Author - Jennifer S. Bryson

Religious Freedom: Why Now? Audio
Holy Mary in a Bikini? #BurkiniBan
Should the German Government Regulate Language of Religious Rites?
Muslim-Catholic Solidarity in DC after Murder of Fr. Hamel
German Muslims Defend Religious Freedom, Support Constitution
Egyptian Parliament Attempts to Repeal Blasphemy Law
Germany Trying to Squeeze Round Mosques into Square Church Structures
Muslims Call Religious Freedom “Religious Freedom”
Muslim Opposition to Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law
Islam, Religious Freedom, and Getting the Word Out

Religious Freedom: Why Now? Audio


Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right is available now in audio. Stream or download for free at Soundcloud.

Audiobook promoShaykh Hamza Yusuf of Zaytuna College implores,

Religious persecution, like slavery, is not a thing of the past. It is very present and must be addressed. This essay is a call to take the problem seriously. To continue to ignore this problem is to become part of it.

Regarding Religious Freedom: Why Now? Noah Feldman, Harvard University Bemis Professor of Law, explains:

Rich in theory and practical wisdom, this collaborative, landmark work deepens the traditional arguments for religious freedom and articulates a strategy for pursuing religious freedom internationally. Its central claim – that religious freedom is a good in itself, but will also reduce violence and terror – is especially timely in the current political situation in the Middle East, when Western policymakers might be tempted to support repressive regimes in the name of stability. It will be valuable to policymakers, scholars, religious leaders, and anyone interested in the relation between religion and public life.

Resulting from the collaboration of “experts from the fields of psychology, sociology, law, philosophy, theology, political science, and international relations,” Religious Freedom: Why Now? “offers a robust consideration of religious freedom’s present condition and the prospects for its future.” The lead author is Dr. Timothy Shah, Senior Advisor at the Religious Freedom Institute.

In addition to listening to this new audio version, you can read the original text version of Religious Freedom: Why Now? at Scribd.

Holy Mary in a Bikini? #BurkiniBan

I hereby bestow The Most Incongruous Tweet of the Day Award on Ambassador Gérard Araud, French Ambassador to the U.S.

Today Ambassador Araud tweeted with strong approval a video of St. Mary fully, modestly clad right in the midst of his pro-burkini-ban Tweetstorm today. (His tweets are captured in screenshots here.)

In honor of the Feast of the Assumption today he tweeted a video of a statue of St. Mary from the Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde (“Our Lady of the Guard”) in Marseille, France, a pilgrimage site for many on this important Catholic feast day.

Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille, France

Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille, France

In nearly the very same moment he followed his tweet of Notre Dame de la Garde with a tweet asserting, “A burqa is not a neutral attire. It conveys an conception of the woman as a object of lust, a subject and not an agent of history.”


In this statue of St. Mary the Ambassador so honored, she is dressed very modestly, in a loose fitting robe covering her entire body, except her head, which is covered in part by a crown.

This leads me to several questions for you, Ambassador Araud.

Is St. Mary’s gown in this statue “not a neutral attire,” thus requiring that the French government should demand the Catholic Church create a new statue, and with her being at the sea, see to it that she be dressed only in a bikini? After all, according to you Mr. Ambassador, “It is to the state to protect women from cultural oppression” (by which I understand you to mean that the state should protect women from their own personal choice to dress modestly).

Does St. Mary’s body being covered make her de facto an “object of lust”? (St. Mary, really??)

Does St. Mary’s body being covered make her — St. Mary of all women —  de facto “not an agent of history”?

Ambassador Araud, I would like to know: If St. Mary did indeed have her body covered, instead of wearing a bikini, as one might presume she did when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her, does this nullify St. Mary’s agency in her great “Fiat!” unto the Lord?

And Ambassador Araud, you have not yet answered Daniel Stublen’s question to you, “@GerardAraud what about nuns’ habits?”

In the event you or any of your staff in Washington, DC would be interested in discussing Islam and religious freedom sometime, I assure you the modestly dressed women who work at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom (CIRF) would greatly welcome such an opportunity. And with their degrees from Princeton University, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and Yale University and their leadership in founding CIRF, I can assure it would likely be apparent that modest attire and women’s agency are no contradiction of terms.

Should the German Government Regulate Language of Religious Rites?

In a recent position paper, the Bavarian center-right German political party Christian-Social Union (CSU) asserts that in mosques in Germany, “sermons should be given mostly in German or be otherwise understandable.” Ironically they demand this “in order to foster integration.” I say “ironically” because the reality of German society is that other religious communities hold their services in a wide variety of languages, so it does not make sense that strict adherence to German in religious services would help Muslim immigrants in Germany “integrate” into a society in which religious freedom allows variety.

