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Can Islam Embrace Religious Freedom? Can Religious Freedom Undermine Islamist Terrorism? Is the U.S. State Department Witless?



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In two posts last week (here and here) I wrote that America’s failure to advance religious freedom in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Egypt had harmed the victims of religious persecution and undermined U.S. national security.

Andrew McCarthy was moved to respond because, he asserts, I “expressed astonishment” that Afghan citizen Abdul Rahman could be tried for apostasy in a country whose constitution, brokered by the U.S., purported to guarantee religious freedom.

Mr. McCarthy was moved by a misreading. But he has raised some very important issues.

For the record, my only “astonishment” — expressed in these pages and in a book I have written on the subject — is that the United States has performed so miserably in its international religious-freedom policy, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Syria, and, frankly, everywhere else.

Mr. McCarthy and I are in agreement that the Afghan constitution’s commitment to religious freedom was and is a sham. Here’s how I put it in 2008:

The fates of Mr. Rahman . . . [and] others were indicators that Afghanistan was not moving toward the kind of democracy that would contain Islamist radicalism and remain stable. The constitution [bv declaring that “no law can be contrary to . . . Islam”] had created a window through which extremism could lawfully enter, contend with the reformers and the moderates, and stand an excellent chance of defeating them.

We also agree that the State Department made a serious error in permitting the “no law contrary to Islam” language. I suspect our negotiators were unable to provide cogent reasons — to themselves or the Afghans — why that clause would prove so destructive. 

Mr. McCarthy and I disagree, however, in at least three areas: the transportability of religious freedom; whether American foreign policy could increase religious freedom in Muslim majority states if it could summon the wit to do so; and whether promoting religious freedom and stable democracy in places like Egypt is vital to our national security.

Regarding religious freedom, I do not believe — as Mr. McCarthy seems to think I do — that there is a universal understanding of the concept. If there were, we would not be having this discussion. I do believe, however, that there is a practical concept of religious freedom, outlined here, that can be adapted by Muslim societies if they believe it consistent with Islam and in their own interests.

This concept, though useable by other cultures, is similar to what the American Founders meant by religious freedom. Unfortunately, that robust meaning is in danger of being lost by the current generation of American leaders, which helps explain our utter ineffectiveness in attempting to promote religious freedom abroad. To put it bluntly, it’s hard to sell a product you don’t believe in. I recently elaborated this point in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

For a defense of this approach to religious freedom, with commentary by prominent Muslim, Jewish, and Christian intellectuals, see here.

The question, then, is not whether most Muslim-majority societies now accept this broad view of religious freedom — they do not. The questions are: whether they are capable of moving toward it, whether a wiser and more energetic U.S. foreign policy could influence them to do so, and whether it is in our national interest to try.

Mr. McCarthy says emphatically “no” to all three questions. Rejection of religious freedom in Muslim societies, he insists, “is simply a brute fact of sharia law.” As for the State Department, “We lack the will to challenge [sharia’s] freedom-devouring premises.” And, he insists, while religious freedom is important to democracy, it is not in our vital national interest to seek democracy in places like Egypt.

This, it seems to me, is an argument worth having.

I have not read Mr. McCarthy’s no-doubt insightful work on Islam, but I presume he knows that there are prominent Muslim thinkers who defend religious freedom as consistent with, and in some cases required by, Islam (Hamza Yusuf, Abdullah Saeed, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Abdullah An-Naim, Abdolkarim Soroush, Khaled Abou El Fadl, and the late Adhurrahman Wahid and Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd to name a handful). In Pakistan, where sharia-based anti-blasphemy laws are brutal, the Muslim governor of the Punjab — Salman Taseer — fought to repeal these laws.

Mr. McCarthy would likely argue that the ideas and actions of such Muslims are not mainstream, and he would be right. Saeed, Soroush, An-Naim, and Abu-Zayd had to flee their homelands because of their views. Taseer was murdered for his opposition to anti-blasphemy laws.

But they and their ideas should not be dismissed out of hand, any more than the ideas of dissidents in the former Soviet Union were dismissed. We cannot afford to let the discourse on Islam in the Middle East continue to be dominated by extremists. Although the scope of the problem varies from country to country, most reformers have to keep their heads down. The extremists have for the most part succeeded in defining what Islam requires, what an Islamic democracy should look like, or how the laws should deal with women, non-Muslims, disfavored Muslims, and speech that offends Islam.

In Afghanistan, for example, the constitutional clause banning any law contrary to the principles of Islam left unclear what those principles were and who would define them. The inevitable result, given the absence of free religious speech, was that extremists would fill the void.

Unlike Mr. McCarthy, I believe that reformers are present in many Muslim nations, including the autocracies, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, but especially in the struggling, nascent democracies, such as Egypt and the other countries that were once wistfully thought to be part of an “Arab Spring.”

I also believe that the United States has a fundamental interest in this fight. It should be pressing governments to permit citizens to speak openly about Islam without being threatened with blasphemy or defamation chargers, murder, or mob action. Too many of our diplomats accept Mr. McCarthy’s view that we should not bother urging such changes, either because Islam is thought impervious to change, or because “it is not our place” to do so.

Our methods should include clear messages from the president, the secretary of state, and other diplomats, the listing of nations as “countries of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act, and the withholding of U.S. aid or the imposition of economic sanctions.

But sticks are not enough.

Our policy should aim to empower the reformers to speak about and for Islam. At the same time, we should provide practical reasons why it is in the interests of these societies to move toward religious freedom. More religious freedom is likely to mean, for example, greater political stability and social harmony, less religion-related violence, and more economic growth. (See evidence for this argument here, here, and here.)

Is U.S. foreign policy capable of doing this? The answer is, for the moment, no. We have ostensibly been tackling these issues for 15 years (since the passage of the aforementioned International Religious Freedom Act) but the reality is that we have failed. As I have noted, for example, here, here, and here, our policy has been highly reactive, mainly rhetorical, and largely ineffective.

It need not be so. Dennis Hoover and I made recommendations that, if followed, would increase our diplomatic capacity to be successful. For example, American diplomats are not trained to understand what religious freedom is, why it is important to individuals and societies, and — most important — how it can be advanced abroad. They should be.

But why should we wade into such a briar patch, delving into people’s religion, triggering fights about what our Constitution permits and forbids, and demanding that Foggy Bottom do something that it has proved itself highly resistant to doing?

I believe that violent Islamist extremism and Islamist terrorism are significant threats to the United States. I assume Mr. McCarthy agrees. The question is whether U.S. diplomacy can help undermine that threat by a vigorous application of the kinds of policies discussed above. Can, for example, religious freedom help struggling democracies such as Egypt and Pakistan attain a measure of stability that will undermine the kinds of extremist Islamist ideas that fuel terrorism?

While Mr. McCarthy admits that religious freedom is necessary to democracy, and that he would like to see Egypt become a real democracy, he asserts that such an outcome is not vital to American security. Terrorism, he notes, exploits the freedoms available in democratic societies, so democracy is no antidote to Bin Ladenism or its fellow travelers.

It is, of course, true that both terrorist ideas and terrorist cells benefit from the freedoms typically found in democracies. But there is ample evidence that democracies grounded in religious freedom resist the incubation of violent religious extremism, including the Islamist variety. In addition to the sources noted above, see this volume, produced by Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project.

To sum up: A U.S. policy that advances religious freedom in Muslim-majority countries can increase American national security. Islam is not a monolith. In some Muslim societies, this policy will doubtless fail. In others, it may well succeed. The evidence suggests, however, that a renewed and more vigorous international religious freedom policy is well worth the effort.



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