is more lasting, a principle that is not meant to change. Religious freedom also has more content. Tolerance implies mere respect for one another’s security, whereas religious freedom also entails respect for the whole range of manners in which individuals and communities express and practice their religion.

More than democracy or tolerance, religious freedom expresses what is in dispute in the West’s public debate over Islam. At issue in religious freedom is whether the members of one religion respect members of other religions as well as dissenters within that religion or whether they seek to subdue, forcibly convert, or otherwise relegate the others to second-class citizenship. As a civil right, religious freedom demands not only that citizens practice this respect in their words and their deeds but also that they enshrine and enforce this respect through law. Religious freedom is the principle that is most blatantly and frequently negated by Islamist terrorist attacks, the enforcement of blasphemy codes, strict government control of mosques, and the many forms of discrimination found in Muslim-majority countries. For a religious tradition to be called peaceful and just, religious freedom is the standard that it ought to meet.

Religious Freedom Is a Weapon of Peace

The second reason why the question of religious freedom in Islam is urgent is that religious freedom can do much to alleviate the violence and repression that afflict Muslim-majority countries as well as relations between these countries and the West. Disproportionately to countries populated by other religions, Muslim-majority countries suffer from a dearth of democracy and economic development and a surfeit of terrorism, civil war, and social inequality. Consider only a few statistics. My own research found that in 2007, 91% of all religious terrorist groups in the world proclaimed a radical Islamic message.25 Political scientist Monica Toft finds that today about three-quarters of the world’s 20 civil wars that are fought over religious issues involve at least one Muslim combatant; that since the end of the Cold War, 71% of these wars have involved a Muslim-dominated government and predominantly Muslim rebels groups; and that Islamist rebels are implicated in all 14 instances of this kind of war that have broken out since 2000.26 Sharpening these figures (p.10) is the fact that only about 24% of the world’s population is Muslim. Political scientist Ahmet Kuru reports that whereas half of the world’s countries are electoral democracies, only a fifth of Muslim-majority countries are electoral democracies.27

As I shall be arguing in the chapters to come—and as Kuru and other political scientists argue—these problems are not necessarily due to the Islamic religion even if they are concentrated among Muslim populations.28 Plausibly, however, these problems have much to do with a lack of religious freedom. Social scientists have adduced evidence that religious freedom is a “force multiplier” that elicits derivative benefits.29 Sociologists Brian Grim and Roger Finke, for instance, have demonstrated a high correlation between religious freedom and other components of liberal democracy, like the separation of powers, rule of law, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech, along with other goods like the empowerment women and low levels of armed conflict and poverty.30 Although correlation is not causation, it is not difficult to imagine why religious freedom would beget other freedoms. For one thing, the practice of religion itself involves speech, assembly, and communication through the media, all of which demand accompanying civil and human rights.

In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI argued in his annual statement for the World Day of Peace that religious freedom is a “weapon of peace.”31 Political scientist Nilay Saiya adopts Benedict’s phrase as the title of a new book in which he argues that religious repression is a cause of religious terrorism both within countries and across borders.32 In a separate article, he shows that religious repression is behind civil wars and conflicts between states that are fueled by religion.33 Conversely, he holds, religious freedom mitigates the same ills. Others have shown that religious freedom spurs economic growth.34 If religious freedom begets these other benefits, then its increase also will improve relations between Western and Muslim-majority countries, which have grown tense over the past generation, as attested to by the Iranian hostage crisis, the Iran–Iraq war, violent conflict in Israel and Palestine, terrorism in Western cities, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much indeed is at stake for a religion that contains 1.6 billion members and whose inhabitants form a majority in about 47 of the world’s states.

Religious Freedom Is Just

The third reason for the urgency of religious freedom in Islam is justice. Religious freedom is a universal human right, one that is not only a legal right, having made its way into the major international human rights conventions, (p.11) but also a moral right, protecting the dignity of human beings in their search for and practice of religious truth.

