Daniel Philpott, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and Asma T. Uddin, senior scholar in the Religious Freedom Center at the Freedom Forum Institute, discusses Islam and religious freedom, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, www.CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy.
We’re delighted to have Daniel Philpott and Asma Uddin with us for a discussion on Islam and religious freedom. Daniel Philpott is professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Philpott has worked to facilitate faith-based reconciliation around the globe. Much of his research focuses on religious freedom and the role of religion in foreign policy as well as the role of the Catholic Church in global politics.
Since 2011, Dr. Philpott has been an associate scholar of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington. He released the book Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of Universal Human Rights in the Muslim World Today in March.
Asma Uddin is a senior scholar and faculty in the Religious Freedom Center at the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington, DC. Ms. Uddin is also a fellow with the Initiative on Security and Religious Freedom at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and serves as a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Ms. Uddin’s book When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom will be released in July.
So, Dan and Asma, thank you very much for being with us today. Your research and your books complement each other quite nicely. So, Dan, I thought we would start with you on the global stage. You have written about how Islam is often characterized as limiting religious freedom. Can you talk about why you think that is and the research that you’ve done?
PHILPOTT: Well, thank you, Irina, and I thank the Council for the opportunity to do this event. Welcome, everyone, onto the call, and I’m honored to be here with Asma Uddin.
At least as far back as the attacks of September 11, 2001, something on the order of a culture war over Islam has been raging in the West. It flares up again every time Muslims are involved in violence somewhere in the world. Think only of London, Madrid, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Boston Marathon, Berlin, Sri Lanka. The hawkish voices, which I call Islamo-skeptics in the book, say that Islam is hardwired for violence and incompatible with democracy and human rights and that the West must gird up for a long civilizational struggle against this threat. Those blind to this threat are today’s Neville Chamberlains.
Dovish voices, who I call Islamo-pluralists in the book, hold that Islam, like every religion, is historically malleable and diverse, home to a few extremists but otherwise hospitable to human rights and democracy, that the West’s history of colonialism and military aggression are responsible for no small part of Islam’s problems, and that dialogue and peace building are called for. Hawkish voices, in their view, stoke the very controversy that they decry.
The controversy has real stakes. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton argued much along these lines. Once President Trump took office, he issued a ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and on admitting refugees from Syria. He voiced anti-Muslim rhetoric and tweeted out anti-Muslim videos. Hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. demonstrably increased during his campaign and shortly after his election.
Who is right about Islam? I look to religious freedom as a criterion. Involving respect for the religious beliefs, practice, and citizenship of those who differ over ultimate questions, religious freedom is a fair test for whether a religion is peaceful or violent, tolerant or intolerant. In my recently published book, Islam and Religious Freedom, from which I draw the present remarks, I argue that religious freedom is a universal human right and not merely a Western value.
How does Islam fare by the criterion of religious freedom? In the book, I look at the forty-seven or so Muslim-majority states in the world. From a global satellite view, the hawks appear to be closer to the mark. These states are, on average, in the aggregate, far less free than the rest of the world. Zooming in closer, however, Islam appears more complex, as the doves would have it. Eleven out of forty-seven Muslim-majority countries, or just over one-fourth, are, in fact, religiously free. Although these states are a minority, they are far from anomalies.
The largest concentration of them is what I call the West Africa Seven: Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and others. Making the case further for diversity in the Muslim world, of the thirty-five Muslim-majority countries that are not free, fourteen of these are what I call secular repressive, meaning that the regime controls and marginalizes Islam in order to further a Western ideology of modernization.
The standard bearer of this pattern is the Republic of Turkey, established in 1923 by Kemal Atatürk. Egypt followed suit under Nasser in the 1950s and many Arab states have fit the model along with the Central Asian republics—the “Stans”—after the end of the Cold War. True, the other twenty-one of the Muslim-majority states are religiously repressive, meaning that the state governs according to an Islamist ideology through which it promotes and enforces a strongly traditional form of Islam and often violates the religious freedom of religious minorities and Muslim dissenters.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the standard bearers of this model, other examples being Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. So the Muslim world suffers from a global dearth of religious freedom, yet is mottled with states, movements, and intellectuals that further religious freedom, and there’s diversity in the Muslim world—Muslim states that are not religiously free.
Then the question becomes might religious freedom be increased in the Muslim world. A later chapter of the book looks at seven seeds of freedom, as I call them, which are potentialities found in Islamic history and tradition, and discuss how they might be developed further. Another chapter looks for models for developing religious freedom within a religion.
The Western media often opines that what Islam needs is a reformation or an enlightenment. But neither of these historical analogies are likely to appeal to Muslims. There is a better analogy, which is the Catholic Church’s long road to religious freedom, culminating in the declaration of 1965, Dignitatis Humanae. Like Islam, Catholicism long predated modernity, was widely seen as an enemy of modernity, and rejected religious freedom as an expression of modernity, but eventually found a way to embrace religious freedom for reasons rooted in its own tradition, not the reasons of modernity.
Still another chapter takes a look at the wave of democratic uprisings once called the Arab Spring, but no longer, due to their wintery outcome. Religious freedom explains much about why most of them resulted in dictatorship or civil war, but in one case—Tunisia—greater freedom. The book closes with six recommendations for increasing religious freedom in the Muslim world.
