Looking Closer at Muslim Countries and Religious Freedom

By: John M. Owen

In a recent Cornerstone post, Daniel Philpott argues that, based on a recent Pew report, Islam is not “generally inhospitable to religious freedom.” He notes that the report, which uses measures of religious liberty developed by Brian Grim and Roger Finke, lists just over 25 percent of majority-Muslim countries as exhibiting “low restrictions on religious freedom.” That rating is based on two measures: governmental restrictions on religious belief and practice, and “social hostilities,” or acts that are intolerant of a religious group and carried out by non-governmental actors.

Among those 35 majority-Muslim countries that rate poorly on the Pew scales, Philpott notes significant diversity. Twenty-one have Islamist regimes (i.e., have Islamic law or sharia) and the remaining 14 are secular (i.e., have laws derived from non-Islamic sources). The secular regimes have more in common with the French Revolution of 1789-95 than with the Islamic caliphate, and so their intolerance cannot be blamed on Islam. Even many of the Islamist regimes, such as that of Iran, were reactions to oppressive secular regimes.

I have three points in response.

First, Philpott acknowledges that 25 percent is not a stellar figure, especially when placed beside the rest of the world. Peculiarly hostile to religious liberty are the Middle East and North Africa, all of whose countries except Israel are majority-Muslim. Pew posts graphs showing that the Middle East and North Africa are significantly more likely than any other world region to have high governmental restrictions and high social hostility to religious liberty. Philpott is literally correct that far from all majority-Muslim countries deny religious liberty, and in a time when many Islamists and anti-Muslims alike assert that Islam is always and everywhere intolerant, that is an important point indeed. But I think he dodges an important finding: The data he examines show a strong association between majority-Muslim status and religious intolerance. The governments and people of such countries are relatively likely to persecute religious minorities, full stop. Readers still might conclude that Islam is the root of the problem.

Second, those readers still would be wrong. It is not Islam that is the root of the problem, but a legitimacy crisis in most majority-Muslim countries over the proper role of religion in government, economics, and societya legitimacy crisis that has been going on for many decades and shows no sign of resolution. That, at least, is what I have argued in my book Confronting Political Islam (2015). A glance at the history of the Western world reminds us that other cultures or civilizations have gone through sustained, traumatic legitimacy crises characterized by political unrest, suppressions, revolutions, civil wars, violence by non-governmental groups, and foreign wars and interventions. Europe between the 1520s and 1640s had its “Wars of Religion,” in which Catholics and Protestants intermittently slaughtered one another. To the Ottoman Empire at the time, it appeared that Christianity was the less tolerant religion. A century and a half later, it was the turn of the Enlightenment, a philosophical and political movement purporting to replace tradition with reason in politics and society. An observer of the decades of war, rebellion, and suppression during and after the French Revolution might be forgiven for believing that the Enlightenment had a problem with toleration. Finally, the twentieth century saw sustained international and national violence over whether communism, fascism, or liberal democracy was the best system.

Scholars, journalists, and ordinary people use various ways to figure out whether Islam or any religion (or ideology) is hostile to religious freedom. One way is to look to the religion’s sacred texts. This method is especially common in my own tradition of evangelical Christianity, which takes sacred texts very seriously. It is no secret that the Qur’an and hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) contain many statements about killing infidels. But the Bible relates many accounts of God’s chosen people killing pagans, and yet today Christians do very little killing in God’s name. Consulting sacred texts is crucial to an understanding of a religion, but is an uncertain guide to how tolerant its adherents can be. In different times and places, orthodox people make different arguments about how infidels and apostates ought to be treated. I would maintain, of course, that arguments for toleration won out within Christianity because they were true. But my point is that we must not attribute to Islam per se an intolerance that appears historically contingent.

My third point is a tentative bit of limited good news. Those of us who have been concerned that, in today’s Muslim world, democracy and religious freedom are contradictory, are probably wrong. As in other cultures and regions, it appears that these two good thingsself-government and official tolerationdo go together in majority-Muslim societies. A long-standing fear in the West has been that the Middle East would be a more dangerous, less tolerant place if its countries were more democratic. That fear has long haunted the halls of power in the United States, Europe, and Israel. Fear of Muslim democracy seemed to be confirmed by the tragedy of Egypt after the 2011 revolution, when democratic elections produced a Muslim Brotherhood government that induced fear in the Christian minority. Grounding the anti-democracy thesis has been that Muslims today have no principled attachment to toleration, and so need authoritarian rulers to keep them in line. The thesis has underpinned Western support for authoritarianism in friendly states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Consider what happens when we place the Pew data for majority-Muslim states from 2013 alongside democracy ratings for the same states from Freedom House for 2015. Average Freedom House scores are as follows:

The good news is that countries with majority-Muslim populations that have low restrictions on religion also tend to stand out from their peers by rating as “partly free” rather than “not free.” Freedom House’s methodology uses 25 indicators of political rights and civil liberties; the highest possible rating is 100. Among the civil liberties indicators is religious liberty, and so the Pew and Freedom House indices are not completely separate; some correlation should not surprise us. But the correlation in the table above is high enough to be suggestive.

The bad news is that the same juxtaposition of data shows no effect on social hostilities. Evidently religious minorities experience as much persecution from fellow citizens who are Muslim in democracies as in despotisms. Religious minorities in countries such as Egypt and Syria may be forgiven for believing that democracy would not protect them from their fellow citizens.

So I maintain my view that an abrupt state implementation of full religious liberty always and everywhere would lead to backlash and worsen the condition of religious minorities in the short term. But religious freedom remains a human right, and in the long term it meshes with other liberties to make for freer and more self-governing countries.

John M. Owen IV is the Ambassador Henry J. and Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Politics and faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and an associate scholar with the Berkley Center's Religious Freedom Project. 

This piece was originally published on July 29, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.


**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**

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