I elaborate and defend this claim in Chapter 1. Here, it is worth noting the simple but essential insight that religious freedom presumes that religion is good for human beings, essential to their welfare. This ought to help allay the anxiety of certain Muslims around the world who fear that religious freedom is a Western export packaged with sexual license, pornography, the fracture of the family, and antipathy toward religion as a constraint to individual expression. Muslims living outside the West are not wrong in noticing such a hostile secularism in the West. In the previous decade a band of critics of religion known as the “New Atheists” sold hundreds of thousands of books arguing that religion is irrational, violent, intolerant, and inevitably repressive. Author Sam Harris, for instance, diagnosed the problem of Muslim terrorism as the problem of religious belief in general. Peace and respect for rights, the New Atheists hold, will come only when religion exits the stage of history.35

Were religious freedom hitched to such an alien secularism, the possibility of its realization in the Muslim world would be slight. Indeed there would be little point in asking about religious freedom in Islam or any other religion. In the New Atheists’ view, there will be freedom only when there is no religion. Religious freedom, though, has little to do with this form of secularism. It presupposes that religion is a good and precious pursuit, bound up with human dignity and worthy of protection. Religious freedom does not ask anyone to renounce his or her claims about truth, God, transcendence, the origin of the world, the source of meaning, the character of morality and justice, salvation, and the degree of truth found in other faiths. Instead it protects these very pursuits. It even permits the spread of religion, albeit through persuasion, not pressure or manipulation. Tellingly, it is often religious people who advocate religious freedom and do so on the grounds of their faith.36

The right of religious freedom, though, protects not merely religion, but also freedom—the free practice of religion. Otherwise, it would amount only to the right of religion. As I argue in the next chapter, the good of religion is achieved indispensably though inward commitment and thus cannot and should not be imposed, coerced, or rendered a matter of discrimination. This is what is at issue in Muslim-majority countries today. There, minorities of other religious faiths—Jews, Christians, Baha’is—commonly suffer severe discrimination and harsh repression. The same goes for Muslims whose beliefs are considered heretical by other Muslims who control the state: Shias in Sunni states, Sunnis in Shia states, and Ahmadis in Sunni states. Not to be overlooked are Muslim majorities who are stifled and controlled by repressive secular dictatorships, often propped up by Western governments, as well as (p.12) the discrimination that Muslims sometimes experience within Western countries. In all of these cases, the dignity of human beings, and hence justice, is denied. It is, finally, out of a hope that the sphere of justice will be widened that the present inquiry into religious freedom is launched.

Preview of the Argument

Is there religious freedom in Islam? I will consider this question from different angles. Roughly the first half of the book looks at those countries where Muslims are in a majority. Again, there are about 47 of these—give or take a few depending on how one handles judgment calls—and they are highlighted on the map in Figure I.1.

IntroductionIntervening in a Public Debate

Figure I.1. Global map

This is a fair test. If countries in which Muslims have the popular power to dominate others prove to be religiously free, then the case for religious freedom in Islam accrues strength.

My answer will be nuanced, thus offering a calming balance and constructive sobriety to today’s public debate. From a satellite view, the landscape favors the Islamoskeptics. Of 47 Muslim-majority states, only 11, fewer than one-fourth, have high levels of religious freedom according to the standards of the Pew Research Center.37 Sociologists Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, in their book of 2011, The Price of Freedom Denied, report that 62% of Muslim-majority countries manifest a moderate to high degree of persecution, compared with 28% of Christian-majority countries and 60% of all other countries. They cite an even sharper comparison showing that 78% of Muslim-majority countries contain high levels of government restrictions on religion, in comparison with 43% of all other countries and 10% of Christian countries.38 Similar results arise from an analysis of the Religion and State Dataset compiled by political scientist Jonathan Fox, who ranks levels of “official restrictions” on a scale of 0, meaning the least restrictive and the most free, to 5, the most restrictive, where all religions are illegal. During the period 1990–2008, Muslim-majority countries average 2.6, whereas the global average was 1.77 and the average for the Christian world was 1.36.39 In Fox’s recent book, The Unfree Exercise of Religion, in which he examines religious discrimination, he shows that Muslim-majority countries score over four times as high as Christian-majority countries on a religious discrimination score.40 Again, the Muslim world is far less free.

Shall we conclude, then, that Islam is inhospitable to religious freedom? No. Such a judgment is too simple and obscures both the presence of religious freedom in the Muslim world and the reasons for its absence. Zooming (p.13) (p.14) in from a satellite view to a close-up perspective that shows the history and circumstances of Muslim countries, the Islamopluralists’ point about Islam’s diversity takes on plausibility. If there is a relative dearth of religious freedom in the Muslim world, Islamic doctrine is not necessarily the cause of it. We will discover, for instance, that some 42% of the Muslim-majority states that have low levels of religious freedom are (or have been until very recently) governed by regimes that harshly impose on their populations not a radical form of Islam but rather an aggressive form of secularism inspired by sectors of the West. We will also discover that 11, or 23% of, Muslim-majority countries are religiously free not despite Islamic teachings but because of their particular understanding of Islamic teachings. Here, Islamic beliefs undergird tolerance for Christian and other minorities and for Muslims outside the Islamic mainstream. It is also true that 58% of the countries with low levels of religious freedom are “Islamist,” meaning governed by a strongly conservative form of sharia, but even these have modern origins and are too simply deemed the real and true Islam. We will discover, too, Muslim movements, parties, and intellectuals who espouse and advocate for religious freedom as well as places and times in which Muslim communities have accorded high levels of protection for religious minorities.