All in all, I seek to be both honest and hopeful—honest that a growth in religious freedom in the Muslim world is needed, but hopeful that existing examples and elements of Islamic tradition reveal that a growth of religious freedom in the Muslim world is possible.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Dan, for that.
Asma, let’s move now to the misconceptions that you’ve found about the role of religious freedom in American Islam today and your recommendations on how to deal with this problem.
UDDIN: Sure. Thank you, Irina, and CFR for hosting Dan and I today and thank you to all the participants for joining the call.
So there’s a claim out there that has been perpetuated that Islam is not a religion. The argument goes something like this. Islam is not a religion. It is, instead, a dangerous political ideology; therefore, Muslims don’t have rights under the First Amendment.
This is, of course, absurd. There are almost two billion Muslims across the globe encompassing tremendous diversity, including three to seven million right here in America. Yet, that doesn’t stop some very prominent people from saying that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to millions of their fellow Americans.
And it’s not just a claim we see on the Twitterverse, although we definitely see it there. We see it among lawmakers. We see it implemented into law. We see it being argued in court. My book When Islam Is Not a Religion looks at these legal implications. It looks at the attack on the First Amendment and explains how this attack on Muslims affects all Americans because the selective application of the law will always come back to bite us. If we cede power to the government to choose what it considers a religion and what it doesn’t, who is to say what’s allowed today won’t be prohibited tomorrow? Your religion, whatever it is, is at risk.
So who are some of the people making this claim? I first heard the claim that Islam is not a religion in a 2010 case I worked on in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The opposition said the mosque could not make use of special land use laws for houses of worship because, you guessed it, Islam is not a religion. Even the U.S. Department of Justice had to step in and file a brief making clear what is already clear—Islam is a real religion.
Since then, I’ve noticed the claim echoed by many others. Consider a few statistics. An August 2017 poll with the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found almost one in five Americans believe that under the U.S. Constitution American Muslims do not have the same rights as other American citizens.
A 2015 poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that Americans favor protecting religious liberty for Christians over other faith groups, ranking Muslims as the least deserving of this right. 82 percent voted in favor of protecting religious liberty for Christians while only 61 percent said the same for Muslims.
A colleague of mine who developed state coalitions to pass religious freedom protective laws estimates that 5 to 10 percent of state lawmakers hold to some version of the Islam is not a religion belief. Public statements support his account.
For example, Jody Hice, U.S. representative from Georgia, once argued, “Most people think Islam is a religion. It’s not. It’s a totalitarian way of life with a religious component. Islam would not qualify for First Amendment protection since it’s a geopolitical system.”
In a January 2018 official press release, State Senator of South Dakota Neal Tapio, a Republican running for the U.S. House of Representatives, questioned whether the First Amendment applies to Muslims. In his words, “Does our Constitution offer protections and rights to a person who believes in the full implementation of Islamic law as practiced by fourteen Islamic countries and up to three hundred and fifty million self-described Muslims who believe in the deadly political ideology that believes you should be killed for leaving Islam?”
John Bennett, a Republican lawmaker from Oklahoma, said in 2014, “Islam is not even a religion. It’s a political system that uses a deity to advance its agenda of global conquest.”
Allen West, a former U.S. congressman, said that “Islam is a totalitarian theocratic political ideology. It is not a religion and has not been a religion since 622 A.D.”
In 2015, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCarthy wrote in the National Review, “When we discuss Islam it should be assumed that we are talking about both religion and a political-social theology. Clearly, one could accept the religious tenets and not the ideology. Islam—(inaudible)—as conveying a belief system that is not merely or even primarily religious.”
In 2016, retired Lieutenant General William Jerry Boykin was named an advisor to the Ted Cruz presidential campaign despite his past statements that Islam, quote, “should not be protected under the First Amendment.”
And also in 2016, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn told an ACT! for America conference that Islam is a political ideology that hides behind the notion of it being a religion.
And the list goes on.
So what are some of the implications of this claim? When Muslims are stripped of their human rights, what’s happening at the core is a dehumanization of Muslims. Religious liberty is, after all, a human right, a right that is rooted in our human dignity, and one that we have simply because we are humans. We don’t have to earn it or prove ourselves worthy of it.
So if we’re told that we don’t have human rights, we’re being told we’re not fully human. We are somehow different than other humans. It should come as no surprise then that anti-Muslim hate crimes are the fastest growing religious hate crimes in America. We have also seen forty-three states limit or attempt to limit Muslim religious practice and Muslim houses of worship are facing a nationwide opposition movement which, in many cases, has even led to mosques being burned down.
Indeed, arson has become a common intimidation tactic. In 2011, a mosque in Kansas suffered more than $100,000 in damage because of an arson attack. In 2012, portions of mosques in Wisconsin and Ohio were set on fire. In 2016, the same Wisconsin mosque had its roof burned down and then a month later the entire mosque was burned down. In 2017, fires raged at five mosques, burning down properties in Michigan, Texas, and Washington.
