One side, let us call them Islamoskeptics, will say that the attacks remind us of what only fools fail to perceive: Islam is a violent religion. Westerners who let down their guard or indulge hopes of a peaceful Islam are latter day Neville Chamberlains and invite further violence….
Who is right about Islam? This is the question I take up in Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today, just published by Oxford University Press. There, I propose religious freedom as the yardstick for assessing whether Islam is peaceful and tolerant or violent and intolerant. A universal human right, religious freedom requires people and states to respect the beliefs and practices of those who espouse different answers to the ultimate questions of life, to accord them the full rights of citizenship, and to refrain from invidious discrimination against them. Religious freedom means that nobody pays a penalty for his or her religious beliefs. I pose this criterion for the world’s 47 (or so) states where Muslims are a majority. This is a good test, for in these states, Muslims possess the demographic power to carry out repression if that is what they wish. If freedom obtains here, then the Muslim world’s capacity for freedom is evidenced.
What results emerge? A landscape view shows that on average, Muslim-majority states are less free than the rest of the world and even less free than Christian-majority states. In the 2011 book, The Price of Freedom Denied, sociologists Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke document that 62% of Muslim-majority countries host a moderate to high level of persecution, in comparison with 60% of all other countries and 28% of Christian countries. More sharply, they show that 78% of Muslim-majority countries contain high levels of government restrictions on religion as compared to 43% of all other countries and 10% of Christian countries. Overall, the Muslim-majority world has a religious freedom problem.
A closer look at this world, however, reveals a more complex and hopeful picture. It turns out that 11, or 23%, of Muslim-majority states are religiously free according to a scale devised by the Pew Forum. These are too numerous to be outliers. In the other 36, or three-quarters, of Muslim-majority states that are not religiously free, Islam is not necessarily the reason for the lack. 15 states are “secular repressive,” meaning that they are governed by a regime that aspires to become a modern nation-state and is convinced that religion can only be a hindrance to this quest—an ideology borrowed from the French Revolution. Examples are Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Uzbekistan, and the other “stans” of Central Asian. True, the other 21 of these unfree states are “religiously repressive” because they are governed by an ideology of Islamism that calls for the imposition of a strict and traditional form of Islam by the state. While these states bear out Islam’s capacity for repression, they are 45%, or less than half, of the total. The French Revolution vies with the Iranian Revolution as the dominant form of repression in the Muslim world.
Both sides of the culture war, then, are partially right and partially wrong, at least on the criterion of religious freedom in today’s Muslim-majority states. That these states are religiously unfree in the aggregate supports Islamoskeptics; that they are diverse supports Islamopluralists. Both positions point to prescriptions. The dearth of religious freedom shows the need for its increase. The diversity in the Muslim world—the presence of some religiously free states, the fact some are unfree because of secularism, not Islam—shows the possibility of its increase. The case for its increase lies in justice. Religious freedom is a human right not only in the legal sense that it is articulated in the world’s major human rights conventions but also in the moral sense that it protects the dignity of persons and communities in their search for and expression of religious truth. Scholars also have shown that religious freedom fosters goods that Muslim states disproportionately lack, including democracy and equality for women, and reduces ills that these states disproportionately suffer, including terrorism, civil war, and poverty.