Islamoskeptics and Islamopluralists, then, are both right and both wrong. Islamoskeptics teach us honesty. Taken as a whole, at the present moment, the Muslim-majority world is less free and more violent than the rest of the world taken as a whole. Islamopluralists teach us hope. Both the reality and the potential for greater religious freedom can be found in the Muslim world as well. Finding a more satisfying synthesis than either side of the public debate provides—rooted in a fair and even view of Islam, identifying sources of potential for the expansion of religious freedom, pointing to a more constructive Western approach to Islam—is the aim of the pages that follow.

Some critics will call into question the very foundations of this endeavor. Religious freedom is a Western principle and will ring strange and perhaps offensive to Muslims in much of the world, they will say. To pose religious freedom as a criterion of study is to impose it on those studied, much as colonists and imperialists did. Confronting this important challenge is the subject of Chapter 1, where I make the case for religious freedom as a universal human right. Then, I take a close look at Muslim-majority countries, devoting one chapter to each of three types of regime—religiously free, secular repressive, and religiously repressive—and one chapter to the Arab Uprisings of 2011, a spring that largely turned into winter, in good part because of the absence of religious freedom.

(p.15) In the final three chapters, I aim to deliver on hope, first through a chapter that identifies “seeds of freedom” in the Islamic tradition that might sprout into a wider acceptance and practice of religious freedom in the Muslim world; then through a chapter that depicts a pathway through which this development might take place, a pathway eked out by the Catholic Church, which contained early seeds of a teaching of religious freedom, denied religious freedom in the political realm for many centuries, eventually came to espouse religious freedom definitively, and did so compatibly with its own enduring teachings. The final chapter offers practical recommendations for realizing religious freedom in Islam, ones that carry responsibilities for citizens in both the Muslim world and the West.

It is to the suspicion that religious freedom is little but a Western export that I now turn.


(1.) One of the recurrent issues pertaining to matters in this book is usage of the terms Islam, Muslim, and the Muslim world. Generally, I take Islam to mean an entire religious tradition—equivalent to Christianity, Buddhism, etc.—whereas Muslim serves to describe a person, a place, a country, or another noun. In using the term Islam in this opening chapter, I am adopting the terms of the contemporary public debate, in which the two sides argue about Islam as a religious tradition. The very argument of the book, though, which I soon introduce, is that we ought to adopt the specificity and nuance that arises from speaking about “Muslim-majority states” for instance. In Chapter 6 I return to the tradition of Islam but seek to carefully deploy the terms Islam and Muslim where appropriate. Generally, I use the term “Muslim world” to mean the collective set of the world’s Muslims, wherever they live.

(2.) Victor Davis Hanson, “Same Old, Same Old Horror: The Orlando Massacre Brings Up Familiar Lessons That We Never Quite Learn,” City Journal, June 13, 2016, accessed January 12, 2017; find at http://www.city-journal.org/html/same-old-same-old-horror-14574.html.

(3.) Alexis Simendinger, “Clinton: Trump’s Anti-Muslim Talk Increases U.S. Risks,” RealClearPolitics, June 13, 2016, accessed January 12, 2017; find at http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2016/06/13/clinton_trumps_anti-muslim_talk_increases_us_risks.html

(4.) Ian Schwartz, “Obama: What Exactly Would Using ‘Radical Islam’ Change? A Political Distraction,” RealClearPolitics, June 14, 2016, accessed January 12, 2017; find at http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2016/06/14/obama_what_exactly_would_saying_radical_islam_change_a_political_distraction.html, quote edited slightly for clarity.

(5.) For a thoughtful exploration of the public debate over Islam in the West—referred to as “the Muslim Question,” see Anne Norton, On the Muslim Question (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

(6.) For the hawkish position, I choose the term “Islamoskeptic” over “Islamophobe,” which unfairly centers upon fear. Islamoskeptics may well fear Muslims, but my point is that they are pessimistic toward Islam’s capacities for tolerance, democracy, human rights, peace, and religious freedom. The term “Islamopluralist,” on the other hand, is also imperfect because it does not fully convey the optimism about Islam’s capacity for religious freedom that I mean for this position to entail. Language is imperfect.