And that’s if the mosque can even be built. As I noted earlier, I first heard the claim that Islam is not a religion in a mosque case I worked on in Tennessee. The opposition said the mosque could not be built because Islam is not a religion. The opposition said that the mosque was in fact a Trojan horse that let terrorists take root in a Murfreesboro suburb, even though all it did was give everyday Americans of Muslim faith a chance to pray together.
The story is equally personal to me because my late father also spent so much of his short life cultivating the Muslim community in my hometown of Miami, Florida. He designed and funded the mosque, and just two years after his death the mosque dome was riddled with dozens of bullet holes. That dome with those holes exemplifies for me what is at risk here.
FASKIANOS: Thank you both for that.
Let’s go now to questions and comments from the group. Operator?
OPERATOR: The first question will come from Piyush Agrawal with Global Organization for People of Indian Origin. Please go ahead with your question.
AGRAWAL: Good afternoon, everybody.
FASKIANOS: And this is Irina. If you could just indicate who you would like to answer the question that would be great so that we can get in as many questions as possible.
AGRAWAL: Thank you very much for the excellent presentation from all the good people.
The basic issue is this. In almost every religion there is a freedom to change the side from one religion to another, except Islam. It’s a very restrictive religion, does not allow any member of its religion to assume another religion. If they do that, in Quran it says kill the guy. And that is the responsibility of the whole commune to kill that person, which does not—in the current situation of freedom of speech or freedom of expression does not hold too much ground. Any comment?
PHILPOTT: Well, I could comment just briefly. I think the way that you’re describing Islam is that there are countries and are movements—nongovernmental organizations—which do take kind of approach to Islam like the one that you’re describing. But I also think that there’s much more of a wide range. I would not say that those commitments are necessarily at the heart of Islam.
I mean, one of the things in my book I look at is the eleven countries in the Muslim-majority world that are religiously free. Particularly, I point to ones in West Africa which have a remarkable level of devoutness and religious practice and devotion to religion—to Islam—but are also quite well known for their tolerance and their interreligious harmony, including the right to leave Islam if one chooses to do that.
AGRAWAL: Which country is that?
PHILPOTT: I’ve got seven. They are Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Niger. I don’t have them all right off the top of my head. But so those are important to look at as well. But also, in the Quran—
AGRAWAL: Sir, I lived in Sierra Leone. I know what it is, and your research is a little bit tainted. My apologies.
PHILPOTT: In the Quran, I think there are lots of verses, some verses which have been used and interpreted so as to mean to kill the member of the other religion. But there’s also verses that point strongly to religious freedom.
In the book, I discuss in great depth Quran 2:256, which says there is no compulsion in religion, which is one of the—and which has always been interpreted in the tradition as being a verse favoring religious freedom and is one that—probably one of the most strongest and direct statements of religious freedom in the text of any religion.
So like any religion, there are verses that one could latch onto that would point in a very intolerant direction. But there are also resources for freedom as well.
UDDIN: In addition to the various governments that Dan pointed out that are supportive of religious freedom, there are people working really hard in some of these countries to battle, and so the countries that Dan pointed out as either Islamist or secular oppressive to kind of deal with this question of apostasy. For example, there’s a group, a nonprofit called Engage Pakistan that’s based in Lahore, Pakistan, that is essentially entirely built on this issue of battling the laws that punish blasphemy or apostasy. And it’s led by a young Muslim millennial named Arafat Mazhar, and the organization has spent years digging through classical Islamic texts and has found compelling evidence that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws contradict these religious sources. And in Egypt, Muslim activist Hossam Bahgat has also spent decades working with religious scholars including the Grand Mufti of Egypt to basically undermine the claim by the government that their anti-apostasy laws are rooted in Islamic scripture.
And so there are really good efforts being done there. There are really strong credible, very traditional scholars who have refuted that claim, and so I think it’s also important to place some attention on that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Debra Majeed with Beloit College. Please go ahead with your question.
MAJEED: Thank you very much. I really appreciate both of your presentations.
I wonder if you can give a recommendation of how your research can be used to educate particularly high school and college students so that they would not come to the conclusion that I would say is tainted of the first caller.
UDDIN: On the question of education, a big part of what I’m doing in the book is really about educating the broader public about the nature of religious freedom and what exactly that means because I think a lot of people talk about religious freedom but it’s also conflated with either religious tolerance or religious pluralism. And there’s a lot of confusion even in the national discourse just purely about American—broader American issues, not something specific to Muslims, where there’s a lot of confusion about what exactly religious freedom is. And so much of that confusion can be balanced if we had some understanding of the balancing that happens in the law.
I think a lot of the fear against Muslims having freedom or liberty comes from the fear that if we let Muslims have liberties they’re going to use it to take over America. Or they’re going to use it in ways that are dangerous or ways that we disagree with, without recognition of the fact that the law that jurisprudence has built within it a balancing—a balancing test that says, well, you have religious freedom up until a certain point and if the government has a compelling government interest and it’s narrowly tailored to serve that interest then it can limit religious freedom.
And so I think so much of that—the problem we’re dealing with on a political and national discourse level has to do with just ignorance about how the law works and so, basically, literacy on that front I think would go a long way.
