Individual Liberty Remains the Guarantor of Religious Freedom for All, Including Muslims

Recent government actions (including an Austrian law restricting German translations of the Qur'an, a German circumcision ban, a French headscarf ban, and a Swiss aminaret ban) are restricting Muslims' religious freedom in western Europe. Please join us on Cornerstone as diverse commentators explore the obstacles that European Muslim communities face and what these challenges mean for the future of religious freedom. 

By: M. Zuhdi Jasser

The last time I was honored to contribute to Cornerstone, I discussed how, in the United States, we are free to accept or reject any tenet of our individual religions. Individuals are also free to reject faith entirely without fear of state reprisal. For the most part, I can practice my faith without fear of backlash—but if I am treated unjustly on the basis of religion, there are means by which I can seek justice. As an American, my freedom of expression is protected by the US Constitution, which is supported by a range of laws ensuring that even if my rights are violated in some way, I can seek recourse. Even in most private sector environments, Muslims are free to wear religious attire, observe our daily prayers and dietary rules, and more. I was also free to practice my personal faith as a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy.
I acknowledge that, as an American, I come to this conversation with a unique perspective: It is true that most places in the world are not as welcoming of religious diversity. In perhaps no other place on earth would individuals be free to openly practice any faith of their choosing as we are here in the United States.   

In some Muslim-majority societies, individuals must vow allegiance to a particular interpretation of Islam—often one that is insular, highly politicized, and in opposition to what I would posit is the true spirit of Islam. It is certainly in opposition to universal human rights. There is no question that in places like Saudi Arabia, the so called “cradle of Islam,” religion is used to justify countless human rights abuses. The Muslim Brotherhood, the recently formed “Islamic State,” or ISIS, and other groups all claim religious justification for their crimes against women, minorities, and anyone who opposes them.   

On the other side of this equation are those who seek to curb all public practice of religion in an attempt to keep the peace and counter extremism. In parts of Europe, the banning of minarets and religious attire like the hijab, restrictions on access to and production of halal foods, and other moves have sparked heated debate on the place of religion in public life. As Muslim minority pietistic practices are limited, so too will naturally follow and be at risk the pietistic practices of other minority faiths like Judaism.   

While the threat of Islamists upon free people Muslim and non-Muslims alike inside the West and among Muslim populations is profound, it is wrong-headed and illusory to believe that the suppression of the practice of Islam will suppress the spread of Islamism. In fact it does quite the opposite. Islamists thrive as victims and underground. They whither under the antiseptic of sunlight. The battle fronts in Europe have sadly too often been waged against the personal faith practices of devout Muslims and minorities rather than along the more important front of challenging Muslims toward modern reform against the ideologies of Islamist theocrats. 

As an anti-Islamist and liberty-minded Muslim, much of my work focuses on the need to address insularity, tribalism, and neo-caliphism within my own community. At times, this means challenging my own community to address its tendency to exploit grievances for political gains, and to demonize Western society for so-called “Islamophobia” without looking critically at the problems within our own communities, which give rise to extremism and fuel anti-Muslim sentiment.   

However, as an American who feels no conflict between my personal faith of Islam and my allegiance to my country, I would humbly assert that the real solution to ending Islamism is not restriction on personal practice of faith, including in public life. Rather, an open marketplace of ideas—where individuals are free to express their personal faith, openly debate and question religious practices, and embrace a pluralistic interpretation of Islam that is in synergy with their national identities rather than one that is learned and fostered underground by those with malignant intentions—is the real solution to the cancer of radical Islam and its “oncogene” of political Islam.  

While I encourage European nations to embrace truly secular governance—which would give no preference to any religion but allow freedom for all religions—I insist European Muslims must do what all of us Muslims must do: openly, vigorously, and unfailingly reject and publicly challenge those individuals and organizations who continue to feed our youth and adults a steady diet of Islamist politics, hate, and propaganda. While we must obviously challenge those who advance their agendas through violent means, we must also challenge those who advance Islamism through legal means, like censorship and lawsuits against those who criticize our faith or even offend our personal beliefs. It speaks volumes that the target of their attempts to silence free speech include devout Muslims who have the courage to take on Islamists and reject Islamism. We must recognize and say that offense is part of living in a truly free society. The freedom of others to criticize and to offend is directly tied to our freedom to practice our faith of Islam. This is basic and non-negotiable.   

Ultimately, while Western societies must preserve individual liberty, including for Muslims; we Muslims must also foster the value of individual liberty within our communities in order to merit a place at the table.

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser is the founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, an organization dedicated to preserving American founding principles by directly countering the ideologies of political Islam.

This piece was originally authored on December 15, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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