There is a culture war in the West over Islam. It has flared up again following last year’s attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the daily predations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the ongoing violence of Boko Haram in Nigeria; but the contretemps has roiled through every major violent episode involving Islam at least since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Hawkish voices say that Islam is hard-wired for violence and incompatible with democracy and human rights and that the West must fight a long civilizational struggle against this threat. Dovish voices 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 is responsible for no small part of Islam’s problems; and that dialogue and peacebuilding are called for. Along these lines, the two sides square off, again and again.
Who is right? Might the culture war be mitigated or rendered more complex? Progress begins with identifying the right criterion for a peaceful religion. Often, tolerance is proposed as the measure. The trouble with tolerance, though, is that while it implies restraint from violence toward or co-existence with minority groups, it is temporary, strategic and reversible, much like a truce. One of history’s most famous instances of tolerance was the Edict of Nantes in 1598, in which the King Henry IV of France decreed that Protestant Huguenots would be permitted to worship in a predominantly Catholic France. Two generations later, however, in 1685, Henry’s grandson King Louis XIV revoked Nantes, outlawing the Huguenots and forcing their expulsion.
A better criterion is religious freedom. Ensconced in the leading human rights conventions and in state constitutions around the world, religious freedom is widely affirmed as a fundamental and permanent principle of justice, not to be abandoned. It includes but is more robust than abjuring violence and discrimination, calling for broad respect for persons and communities in the practice and expression of religion. A principle by which people of different faiths who inhabit the same territory live together as citizens enduringly, it is an apposite yardstick for judging whether a religion is peaceful and compatible with human rights or violent and divisive.
A Closer Look
How does Islam fare by the criterion of religious freedom? From a global satellite view, the hawks appear to be closer to the mark. The sociologists Brian Grim and Roger Finke show in their book The Price of Freedom Denied that 78 percent of Muslim-majority countries carry high levels of state restrictions on religion, compared with 43 percent of all other countries and 10 percent of Christian countries, while 83 percent of Muslim-majority countries have high levels of social hostilities (that is, carried out by nonstate groups like terrorist cells) as compared with 30 percent of all other countries and 16 percent of Christian countries. Prevalent among today’s Muslim jurists is a premodern doctrine that enjoins the state to promote Shariah law—or the principles of Islam—in all areas of life and sanctions the state to enforce it through coercion.
Zooming in closer, however, Islam appears more complex, as the doves would have it. Judged by the data found in a widely cited 2009 report of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Global Restrictions on Religion,” of roughly 47 Muslim-majority countries, 12, or just over one-fourth, are ranked “low” on a Government Restrictions Index—meaning that they are the most religiously free. Although these states are a minority, they are too numerous to be dismissed as anomalies. Making the case further for diversity in Islam, in many of the 35 Muslim-majority countries that are less than fully free, Islam is not the source of the curtailment of religious freedom.
While it is true that 21 of these countries fit an “Islamist” pattern—meaning that they are governed by strong Shariah law—another 14 are “secular repressive,” which means that the regime controls Islam in order to further a Western ideology of modernization. In many other Muslim-majority countries where religious freedom is scarce, it is Islamic movements that advocate for greater freedom and democracy. In Turkey, for instance, it is the religiously based Justice and Development Party that has sought to pry loose the authoritarianism of a sharply secularist regime. Finally, there now exists a global cluster of Muslim intellectuals who make the case for religious freedom on Islamic grounds.
So, the Muslim world suffers from a global dearth of religious freedom yet is mottled with states, movements and intellectuals who further religious freedom. Partisans of religious freedom ought to acknowledge the forces for freedom that exist in Islam but also remain firm in their hope that these forces will broaden their influence.
Does history contain any models for how this might happen? One of the frequent pronouncements heard in the recent culture wars is that what Islam needs is a Reformation, or, in another version, an Enlightenment. Both assertions invoke Western history to show Islam a pathway to freedom and tolerance. But these historical comparisons are flawed. Protestants proved just as capable of repression as Catholics. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin called for burning at the stake dissenters from their own orthodoxy. England’s Queen Mary may be known as “bloody” for burning 283 Protestants at the stake in restoring Catholicism to the land, but her younger sister, Elizabeth, proved no less bloody in re-establishing the Anglican Church.
The Enlightenment philosophical movement of the 18th century advanced the cause of individual religious freedom, including the emancipation of Jews, but was skeptical toward religious authority and revelation. The French Revolution followed the Enlightenment’s script, extending religious freedom to Jews and Protestants but outlawing the authority of the Catholic Church. It advanced (some) human rights but beheaded religious men and women. These analogies, then, will not inspire Muslims as a pathway to freedom.
A Pathway to Follow?
Should Westerners, then, avoid altogether looking for lessons for Muslims in their own history? No; the history of the West contains a different experience that may prove a more promising model for Islam: that of the Catholic Church. The church came around to religious freedom quite late in history upon the Second Vatican Council’s promulgation of its “Declaration on Religious Freedom” in 1965—three centuries after a pocket of Protestant theologians began to argue for religious freedom and two centuries after the Enlightenment did so. This latter-day awakening, though, is part of what makes the Catholic Church’s road to its declaration exemplary. It shows how a religion whose authority refrained from teaching religious freedom for centuries succeeded in finding a basis for the teaching in its own tradition rather than in modern secular ideologies.