PHILPOTT: Yeah. I would only add that I think in educating students I would strongly recommend taking a look at the global map of Muslim-majority countries and looking at the diversity of kinds of countries. So yes, be honest about the fact there are many that are governed in an Islamist fashion.
But I would also point out the not insignificant number of religiously free countries, and then also the dynamic of secular repression, that when Muslim-majority countries are not free it’s not always because of Islam or Islamism. It could be because of a very ideology that’s rooted in a certain strand of Western thinking. And so educating the students to, you know, what the map looks like today and just gaining that basic kind of literacy and geographic and basic understanding.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Charles Robertson with the Episcopal Church. Please go ahead with your question.
ROBERTSON: Hi. Thank you, and thank you all very much for your presentations.
I was honored and privileged to be a part of the Marrakesh Declaration and the work that went into that and then being there present as that was worked on and signed. I’m just curious as to where that has gone since. It was a great moment for—in many ways for religious freedom.
For those on the call who many not know, the Marrakesh Declaration was dealing with the issue of the rights of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority countries, and there was so much hope and promise and I just felt like it kind of dropped after that. I was wondering where it might—where it might have picked up or where it could go from there.
PHILPOTT: I do mention the Marrakesh Declaration in my book and was very much an admirer of that, and I think it’s very important to have these kinds of declarations where a large number of Muslim leaders and intellectuals and religious leaders, political leaders, and so forth come together and affirm these statements.
I think from some of the research I’ve done even proponents of religious freedom like the great scholar Abdullah Saeed will say that the number of those committed to religious freedom among Muslim jurists are still a minority worldwide and so it’s important to keep that perspective in mind. But, nevertheless, grow the constituency, in other words, I think is a very promising thing.
Now, you asked about what has happened since then. One initiative that I am aware of is the Beirut Declaration of 2017, which I think was similar in its import. It had a sponsorship of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. I believe that that was after the Marrakesh Declaration. So it represents, you know, continued progress in that direction.
But I think the work of the Religious Freedom Institute and its Middle Eastern action team has also done work in trying to bring together Muslim intellectuals and leaders around the issue of religious freedom. So I know that these efforts are ongoing and very much hope that they continue.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Dan.
UDDIN: Yeah, and just to add a little, I don’t know the full scope of what’s happened, but I do know that they continue to have regional meetings bringing together Muslim clerics from a diversity of traditions in addition to the leaders of other faith communities together to work on some of these really thorny issues. Among the regional meetings, there was a conference here in the U.S. as well in Washington, DC, the Alliance of Virtues Conference, which was Ambassador Sam Brownback’s first public appearance after he was appointed as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and I myself have been part of—meetings where there are discussions happening very seriously as to how to implement the principles of the Marrakesh Declaration into actually changing laws in some Muslim-majority states.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Homi Gandhi with Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America. Please go ahead with your question.
GANDHI: My name is Homi Gandhi and I am the president of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America.
Thank you very much, both Daniel Philpott and Asma, for your brilliant presentation. I noticed that you have really brought out the issues very clearly. We condemn what’s happened against Islam.
But I would like to go back to the very first question which was asked, and I don’t question research being tainted by anyone. But what’s happening in reality is quite different. What’s happening in reality is that there are countries, especially Iran, where if a non-Islamic person has married to an Islamic person, all the property of that particular family goes to the family person who has received it. And others who are not following the Islamic religion, they lose it.
Secondly, even the leaders of the countries like Turkey have associated the Kurds—and there is separate political issues with Kurds within Turkey—Turkey’s President Erdogan has gone on record to say to the Kurd Zoroastrians and they are against the Zoroastrian faith and Zoroastrians should be all killed so that the Kurdish problem will go away.
I have sent out letters to the ambassadors of Turkey in U.S. and Canada, because I represent North America, and the UN representative, but there has been no answers. In my opinion we all have good words, but there is no good actions behind that. So I would suggest very strongly that people and authorities like you take steps, take good actions. Thank you.
PHILPOTT: Yes, thank you. I very much agree with what you said. In regards to your example of marriage laws, that is a typical feature of the legal structure in what I’ve called religious repressive Muslim-majority societies. Absolutely, yes, that is a big problem and it is a big religious freedom problem.
You mentioned the problem of Turkey. Yes, even over the course of the Republic of Turkey there have been huge problems with the treatment of religious minorities, Zoroastrians very much among them. I would mention Christians as well, and I think that under Erdogan, particularly in the last eight years or so, there is an increasingly an Islamist tinge to this problem.
The problem with minorities has been going on for a very long time in Turkey, even under the years of what I would call the, largely, secular republic there just wasn’t a lot of room made for religious freedom. In addition to sharply controlling Islam, there’s been a maltreatment of religious minorities.
And there are many answers to your question about how to advocate for religious freedom. The U.S. government and many other Western governments now have very active and often institutionalized religious freedom components of foreign policy and of the, you know, foreign ministries and so forth, as is our State Department. There’s a UN High Commissioner. Then there are also, you know, NGOs that are active for religious freedom. So I think these issues that you mention need to be, you know, right there on the agenda.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Thomas Walsh with Universal Peace Federation. Please go ahead with your question.