Perhaps even stranger is that the CSU position paper notes, as if with alarm, that at present Germany does not have “one Islam, rather Islamic currents in various forms.” Newsflash: has the CSU ever heard of the Reformation? Perhaps the Thirty Years War? How about the Peace of Westphalia? Germany has not had “one Christianity” for centuries. Today Christian communities in Germany include, among others, Catholic, mainstream Protestant/Lutheran, Reformed, Evangelical, and Orthodox. Even just among the Orthodox Christians in Germany, some are Greek, some Serb, others Russian, etc. Just within the Catholic Church in Germany, there are far more various theological “currents” than I have space to begin to enumerate here.

On Facebook German journalist Ali Mete, Editor-in-Chief at the online journal IslamIQ, questioned,

If one considers the consequences of the CSU demand for making German mandatory in mosques, does this then also mean that the Russian-Orthodox services should be held in German? What about Polish services in Catholic churches? And what about [other] Christian services in the languages of worshipers’ countries of origin?

When I lived in Nuremberg Germany a few years ago, my church had services in both German and Arabic. Almost every major city in Germany has church services in English.

And then there are the Jewish, Buddhist, and other religious communities in Germany. Would it really be an appropriate use of state power for the German government to (try to) regulate the language used in these and other religious services?

As for the demand “sermons should be given mostly in German or be otherwise understandable,” the CSU has not explained what “otherwise understandable” means, i.e. they left their demand for “understandable” ununderstandable. And why stop at just the sermons? Would this mean that priests celebrating Mass in Latin would be required to articulate their speech rather than mumble so that these rich texts are “understandable”? (Gosh, I might support this! Well, not really, but I admit this would be a silver lining to such an awful intrusion of the state.)

In addition, I can’t help but note that the CSU paper fails to question whether having sermons be understandable is actually desirable. After all, my Muslim friends complain almost as much as my Catholic Christian friends about bad sermons. When I asked an American Catholic friend how he avoids getting depressed by bad sermons, he told me, “I sometimes go Mass in Spanish. This way I don’t understand the sermon, so I don’t get depressed!”

But on a more serious note, the decline in Germans’ interest in religious freedom and their own constitution is alarming. The party platform of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party calls for limiting religious freedom for Muslims, and now comes this call from the CSU for the German government to regulate language in Muslims’ Friday communal prayer. One can only hope that German Muslims who have petitioned for religious freedom and respect for Germany’s constitution, and Christian leaders such as Cardinal Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne, who have voiced support for religious freedom, will not become lone voices crying in a German wilderness of waning religious freedom.

Muslim-Catholic Solidarity in DC after Murder of Fr. Hamel

In response to the murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel in France on July 26 by two men claiming allegiance to ISIS, Muslims in France and other countries, including the U.S., reached out to Catholics today to show solidarity by attending Mass.

I was deeply moved that three Muslims – Imam Suhaib Webb, Maggie Siddiqi, and Sameer Siddiqi – came to Mass in Washington, DC today with Dr. Paul Heck and me at our parish, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. They came because they, as Muslims, wanted to show their solidarity with Catholics after the murder of Fr. Hamel while he was saying Mass.

Neither Paul Heck nor I had ever met these Muslims before.

A few days ago Fr. Matthew Schneider, LC, tweeted, “We can’t show ISIS we’re afraid. Let’s all go to a Catholic Mass this Sunday to show solidarity since they killed a priest. #IAmJacquesHamel.” When I saw on Twitter that Imam Suhaib Webb had responded, “Fr. I will be there,” I invited Imam Webb to come to Mass with me. And come he did, plus Maggie and Sameer Siddiqui came too after hearing Imam Webb’s July 29 Friday sermon encouraging Washington, DC Muslims to go to Mass this Sunday as a show of solidarity.

They accepted an invitation from a stranger. They all came to say, “We stand with you. We care.”  Strangers reaching out, strangers meeting, strangers supporting each other across differences of faith. In this way we bear witness to ISIS and to the world that love is stronger than hate. Fr. Schneider is right: “We can’t show ISIS we’re afraid.” Stronger together, we won’t.



German Muslims Defend Religious Freedom, Support Constitution

Muslims in Germany have launched a petition calling on all citizens of Germany to support the German legal system, especially the German Constitution, including its protection for religious freedom.

This comes at a time when an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany, appears to be in ascendance. Alternative for Germany is known by its German acronym AfD, i.e. Alternative für Deutschland. The more AfD argues against treating Muslims as equal citizens before the law, the more support it gains from non-Muslims (a trend familiar to those watching Trump in the U.S. today).