(7.) Peter Beinart, “Religious Experience,” New Republic, February 20, 2006, 6.

(8.) Andrew McCarthy, “The Great War on Militant Islam,” American Spectator, July/August 2004, 32.

(9.) Reuel Marc Gerecht, “The Pope’s Divisions,” Wall Street Journal, sec. A, September 21, 2006, A16..

(10.) Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “Islam Is a Religion of Violence,” Foreign Policy, accessed January 13, 2017; find at http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/11/09/islam-is-a-religion-of-violence-ayaan-hirsi-ali-debate-islamic-state/.

(11.) David Pryce-Jones, “Islamists and Men in Khaki,” National Review, April 16, 2012, 20.

(12.) Martin Peretz, “Counting,” New Republic, September 24, 2001, 18.

(14.) John L. Esposito, “Want to Understand Islam? Start Here.” Washington Post, sec. B, July 22, 2007.

(15.) Karen Armstrong, “Think Again: God,” Foreign Policy (November 2009), 175: 55–60.

(16.) Fareed Zakaria, “The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?” Newsweek, October 14, 2001.

(17.) Armstrong, “God.”

(18.) John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 27.

(19.) Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978).

(20.) For examples of Islamoskeptics on the left, see Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s many writings, including Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (New York: HarperCollins, 2015); Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York: Norton, 2004); Bill Maher, the talk show host; and the “New Atheists,” who are subsequently discussed. Whereas it may sound strange to say that there are Islamopluralists on the right, what I have in mind are conservatives who find in Islam a partner for common social causes like marriage and the family, thus believing that Islam both has a positive message on these issues and that it is capable of dialogue and partnership. See Peter Kreeft, Ecumenical Jihad: Ecumenism and the Culture War (p.245) (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1996); and Dinesh D’Souza, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 (New York: Broadway Books, 2007). For a criticism of Kreeft and D’Souza from a conservative Islamoskeptic, see Robert Spencer, Not Peace But a Sword: The Great Chasm Between Christianity and Islam (San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers, 2013). For an interest variant of a conservative Islamopluralist position, see Michael Novak, Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2004), an argument for the possibility of development of liberty in the Muslim world.

(21.) See, for instance, two very prominent books that are either on Islam or give prominence to Islam: Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996); and Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). Both books were widely portrayed as ones of Islamoskepticism within the context of public debates. Both, however, are more nuanced. Neither Huntington nor Lewis holds an “essentialist” view that says that Islam is inherently violent on account of its doctrines, contrary to how their views were widely portrayed, especially in western universities. Each tells a story of historical stages, the most recent of which sees the rise of Islamism. As we will see in Chapter 6, Lewis has argued that Islam has been at least as tolerant as Christianity toward religious minorities over the course of history. Huntington counsels the West against fighting a struggle with Islam and calls for cultural accommodation and dialogue. For him, a clash of civilizations is descriptive, not prescriptive. These are not the typical arguments of Islamoskeptics.

(22.) Eric Lichtblau, “U.S. Hate Crimes Surged 6%, Fueled by Attacks on Muslims,” New York Times, November 14, 2016; find at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/us/politics/fbi-hate-crimes-muslims.html, accessed December 21, 2017.

(23.) The term democracy is complex and contested both among scholars and in the larger public discourse. Although the origins of the word imply rule by the people, and thus mechanisms of election, representation, and participation, some would argue that today, democracy means not only this but also the entire set of features embodied in full-fledged constitutional liberal democracy, replete with the rule of law, separation of powers, and a wide portfolio of civil and political rights, including those that protect minorities. In my view, the usage of the term democracy should not be confined to this more ambitious view, although it certainly embodies a worthy moral aspiration. Many scholars, including myself and many mentioned in this book, wish to discuss an important combination of features that obtains in numerous Muslim-majority countries, namely the existence of the electoral mechanisms and popular rule that are characteristic of democracy side by side with the maltreatment of and denial of freedom (p.246) to religious minorities, religious dissenters, and even religious majorities. To make this point, they and I use the classic, more restricted notion of democracy as rule by the people. It is also important to be able to speak of “illiberal democracy,” “unsecular democracy,” and so on. Respecting the term democracy’s multivocality, I seek to use it in this book in a way that makes clear its meaning in each instance. Where the context does not convey this clarity, I couple the word with an adjective, as in the term “electoral democracy.”

(24.) Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: Norton, 2004).

(25.) Daniel Philpott, “Explaining the Political Ambivalence of Religion,” American Political Science Review 101, no. 3 (2007): 520. See also Assaf Moghadam, “Motives for Martyrdom: Al-Qaida, Salafi Jihad, and the Spread of Suicide Attacks,” International Security 33, no. 3 (2008): 46–78.