WALSH: OK. Thank you, and thank you to both speakers and Irina for convening this important discussion.
As I listen that one of the concerns about the Islamic world more generally is that one doesn’t see the same level of argument. If one looks at American Christianity or European Christianity, you know, there are deep ideological differences that are not only theological but political. The Christian world of, you know, of America is deeply and profoundly divided and it’s an open debate and sides despise each other and polemicize each other widely, and one doesn’t quite see that in the Islamic world. So it’s not just about Islam vis-à-vis the minority religions. It’s within itself one doesn’t see this level of open debate.
We sometimes talk about culture wars or the politicization of Republican Christians and Democrat Christians that despise one another. They don’t want to be near each other. But at least they somehow coexist, even though they hold their nose and do that. And yet, one doesn’t quite see that in the Islamic world within itself. And I wonder if that says something or speaks to us. If you care to correct me or respond I’d welcome that. Thank you.
PHILPOTT: Asma, do you want to take this one?
UDDIN: Well I think part of—when you say one doesn’t see it, I think it also depends on what your vantage point is. And so for myself, I’m an American Muslim born and raised here in the U.S. and so the Muslim community that I’m fully enmeshed in is, obviously, the American Muslim community and I can definitely tell you that the American Muslim community is incredibly diverse, and has different positions on a wide range of issues. A lot of them frequently erupt on major internet battles where people have taken two different sides of a very contentious issue. And so diversity is definitely there. There is wide engagement across those divides and a real grappling of how the community is growing through dissent.
And on the question of dissension, dissent is just a huge part of the Islam tradition. It’s a huge part of Islamic jurisprudence. So much of Islamic law is gray and the most traditional scholars will tell you that not only is it gray but there is an insistence on that grayness because of the recognition that only God really knows what is right. And so much of Islamic law is a human is trying to figure out what it is and how it is that God wants us to implement the various principles of Islam. I had noted the work for, for instance, Engage Pakistan and Hossam Bahgat, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. And there’s a number of other activist groups like that that are taking action, and that are a reflection of internal dissention and healthy opposition.
WALSH: Well, thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Abbas Barzegar, with Council on American-Islamic Relations. Please go ahead with your question.
BARZEGAR: Hi, there. Thank you. Thank you to CFR and to the speakers for putting this program together.
I did want to just make a quick mention that I believe the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers has been actively engaged in implementing the Marrakesh Declaration principles. That may be some of what you referred to, Asma. But I just wanted to point that out to whoever’s listening, that I believe that that organization has been at the forefront of making sure that the Marrakesh principles are implemented at a regional and local level, which the organizers realize was a shortcoming of previous declaration culture, for example, out of the Oman Declaration, or other spaces.
I wanted to briefly ask both speakers a question about some of these attitudes and perceptions about religious freedom in the Muslim world and in Muslim cultures, and how that is influencing, from their vantage point, policymakers, and bureaucrats, and government. We just released a reported called Hijacked for Hate, which traced the funding channels from wealthy donors into, you know, far-right and anti-Muslim advocacy groups. And we found that there’s a much closer relationship between anti-Muslim special interest groups and the federal administration at this point. And it’s quite concerning. However, I’m wondering what the vantage point—what that looks like in terms of the think tank space or the policy space that others are familiar with. Are you concerned that these attitudes and perceptions that are often not backed up by data are influencing our policymakers today? Thank you.
UDDIN: So my book does exactly that. I think so much of the conversation about—(inaudible)—tends to focus on what, really crazy media personalities are saying, or politicians are saying. So much of it is on their rhetoric. And what I try to do in my book is really connecting that to the legal and policy implications. And so specifically the religious freedom legal issues that are impacted. And so if you look at, what I mentioned earlier in my presentation, the forty-three states having their limited or attempting to limit Muslim religious practice, what I’m referring to are these various bills that attempt to limit religious arbitration, right, which are known popularly as anti-Sharia laws. Sharia’s often thought of as something very scary. But in fact, what they’re dealing with is just the very mundane issue of whether or not Muslims can order their personal lives in accordance with Islamic tradition.
And so this has been proposed, as I noted, in forty-three states, a total of 217 bills have been introduced. In 2017 alone, twenty-one new bills were introduced, and Idaho introduced one in 2018. And so there has been some litigation around this, but basically it has impacted the ability, for instance, as American Muslims, to be able to write a will in accordance with their religious belief. That rhetoric is not just rhetoric. It’s very much the next step there really is to develop policies out of that. And that’s one example.
Another one is the nationwide mosque opposition movement that I’ve noted. It’s something that’s very strategic. There’s an actual handbook that has been produced by Frank Gaffney and others at the Center for Security Policy, that specifically he gives pointers to local opposition as to exactly how to engage in opposition, how to best hide their opposition in very neutral terms, that is less challengeable under the Religious Land Use Act. And so all these efforts are not just meant to stay in the space of rhetoric but are strategically designed to impact policy.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Jake Bennett with Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix. Please go ahead with your question.
PHILPOTT: Hello, Mr. Bennett.
BENNETT: I had two questions.
