In the last two posts, I have argued that Islam is not hardwired for violence, but even a casual consumer of contemporary news in the West is likely to ask: What about the shootings by an Islamist in the nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016? Or the violence that Islamists have perpetrated in Paris, London, Madrid, Berlin, Fort Hood, Ottawa, Boston, and so many other places? Or the Islamic State? Or the attacks of September 11, 2001? A more informed observer might add this: What about the many Muslims around the world who have been victims of Muslim terrorism? These phenomena did not appear motivated by the rationales of religious freedom or secular repression, the political theologies that I have argued govern other patterns of Muslim-majority states. No, this violence appears motivated by the Islamic faith.
The secular repressive pattern in Islam follows the French Revolution and is a rival to the Iranian Revolution in its low levels of religious freedom. Most practitioners of the secular repressive pattern have been authoritarian rulers: Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Syria’s Assads. It is often through brutal force, including torture, that they restrict religion—and necessarily so because their populations are far more religious than they are.
From a satellite view, the Muslim world does not look religiously free. The picture seems to favor the view that I have called “Islamoskepticism.” Of 47 Muslim-majority states, 36, or almost three-quarters, have “high” or “very high” levels of religious repression according to the standards of the Pew Research Center.
When we zoom in closer, however, the picture is more diverse and does not so easily favor the Islamoskeptics.
My new book, Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today, assesses the West’s culture war over Islam through the criterion of religious freedom. The problem is that religious freedom itself has been the subject of a public contretemps in recent years.
This controversy is of recent vintage and beset with amnesia.
A culture war over Islam has been raging in the West at least as far back as the attacks of September 11th, 2001. It flares up every time terrorist acts or other forms of violence involving Muslims hit the headlines. Much as in the Cold War, this public debate has hawks and doves, which I will call “Islamoskeptics” and “Islamopluralists,” respectively.
Who is right? That is the question that Religious Freedom in Islam seeks to answer. Its criterion is religious freedom. More demanding than tolerance or even democracy, religious freedom requires enduring respect for the religious beliefs and practices of the person or community who differs over the ultimate questions of life, respect for everyone’s full and equal citizenship regardless of his or her religious beliefs, and a rejection of all heavy forms of discrimination.