Several Muslim scholars argued at a recent Georgetown University conference on religious freedom that the best way for America to encourage Islamic religious freedom is to stay out of the discussion.
“In general, the western unilateral insistence on the universal adoption of it’s understanding of religious freedom—that is the result of uniquely western historic…experiences—could be counterproductive, and often reminiscent of Western colonial bullying in the recent past,” argued Notre Dame University Professor Asma Afsaruddin (emphasis original).
Similarly, the two other scholars, Radwan Masmoudi and Abdolkarim Soroush, argued that U.S. efforts in this area have been counterproductive. According to Iranian author and reknowned scholar Soroush, American foreign policies designed to promote religious freedom in Iran are often equated with “freedom for Ba’hai’s,” one of the country’s religious minorities.
Soroush was appointed by Ayatollah Khomenei to the Cultural Revolution Council, but later left the country and severed his official ties to the Iranian government. He has served as a visiting scholar at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Columbia Universities.
While America can take a role in promoting religious freedom and democracy, the Center of the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) President Masmoudi argued, simply talking about the issue and then doing nothing “does more damage” in the long run. Also, the call for religious freedom seems hypocritical if only one group is protected, he argued.
Masmoudi said, “And I think this is what’s happening in the issue, is that we are discrediting the whole idea of democracy for many…because we want to talk about…Christians….not talk about how it’s affecting thousands of people who are not Christians, who are Muslims…” He argues that “the majority sooner or later they envy the minority” and ask “Why is the United States talking about you…and they don’t talk about us?”
Professor Afsaruddin pointed to the Danish cartoon incident, as well as Abu Ghraib and Pope Benedict XVI’s comments. She argues, “Such an obvious case of double standard is deeply hurtful to Muslims, making them painfully aware that their religious sensibilities are usually not accorded equal deference in many western societies…” She said, “Similar defamation of individuals among ethnic groups is considered to be hate speech and not protected by the U.S. Constitution.” But she does not agree with “labeling everything and anything that one disagrees with as defamation and slander.”
Afsaruddin stressed the importance of keeping religious freedom issues a subject of internal debate among Muslims. “I would say that American focus on international religious freedom, if handled with sensitivity, could play a beneficial role, in fostering crucial discussions among Muslims themselves about religious freedom and democracy,” she said (emphasis original). Similarly, Masmoudi suggested that—instead of a government-backed foreign policy—American Muslims should spearhead discussions about democracy and freedom within their religious community.
Georgetown Professor Thomas Farr, the moderator for the panel, called the panelists “three of the most talented individuals” in their fields that he had personally met.
Some critics might remain skeptical of the Islamic community’s ability to curb Islamic radicalism through internal debate, especially when studies show as much as 10% Islamic approval for Osama bin Laden’s tactics and mission. However, Professor Afsaruddin has little doubt that this radical element remains minor to the religion.
“There has never been a centralized body of single individuals after the prophet deemed to speak authoritatively on behalf of all Muslims,” said Professor Afsaruddin. She cited Georgetown Professor John Esposito’s new book, Who Speaks for Islam?, as demonstrating that the majority of Muslims desire democratic freedoms and consider such freedoms “inalienable” and “enshrined” in Sharia law.
Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University, has been criticized by some for overlooking radical terrorism and for viewing the September 11, 2001 attacks as a response to American neocolonialism.
As David Horowitz writes in his book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, Professor Esposito forecasted a “trend of ever-increasing freedom and democracy in Muslim lands” in 1994, just a year after the first attack on the World Trade Center. “Ignoring Hamas’s program of creating an Islamic radical state to replace Israel—a genocidal agenda—Professor Esposito has characterized the Palestinian terror group as a community-focused organization that, in addition to its violence, does a considerable amount of societal good via such productive activities as ‘honey [production], cheese-making and home-based clothing manufacture,’” writes Horowitz (emphasis added). He continues, “Professor Esposito described Yasser Arafat’s calls for jihad as social initiatives not unlike the launching of a ‘literacy campaign’ or a fight against AIDs.”
Both Masmoudi and Professor Afsaruddin pointed to the Q’uranic passage, 2:256, as evidence that Islam has a theological basis for religious freedom. But, Professor Afsaruddin argues, “So transparent was this mandate that some scholars in the Medieval period, by no means all, [pushed] to declare this verse to be abrogated so as to legitimate a more triumphalist worldview, which asserted the superiority of Islam over all other religions.” Masmoudi also pointed to 18:29, 4:137, and 10:108 as evidence for this religious tradition.
Soroush deferred, noting that the “let there be no compulsion in religion” verse has traditionally been interpreted in Islam as a matter of free conscience, rather than free conversion.
All parties agreed that the Islamic community needs a new, less-fettered, symbol for religious freedom in Muslim nations.
Isaiah Berlin might call this novel concept pluralism.
Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.