One, you mentioned that your book finished with six recommendations. I was wondering if you could enumerate those for us. And second question also is when we talk about religious freedom, you talk about countries that have Islamic governments and those that don’t. But I think it’s helpful to look at how populations are treated there whether there is or isn’t an Islamic government. Egypt, for instance, which doesn’t have an Islamist government now has a rash of churches being burned almost every week. And that’s going on because there’s a cultural issue of religious intolerance that’s happening.
And regionally, the general Islamic conflict with Israel is very much based on religious intolerance and religious supremacism that centers on the holy places of Jewish tradition, which a replacement theology approach. The Temple Mount, Hebron, where the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried, Tomb of Rachel is Bethlehem, the Tomb of Joseph in Shechem or Nablus. And there’s this symbology of replacement theology that’s a very strong religious intolerance issue that feeds into it not just from Islamist anti-Israel forces, but also secular anti-Israel forces. So you get it from Shiite Hezbollah, from Sunni Hamas, and from more or less secular PLO. So if you could comment.
PHILPOTT: OK, good. No, thank you. They’re great questions.
As far as the recommendations go, so just quickly the first is: Affirm religious freedom as a universal human right and not a Western value. So I take issue with some critics of religious freedom who think that it’s confined to the Western tradition, building on the first chapter. Recommendation two is: Recognize Islam’s capacity for religious freedom. And that just comes back to the religiously free Muslim majority countries out there, as well as themes from the Islamic tradition that I call Seeds of Freedom, which I can elaborate more on as well. Recommendation three is: Recognize that negative secularism is not the answer. And so this is a kind of strand of thinking in the West that comes out of the French Revolution which says that religion can only be a problem, it’s irrational, it’s violent, and that the role of government is to marginalize it from public life. And that is an answer that is adopted in many Muslim-majority countries, as it has been in Western countries. But I argue against it.
Recommendation four is: Expand religious freedom in the Muslim world. And there I talk about building constituencies of transnational organizations and people who are committed to religious freedom, and expanding the kind of sphere of those constituencies, and supporting them across borders, and trying to kind of, you know, build a transnational coalition. Recommendation five is: Western states and the European Union ought to make religious freedom far more central and integral to their foreign policies towards Muslim-majority states. And there, many Western states have adopted religious freedom into their foreign policy in different ways, but often it remains marginalized. In the U.S., it’s still kind of a corner of the State Department. And I’m arguing it for it to be brought into kind of mainstream thinking about defense, about foreign policy, about democratization, where religious freedom is integrally connected to all of those goals.
And then recommendation six is: Advocate religious freedom as universally as possible, including through transnational networks of religious freedom constituencies. And that comes back to and builds on recommendation four, about expanding religious freedom in the Muslim world. And, again, identifying people and organizations around the world. There’s some effort to do this through—the U.S. State Department today has begun having what is called a religious freedom ministerial, which is—the first one happened last summer. The next one is happening this summer. Where people and organizations are coming from some eighty different countries to kind of affirm, discuss, and try to expand religious freedom. So I think that is one promising initiative.
Yeah, I agree. I would argue that right now in Egypt, you have a secular repressive government, but there is also a very strong Islamist element in the population. And, yes, that results in the burning of churches. I think in Egypt you have a kind of mutually reinforcing opposition between secular repression and Islamism, where each sort of feeds on the other’s worst tendencies. And I think we’ve seen that since the regime fell in 2011. But, yes, there is also that Islamist side of things. And I certainly agree with you of your description of the threats to holy sites in Israel, absolutely.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Inamul Haq with Elmhurst College. Please go ahead with your question.
HAQ: First of all, if I make a quick point that there is no such words in the Quran which should say that the person who changes their religion should be killed. This is a medieval law which are actually based on treason to the caliphate, because Islam was a personal faith, but it was also a political entity at that time. Unfortunately, many people continue to hold onto that position, but Muslim moralists in all societies are struggling to change the law and rethink in the context of modern society, where individual and personal choice and has nothing to do with treason to the state.
My question to Daniel is that the issue of religious freedom is certainly very, very important. But we should not forget that it is linked with the peace, and stability, and progress which a society needs to experience. Once we have society with enormous human deficit, and the societies which are constantly in a state of conflict and war—and many that, indeed, was imposed by hegemonic forces in the world through invasions, from land-grabs, and other means, but more resourceful strategic importance. It’s very, very hard to promote these rights—and in fact, all human rights—in such an environment in which society is in a permanent state of conflict.
So there are some prerequisites in which we really can achieve these goals. And these global political conditions should not be ignored when we talk about the situation. There are many Muslim societies where Christians, Muslims, Jews, they existed reasonably good. There might be a problem or difficulty, but they existed reasonably well for a long time. But in the context of war on terrorism, we see that many societies are virtually plunged into a more chaotic situation. So in discussing these issues, you have to keep in mind that you really cannot discuss them in a vacuum. And we cannot ignore the ground—global political realities in which many societies are suffering.
PHILPOTT: Thank you for an excellent question.