(26.) Monica Duffy Toft, “Getting Religion Right Redux: Hypotheses on Religion and Civil War,” unpublished ms., 11–12. In this piece, Toft updates the findings from her previous piece, “Getting Religion? The Puzzling Case of Islam and Civil War,” International Security 31, no. 4 (2007): 97–131.

(27.) Ahmet T. Kuru, “Authoritarianism and Democracy in Muslim Countries: Rentier States and Regional Diffusion,” Political Science Quarterly 129, no. 3 (2014): 399. Kuru adopts the figure of 49 Muslim-majority countries.

(28.) Political scientists dispute whether Islam is the cause of the dearth of democracy in the Muslim world. Alfred Stepan and Graeme Robertson, for instance, argue that once Arab geography and economic development are controlled for, the effect of a Muslim-majority population disappears in “Arab, Not Muslim Exceptionalism,” Journal of Democracy 15, no. 4 (2004), 140–146.

(29.) My coauthors and I referred to religion as a “force multiplier” in Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York: Norton, 2011), 216.

(30.) Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 206.

(31.) Pope Benedict XVI, “Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace,” January 1, 2011, accessed January 17, 2017; find at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/peace/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20101208_xliv-world-day-peace_en.html).

(32.) Nilay Saiya, Weapon of Peace: How Religious Liberty Combats Terrorism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

(33.) Nilay Saiya, “The Religious Freedom Peace,” International Journal of Human Rights 19, no. 3 (2015): 369–382. Other work arguing that religious repression causes violence can be found in Matthias Basedau, Birte Pfeiffer, and Johannes Vüllers, “Bad Religion? Religion, Collective Action, and the Onset (p.247) of Armed Conflict in Developing Countries,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 60, no. 2 (2016): 226–255; Matthias Basedau, George Strüver, Johannes Vüllers, and Tim Wegenast, “Do Religious Factors Impact Armed Conflict? Empirical Evidence From Sub-Saharan Africa,” Terrorism and Political Violence 23, no. 5 (2011): 752–779; Yasemin Akbaba and Zeynep Taydas, “Does Religious Discrimination Promote Dissent? A Quantitative Analysis,” Ethnopolitics 10, no. 304 (2011): 271–295; Jonathan Fox, Patrick James, and Yitan Li, “Religious Affinities and International Intervention in Ethnic Conflicts in the Middle East and Beyond,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 42, no. 1 (2009): 161–186; Nilay Saiya and Anthony Scime, “Explaining Religious Terrorism: A Data-mined Analysis,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 32, no. 5 (2015): 487–512.

(34.) Brian J. Grim, Greg Clark, and Robert Edward Snyder, “Is Religious Freedom Good for Business?: A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 10 (2014): 1–19; Ilan Alon and Gregory Chase, “Religious Freedom and Economic Prosperity,” Cato Journal 25, no. 2 (2005): 399–406.

(35.) Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: McClelland, 2007); Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin, 2006); and Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (New York: Norton, 2004).

(36.) There are even scholars who argue that religion most flourishes when it exists in an environment of freedom. These are scholars who take a “rational choice” approach to religion and governance that draws on the tools of economics. In a “free market,” they claim, religions will have to compete for followers and are thus incentivized to perform effectively. Although several scholars belong to this field, perhaps the best known is Rodney Stark. See, for instance, his book with Roger Finke, also a prominent scholar in this school, The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

(37.) I will discuss Pew’s rankings in chapters ahead. The numbers here are drawn from Pew Research Center, “Global Restrictions on Religion,” December 2009.

(39.) The Religion and State Dataset can be found at http://www.thearda.com/ras/. The analysis here is my own, conducted on 47 Muslim-majority countries. The Dataset list differs slightly from the list that appears in this book. It includes Guinea-Bissau and omits Kazakhstan, whereas this book includes Kazakhstan, which is a Muslim-majority country and leaves out Guinea-Bissau, which is not.

(40.) Jonathan Fox, The Unfree Exercise of Religion: A World Survey of Discrimination Against Religious Minorities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 122–124. Fox elaborates on his finding by pointing out the strong level of (p.248) regional diversity within the Muslim-majority world, noting sub-Saharan Africa as a region where discrimination is low and compares favorably with Christian majority states in some regions, including those in which the Orthodox Church predominates as well as the former Soviet bloc. Fox’s broad finding about the Muslim-majority world—high in discrimination in the aggregate yet diverse in the particular—closely parallels the argument of this book.