Innovative Approaches to Promoting Religious Freedom in the Middle East and Beyond

The Religious Freedom Institute is taking innovative steps to help increase support for religious freedom within Muslim communities in the United States and abroad. This month, we launched our fifth Action Team—the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team—to do just that. Among other benefits, this Action Team will accelerate our work with Islamic scholars and leaders to explore sources of support for religious freedom from within the traditions of Islam. 

In December, for example, we sponsored a three-day consultation in Rome with influential Muslims, primarily from the Middle East. The focus of this particular consultation was to identify practical steps to advance religious freedom in the Middle East, reduce violent Islamist extremism, and promote a stabilizing religious pluralism. The consultation was co-sponsored by the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. 

The Religious Freedom Institute’s Rome consultation sought to address a three-fold problem: the growth of violent Islamist extremism, the increasing threat to religious minorities in the Middle East, and the growth in suspicion and hatred toward Islam and Muslims among many non-Muslims in the West.

One of the central premises of the consultation was that Muslims advocating for religious freedom from within the Islamic tradition is indispensable to undermining and reducing violent Islamist extremism, the victims of which are primarily Muslims. A critically important ingredient for success, however, is not just generating the case for pluralism and religious freedom based on Islamic sources and reasoning, but effectively spreading those ideas among Muslim populations and seeing them become embedded in culture and law. 

Greater and more vigorous understanding of and protections for religious freedom are essential for Muslim-majority nations, including those in the Middle East, to achieve genuine stability and the economic, political, and security benefits that come with it. Religious freedom in the Middle East is essential to ensuring that Muslim majority societies—as well as Yazidis, Christians, and others within those societies—are able to survive and thrive.  

Joining RFI’s leadership team and the Muslim leaders and scholars at the consultation were high-level officials from the United Nations and Vatican, as well as other U.S.-based religious freedom experts. Scholar and author George Weigel delivered a compelling lecture drawing lessons from the Catholic Church’s development of its own understanding of religious freedom. Specifically, he addressed the ideas behind the landmark Vatican II document on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

The consultation closed with a robust discussion of lessons learned and next steps. Here are a few of the most important:  

  • A persuasive Muslim defense of religious freedom and pluralism must be expanded and deepened —one that clearly and directly undermines the ideology of violent Islamist extremism.
  • Education is the keystone to this endeavor, especially with Muslims in the millennial generation.
  • A broad, well-funded, and sophisticated communication strategy is essential to enable Muslim leaders to integrate the religious freedom message into Muslim religious discourse and legal structures.

Along with its Middle East Action Team and South and Southeast Asia Action Team, the Religious Freedom Institute’s new Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team will complement and support this work.