I mean, I agree with you that in many Muslim-majority countries that are suffering from conflict and repression, there are other causes, apart from religious freedom. I would also look at the economic picture, the role of oil, and so forth. I would only answer that I also believe that the lack of religious freedom itself contributes to the lack of peace and stability. So I wouldn’t just say that peace and stability are a prerequisite, but rather I would say that the repression of religion can be underminers of peace and stability.
There’s a recent book out called Weapon of Peace by a young scholar named Nilay Saiya, a political scientist. But he presents very powerful global data that societies that have religious repression, or a lack of religious freedom, are more prone to terrorism, civil war, and international conflict as well. And he gives extensive cross-national data, as well as case studies. That would also point to countries like Sudan, Nigeria, Egypt, Tajikistan, and Algeria, where conflict has resulted from the repression of religion, and from the denial of religious freedom, either on a religious basis or on a secular basis. And so I would argue for religious freedom as a source of peace and stability.
FASKIANOS: Asma, anything from you?
UDDIN: Well, on that point about religious freedom as a source of stability, just to connect it back through the domestic focus of my book, I do look at that same question about the relationship between liberty and security in relation to U.S. counterterrorism policy, for instance. And in some of the practices that we’ve seen, the policies were implemented by the NYPD in the past in terms of very wide surveillance of the Muslim community, and just our own misunderstanding as Americans as to what that relationship between security and liberty looks like. There tends to be a misconception that we have to have less liberty in order to have more security, when in fact the research—including Nilay Saiya’s research and others who are focused more on American policy—will point that it’s actually quite the opposite. The more liberty, the more we protect religious freedom for Muslims, quite contrary to a misunderstanding that more freedom for Muslims means less security for Americans, is actually quite the opposite.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Laura Alexander with the University of Nebraska. Please go ahead with your question.
ALEXANDER: I’m wondering about the question of Islam being a religion versus a political ideology. So I guess the question is for Asma in particular, although I’d be happy to hear from both speakers. And it’s about how religious ideas or practices kind of intersect with the public square and our discussions about policy. I’m asking it, because I think on the one hand there’s a critique among scholars that particular American Protestant Christianity tries to bracket off religion as being this individual thing, a set of beliefs you hold that you practice at home, you don’t really talk about it in public. And coincidentally, that tends to privilege Protestant Christianity, but also fails to acknowledge the relationship between religion values and policy concerns.
But on the other hand, if you think about principles of religious freedom, they would seem to mandate that any one religious tradition wouldn’t get to dominate or control policymaking or dialogue. So I’m just wondering what you would say about how we might navigate the possibility of bringing religiously motivated values into public life, but not entirely conflating religious and political ideologies.
UDDIN: So I think a robust conception of religious liberty, the vantage point from which I advocate for religious liberty is one that doesn’t relegate religion to the private space, but does recognize that we as humans are motivated by our religious impulses, and that includes bringing it into the public space, and our activism, and so on. And so again, it goes back to that balance act, right? So much of our constitutional principles and existing jurisprudence that is built out around those principles does that balancing act for us. We have the Free Exercise Clause, and then we have the Establishment Clause. And the Free Exercise Clause allows for that robust public expression of religion. But the Establishment Clause then is there to create those boundaries so that there isn’t this total conflation of the public and political space with the religious. And that’s, of course an ongoing tug-of-war and an ongoing conversation that happens in our jurisprudence.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Dan, anything to add before we go to the next question?
PHILPOTT: No. Just I think the international comparative global evidence, you know, strong supports exactly that conclusion. So thanks.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Douglas Johnston with International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. Please go ahead with your question.
JOHNSTON: Hello, Dan. Good to hear your voice again.
PHILPOTT: Hi, Doug. Yeah, great to be on with you.
JOHNSTON: Yeah. I apologize. I had to come on late, so you may have already covered this. But I believe when I did come on that I heard you talking about the line from the Quran about let there be no compulsion in religion.
And one of the things I would just comment about that is I have confronted high-level Muslims in countries everywhere from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, trying to hold them to that line. And what I get in return is an acquiescence that the line exists, and it means something, but they go through a rather long and convoluted explanation of why that’s only on the way in, but not on the way out. And so—in terms of if you want to convert to Islam, fine, a lot of freedom. If you want to get out, not so much. Hence, the apostasy laws, and the rest of it. So I think it’s very important to sort of incorporate those kinds of perspectives in the analysis, which complicates the heck out of it. But just it’s a reality that we need to come to grips with.
PHILPOTT: Thank you, Doug. And Doug is former president of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, and old friend. Yeah, a great question.
I think of my friend Mustafa Akyol, who has written on religious freedom, often writes in the New York Times. But he was in Malaysia and was detained precisely for speaking on this verse, but being detained it was explained that, you know, the verse didn’t really say what it said, but it had—it should have an appendage that says exactly what you said, that it should be only for entering Islam and not for exiting it. You know, of course, in fact, that’s not what it says. Those who have defended religious freedom in Islam over the centuries we can also say have pointed to this verse as meaning religious freedom in both ways. But you’re right, there are many who don’t want to read it that way.
And so that is an issue. That is a problem. As I did my research on how apostasy laws arose, and many of them are not rooted in the Quran, as one of the previous callers pointed out, but rather arise from Hadith, or teachings in the tradition. Often have arisen in highly political circumstances, that they’re tied to this or that ruler’s agenda. The other religion happens to be a threat to that person’s power and, thus, entered the tradition through these kinds of being tethered to political dynamics.
