Religious Freedom and Islamic Society
This is the second of a two-part series on religious freedom by Rep. Francis Rooney. For part 1, see "The Role of Religious Freedom Today."
As discussed in the first article in this series, free expression of religion can stabilize civil societies and has helped defeat extremist ideologies. Currently, Islamic society is stuck in the past and uses an extreme interpretation of the Koran to justify barriers to the free expression of religion, such as blasphemy laws, and for violent religious persecution. Promoting religious freedom, including the values of free expression and dialogue, will help undermine these blasphemy laws, hopefully leading to their elimination, and will allow Muslim leaders to freely speak out to reform Islam from within.
Blasphemy laws are used to persecute critics of Islam, whether moderate Muslims, Christians or Jews, and to attack so-called “non-believers,” thus forming an impenetrable barrier to any form of acceptance of other religious beliefs and contributing to the growth of Islamic extremism. Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Yemen are among the Islamic countries with blasphemy laws. In Pakistan, any expression that degrades an aspect of Islam, however innocuous, such as reference to the Koran or the Prophet Muhammad, is punishable under law. Salman Taseer, Governor of the Punjab State in Pakistan, was assassinated in 2011 for calling for reforms to the laws. More recently, in Saudi Arabia, a man was sentenced to death for tweeting insults about the Prophet Muhammad. Ending oppressive blasphemy laws would set the stage for free expression of religious opinions in the Muslim world and would modernize Islamic societies.
Furthermore, radical Islamic groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda leverage the concept of blasphemy and the harsher verbiage in the Koran to recruit and train terrorists and expand their ability to commit heinous crimes around the world. Barbaric acts committed by extremist groups against religious minorities and moderate Muslims include kidnappings, enslavement, and beheadings. For instance, in 2015, ISIS published a hit list of western Muslims who they believe distort the Islamic faith. On Palm Sunday 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for multiple attacks on Coptic Christian churches in Egypt during mass, killing dozens and wounding many more, replicating an identical attack they perpetrated on the cathedral of Alexandria in 2011.
Because of his experiences growing up in Nazi Germany and years of study of the Koran and comparative religion, Pope Benedict XVI was the first international leader to articulate on a global stage the importance of free expression of religion in combatting radical Islam. Benedict understood that reason is compatible with religion, a tenet of traditional Catholic theology. Pope Benedict also realized the need for moral values in civic life and the role of religion as a constructive and stabilizing force in the secular world. These ideas provide the basis for arguing that Islam can be tempered and “developed” just as construction and interpretation of the Bible was years ago, promoting an interpretation of the Koran more aligned with our 21st century mores.
Perhaps the most influential legacy of Benedict XVI’s papacy was his 2006 lecture at Regensburg University. Pope Benedict spoke clearly and aggressively about the evil use of religion as an excuse for violence, the incompatibility of the command of the Prophet to spread the word by the sword with the modern world, and the need for Islam to take control of its dogma and teachings and to develop constructions of them that are aligned with the expectations of civility in the rest of the world. While controversial, the speech led prominent Muslims to call for reforms. Over 30 Islamic religious leaders and scholars sent letters to Benedict recognizing the need for Islam to reconcile with modernity, while King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia also publicly called for reforms within Islam.
Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt in the wake of radical Islamic terrorist attacks invoked the memory of Regensburg. The visit served two purposes: to strengthen inter-faith relations and to call for more religious tolerance in the region. The Pope’s speech at Al-Azhar University, a prominent Sunni institution, condemned the use of religion to justify violence as “idolatrous caricatures of God.” Furthermore, Pope Francis pointed out that recognizing religious freedom “represents the best way to build the future together, to be builders of civility.” Hopefully, the speech will draw similar responses from Muslim leaders in denouncing the use of religion to justify extremism.
Islamic leaders must speak up to end extremism. While examples set by the Catholic Church have prompted discussions about modernizing Islam, extremist doctrines and laws cannot be refuted and reformed successfully by non-Muslims. Indeed, after the Protestant Reformation, it was Catholic leaders who spoke out and called for reforms from within to modernize aspects of the Catholic Church.
Recent statements from Muslim leaders have been encouraging. In 2014, the Jordanian Minister of Religious Affairs declared the need to fight against extremist ideologies. Also in 2014, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called for a “virtuous religious revolution” to treat “the problem of extremism and its erroneous understanding of Islam.” In April 2017, Lebanon's foreign minister called on moderate Muslims to reform Islam as Christianity was reformed by Christians. More calls for reform from moderate leaders are necessary to combat extremism.
Free expression of religion, including eliminating blasphemy laws, is necessary to ensure Muslim leaders can promote reform without fear. Islamic leaders should follow the example set by the Catholic Church in the 1960s and adopt a doctrine providing for religious liberties and the foundations for inter-religious dialogues. During the Second Vatican Council in (1962–1965), the Catholic Church adopted Nostra aetate and Dignitatis humanae. These documents called for expanded religious freedom and tolerance, allowing the Church’s acceptance of other religions, and were widely supported by Eastern European prelates who acutely understood the importance of religious freedom because they had lived under communist rule, where religion was suppressed by unrestricted government power.
“Soft power” diplomacy, which advances values such as religious freedom and tolerance and criticizes the concept of blasphemy in today’s world, can materially contribute to defeating radical Islamic terrorism and promoting religious freedom. This, in turn, will help stabilize Islamic societies. The United States should work alongside the governments of Muslim countries, the Catholic Church, and non-governmental organizations to eliminate blasphemy laws and promote an environment in which moderate Muslims can safely speak up. Such reforms would allow concepts such as the separation of church and state — as opposed to the theocracies that now exist in many Muslim countries — and modern interpretations of the Koran to be nurtured in the Muslim world.
Francis Rooney is the U.S. Representative for Florida's 19th congressional district. He serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and previously served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.