To be sure, the Catholic Church’s pathway to religious freedom is not applicable to Islam in every particular. Islam lacks a single leader, like the pope, whose embrace of a doctrine would be authoritative for all believers. Still, the parallels are strong. Catholicism, like Islam, existed long before modernity. In order to arrive at the “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” the church had to leave behind the ideal of medieval Christendom, where church and state worked in close partnership to uphold a thoroughly Christian social order. Heresy, in that milieu, was not merely a sin but also an act of sedition. St. Thomas Aquinas compared heresy to counterfeit money, implying that just as the king or prince could use his authority to protect the economy, so, too, he could muzzle spiritual miscreants to safeguard the spiritual ecology.
In Islam’s early centuries, a doctrine of “Islamdom” came to prevail. Here, too, apostasy and blasphemy were tantamount to rebellion and merited death. Non-Muslims living under Islamic law were in many places allowed to practice their religion but were restricted in expressing it publicly and spreading it to others—something well short of religious freedom in full. While the Catholic Church eventually left Christendom behind, though, Islamdom still predominates among the world’s Muslim thinkers. Its most extreme version is found in the Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda.
Catholicism and Islam are also similar in having been treated as an enemy by the movements that have claimed to carry freedom into the modern world. When a few Protestant theologians warmed up to religious freedom in the 17th century, they continued to denounce the Catholic Church. The Protestant philosopher John Locke, for instance, relegated Catholics along with atheists to the category of people to whom religious freedom could not be extended in his “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” In the minds of most Enlightenment philosophers, the church was the architect of the Inquisition, the silencer of Galileo and the foe of free thought. In the 19th and 20th centuries, political parties based on Enlightenment ideals in Europe and Latin America sought to eradicate the church’s social influence. Anticlerical forces in the French Third Republic, for instance, exiled priests, shut down religious orders and closed the vast majority of Catholic schools in the name of a doctrine of laïcité that called for secularizing public life and privatizing religion. It was on account of the Enlightenment’s hostility to the church as well as its religious skepticism that 19th-century popes denounced religious freedom as “absurd” and “erroneous.”
Messengers of Modernity?
Muslims have found the messengers of modernity to be no less hostile. While the French Catholic Church made peace with the state after World War II, today it is France’s Muslim minority who experience laïcité’s sharp restrictions, most notoriously in the form of laws that forbid the wearing of headscarves, a key staple of traditional Muslim women’s dress. Historically, French laïcité directly inspired what I have termed secular repressive governance in Muslim-majority countries, whose standard-bearer is the Republic of Turkey. Founded by Kemal Atatürk in 1923 on an ideology of nationalism, secularism, equality and modernization, Turkey has imposed sharp controls on Islam, ranging from governing mosques to decreeing a ban on headscarves far more sweeping than France’s. Secular repressive governance was imitated by Egypt and other Arab countries after World War II, and by the Pahlavi shahs of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Suharto in Indonesia. Secular repression, combined with the fact that Muslims around the world first met up with modernity through being colonized by a European power, makes it hardly surprising that for millions of Muslims, modernity is marginalizing.
Eventually, the Catholic Church came around to religious freedom. While a dialogue with modernity can be credited for the church’s evolution, even more crucial was the work of Catholic intellectuals like Jacques Maritain, John Courtney Murray, S.J., and Heinrich A. Rommen in developing a defense of religious freedom that swung free from Enlightenment secularism and rested on traditional Catholic commitments. At the Second Vatican Council, skeptics of the human rights of religious freedom echoed the 19th-century popes in objecting that error has no rights. Defenders of what became the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” replied that it is rather the person who has rights—namely to search for, embrace or reject religious truth without being coerced. The dignity of the human person ordered toward religious truth was at the heart of the declaration. On this basis, the council declaration affirmed something different from what 19th-century popes had rejected and thus preserved continuity in the church’s teachings.
Might a similar trajectory be followed among Muslims who do not yet accept religious freedom? Crucially, Islam has seen the rise of its own John Courtney Murrays who are making the case for religious freedom—on Islamic grounds. They appeal to Quran 2:256, “let there be no compulsion in religion,” one of the most direct and forceful injunctions against religious coercion found in the texts of any religion. They work to show that other verses and traditional teachings that appear to counsel coercion were in fact directed against rebellion or outside attack or were driven by the narrow designs of political rulers. Arguments for religious freedom of this kind require no skepticism toward the authority of scriptures or compromise of the aspiration for an Islamic society. Rather, an authentic Islamic society would be one where no one is coerced in his faith. Although Islam will not have a Vatican Council, we can hope that this way of seeing things will become widely accepted by Muslim scholars and widely ensconced in Islamic societies. Events involving Paris, San Bernardino, the Islamic State and Boko Haram have made this hope maximally urgent.