And a lot of the things I do in the book look at, in addition to looking at this verse, how there’s no compulsion in religious freedom, as a Seed of Freedom. I also show some of the other versus that tend to contradict it or are used to deny religious freedom. And one of the arguments that advocates of religious freedom will make is that those versus often have a very political context. In other words, the members of the other religious in which they arose were ones who were on the other side or the war, or the political dispute, and can be seen as something more like norms that can be tethered than for the laws of war. But, yes, it is an ongoing battle over these verses. And in my view, I think there’s a compelling case for the no compulsion verse meaning religious freedom for everyone.
JOHNSTON: I think you’re right. One other problem that you need to deal with is the problem of abrogation, because oftentimes you can find the laudatory verse that points everything in the right direction, which apparently is supplanted by a later verse by that same person, whether it be the prophet, peace be upon him, or anyone else. But it’s difficult to keep track of the chronology in all these versus.
PHILPOTT: Yes, you’re right in terms of abrogation being a common counterargument. One of the things I came across, though, is that there are many different conflicting interpretations about what abrogates what. And so some will say that some of the verses have a Meccan origin, whereas others have a Medinan origin. But then others will disagree with that and point to different versus abrogating other ones. And so, maybe it’s a bit like the kind of vastly proliferating interpretations of the Christian Bible between different sects and denominations and things like that. And so, you know, abrogation is a whole thicket in itself.
JOHNSTON: For sure. Thank you very much.
PHILPOTT: Great to be with you, Doug
FASKIANOS: We have several people in queue, and we are out of time, but I’m going to take one last question. And I apologize to all of those of you who we could not get to.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The final question will come from Jayson Casper with Christianity Today. Please go ahead with your question.
CASPER: Thank you to both of you for your presentation and your expertise on the subject.
My question is primarily for Asma, given the U.S. context. And this question has been alluded to in part by many others before. But while we know that there are many interpretations to Islam, and there are, of course, the Islamo-skeptics that highlight one particular style of that, we also on the other hand have certain Muslims that do view their religion as a political ideology. Yusuf Al-Adawi, for example, is one of the scholars who advocates an Islamic movement. The very strategic effort of Muslims to become in places of academics, and politics, and such where they can help the greater populations, both in the Muslim world and in the West, understand what Islam is from their point of view.
Now, for the American citizen, there is freedom of religion. There is also freedom of politics, and the rule of law. But given this slice of reality, how would you counsel American lawmakers, American police, law enforcement to be able to understand the nuances involved to avoid the political rhetoric that would seek to demonize all Muslims, but yet be aware of those who perhaps within their rights, or maybe exceeding their rights, would be able to try to advocate Islam as a political ideology that is counter to much of American law? Thank you very much.
UDDIN: Your question was focused on the question of advocacy. And of course, anybody can advocate for anything, with limits, right, protected by free speech. But earlier I was asked the question of how do we deal when someone is trying to implement that advocacy into actions? And that’s where the balancing act comes in. The balance act looks at the relationship, again, as I said earlier, between security and liberty, and how do protect both interests. And the specific test in our law that deals with that is called the scrutiny test, which looks at both the government’s compelling interests in limiting religious practice, and also balances that against the religious believers’ interest in engaging in a particular religious practice.
And so, again, on the question of advocacy and the question of what people are thinking and talking about, that for the most part has pretty complete protection. But the law does focus on the distinction between beliefs and actions. And beliefs have pretty much absolute protection. But it is only when those beliefs are implemented into action, where the government has a legitimate space and is fully accounted for in our jurisprudence, for the government to step in. And the courts to date have done a very good job of that.
I think I terms of security questions specifically, the government—the U.S. government has taken a number of missteps—(inaudible)—a lot of our counterterrorism research, that then gets implemented into policy tends to conflate religiosity with terrorism, or terrorist threats. And I think that sort of connection purely between religiosity and terrorism has to—is increasingly being interrogated and disproved. And it has to be, because terrorism—if you—a lot of research really does show that it is rooted in political grievances. And so I think it’s important even in sort of the root of our policies, that we’re clarifying exactly where these—what the drivers are of terrorism, and not over-broadly limiting religious expression under some sort of misconception that religion itself is inherently connected to terrorism.
FASKIANOS: Dan, do you want to wrap up and give your thoughts?
PHILPOTT: I don’t have anything more to add. I very much agree and think that it’s very much supported by the global picture as well. And thanks, everybody, for a great conversation.
FASKIANOS: To Dan Philpott and Asma Uddin, thank you very much for being with us today, and for sharing your research and thoughts with us. We really appreciate it. And to all of you, for your terrific questions. We encourage you to follow Dan and Asma’s work on Islam and religious freedom on Twitter. Dan is on Twitter at @Philpott77. And Asma’s at @AsmaUddinESQ. So you can find her there. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. And as always, we encourage you to reach out to us with any suggestions for future calls, events, or anything else on your mind. So we look forward to continuing the conversation with you. Send us an email to [email protected]. And thank you all.