At the recent AfD party convention, AfD supporter Hans-Thomas Tillschneider proclaimed, “Islam is foreign to us and for that reason it cannot invoke the principle of religious freedom to the same degree as Christianity”; this resulted in loud applause.

In the May 2016 AfD Party Platform, the intention of the AfD to exclude Muslims in Germany from religious freedom protection is explicit.

Section 7.6.1 is titled, “Islam Does Not Belong in Germany.” (Bizarrely, this section goes on to proclaim, “The AfD espouses unrestricted freedom of belief, conscience, and religion, but…” with a “but” so vast as to make this unrecognizable as having any relation whatsoever to freedom of belief, conscience, and religion.)

Section 7.6.3 states, “The AfD rejects minarets, and along with this the call to prayer, as a symbol of Islamic supremacy, according to which there is no deity other than the Islamic Allah.” (If exclusivity is so problematic, it is then entirely unclear how the exclusive claims of Christians and Jews that God is one, and the exclusive claim of atheists that God does not exist, pass Constitutional muster in Germany while a parallel Muslim belief poses a “threat” to the Constitution.)

Section 7.6.5 calls for banning facial veils and banning the wearing of headscarves by government employees at work, including those employed at public schools.

Section 8.2.7 calls for “closure of Quran schools” and replacing Islamic religious education in public schools with generic ethics classes (whereas apparently Christians would still be allowed to hold religious education in public schools). Section 8.2.7 concludes,”So long as Islam has not gone through a true reformation, we demand the closure of Quran schools due to the uncontrollable danger of radical indoctrination hostile to the Constitution.”

The irony of this is stark. Muslims are the ones standing up in public for constitutional democracy at a time when some non-Muslims are beginning to abandon constitutional democracy because, they claim, Muslims are a threat to constitutional democracy.

One cannot help but question who the real threat to constitutional democracy is, and where the true “danger of radical indoctrination hostile to the Constitution” lies.

I see the title of this petition, “Today We, Tomorrow You” (#HeuteWirMorgenDu) as a reminder that once a society abandons equality of citizens before the law, subsequent exclusion of one group before the law seldom ends with just that one group. Once it is O.K. to exclude people group by group, other groups will follow, one minority after the next. Thus warn Muslims of Germany, in effect, today we are the ones being threatened with exclusion, tomorrow it could be you.

What is the “alternative” (so to say)? These Muslims remind us the real alternative is to maintain and protect the great innovation of constitutional democracy, with its core principle of religious freedom, protecting all of us — all of us equally before the law.

Below is my own (unofficial) translation of this petition.

Today We, Tomorrow You

Together for the Constitution and against Political Instrumentalization of Islam by the AfD

This is not about Islam, this is about Germany: 

An open letter regarding the AfD Party Platform

With the populist proclamations of the AfD, the debates in Germany about Islam have reached a low point. Discreet as well as public resentment against Muslims has become a political agenda.

Islam, however, is the religion of many citizens, women and men, who, out of a sense of ethical responsibility, are engaged for the well being of our society. We live in an open, tolerant society, in which the multiplicity of opinions and lifestyles is and must remain a core achievement. We commit ourselves to this with all our energy, because there can be no alternative to a Germany like this.

As citizens we must therefore raise our voices. As for the propagandists, it is not a matter of an Islam which is transforming Germany. Rather, cloaked under a supposed critique of Islam, what this is actually about is transforming Germany at its foundations.

It must be the case for all — including the AfD — that the binding framework of our lives together in society is the German legal system. In this all people, with their own convictions and their own lifestyles, can give full expression to who they are. It is precisely this which distinguishes our country.

Religious freedom is a basic right in this legal system, granted to each person without exception. Those, however, who begin to speak of “foreign bodies,” in order to deprive people on a selective basis of their basic rights, have turned themselves against our Constitution itself. Those who, moreover, pretend that they are doing this for the well-being of democracy and of our country, understand neither democracy nor the democratic and free legal system of our country.

Only when all, without regard to their belief or absence of belief, or heritage, are equal before the law, can the freedom of each individual flourish.

We, as the Muslim signatories initiating this, call on all citizens to engage actively on behalf of these principles. We must stand together in opposition to all those who seek through populism to define some people in a way which excludes them from the scope of protection of our legal system. We are not going to surrender the core achievement of enlightened democratic culture to the self-proclaimed “Saviors of the West.” In the end this is not about Islam. This is about Germany.

And this is about constitutional democracy and religious freedom, not only in Germany, but everywhere else too.

Egyptian Parliament Attempts to Repeal Blasphemy Law

Guest post by Areej Hassan

ِA fierce debate is currently taking place in Egypt’s Parliament over whether the country’s blasphemy law should be repealed. In response to the recent rise in blasphemy accusations against religious, political, and media personalities, as well as some of the country’s Christian minority, 100 out of a total 596 Egyptian Members of Parliament (MPs)s support a proposed bill to repeal the law.

The blasphemy law, or Article 98(f) of Egypt’s penal code, states:

Detention for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding five years, or paying a fine of not less than five hundred pounds and not exceeding one thousand pounds shall be the penalty inflicted on whoever exploits and uses the religion in advocating and propagating by talk or in writing, or by any other method, extremist thoughts with the aim of instigating sedition and division or disdaining and contempting any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto, or prejudicing national unity or social peace.

The most famous of the MPs who support the proposed bill is Dr. Amna Naseer, who is also a teacher of Islamic Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. She is highly regarded by many Egyptians. With regard to the bill, Dr. Naseer stated that “Islam urges people to believe and does not call for imprisonment as punishment for anyone’s thoughts. For the sake of protecting my religion and the freedom of the Shari’a, I agree that the defamation of religion law should be repealed. This bill would also ensure that three of the freedoms enumerated in the constitution– thought, speech, and artistic expression– are protected.”

Standing in opposition to this bill are members of the Islamist Al-Noor Party, such as MP Muhammad Ismail. Ismail explained that calling for the repeal of the law would essentially be a call to chaos. He believes that the repeal would be extremely harmful to society, though he doesn’t explain how any harm could arise. He rejects the concept of challenging ideas with other ideas, arguing that insults to religion should be an exception to that concept.

Between these two positions are those who want only to amend the law. Those who are in this camp acknowledge that the current law is problematic. However, because they also believe that a blasphemy law for the protection of sacred beliefs is necessary, they argue that the current law need only be amended so that it is not applied unfairly to those undeserving of its punishments.

Imad Jad, a Christian MP who also supports the bill’s adoption and the blasphemy law’s complete repeal, said, in response to those who want to only amend the law, that if Parliament does not repeal the law in its entirety, he and other MPs will try other means to repeal the law. He has expressed his support of Dr. Naseer’s statement and also believes that the law’s existence serves to harm more than help the Islamic religion.

When Egyptian scholars of Islam were asked for their opinions regarding this new bill, Al-Azhar University’s Deputy, Abbas Shouman, explained that Al-Azhar is opposed to blasphemy against all religions, regardless of whether there is a blasphemy law in place. However, because Al-Azhar scholars themselves are not members of Parliament, they will not interfere in Parliament’s decision-making.

The fact that the proposed bill has the support of a highly respected MP like Dr. Naseer is a very promising sign. What makes this current debate so significant is the absence of the “Islamic vs. secular” division that has plagued Muslim-majority countries for so long.

The participation of mainstream Muslim scholars like Dr. Naseer in such a debate is extremely powerful in shifting people’s attitudes towards certain issues. Had the likes of Dr. Naseer been absent from this debate and had the only parties debating this issue been members of the Islamist Al-Nour Party vs. members of secular parties, the debate would have been unproductive. In such a scenario, the Al-Nour party, no matter how extreme, would have been presented and viewed as representing Muslim interests, while those from the secular parties, no matter how moderate, would have been viewed as representing any number of anti-Islamic interests.

It is refreshing to see scholars of Islam and other Muslims standing in opposition to Egypt’s blasphemy law on religious grounds, arguing that such measures are actually harmful and even antithetical to their religion, thus wresting power from parties like Al-Nour and their purported claim to speak as the sole voice of Islam and Muslims in Egypt.

Though it’s still uncertain whether this debate will lead to an actual repeal of Egypt’s blasphemy law, the fact that a debate is taking place at all, and with such nuanced arguments, is definitely a step in the right direction.

Areej Hassan is Director of Media and Research at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom. She has a B.A. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University.

Germany Trying to Squeeze Round Mosques into Square Church Structures

A Lutheran bishop in Germany, Ilse Junkermann, has called on Muslims in Germany to organize themselves the way the major, i.e. Catholic and Lutheran, churches in Germany are organized, namely top-down in a single organization, or at least in denominational organizations.

The presumption that the structures of the major Christian churches should be accepted as normative and demanded of other religions in Germany deserves rigorous, critical questioning. For one thing, not even all the Christians in Germany accept these structures (Evangelical and other Christians tend to opt out of the state-recognized churches). Plus, significantly, when Germany became a nation-state, these structures for the Catholic and Lutheran churches were already in place. These already-existing church structures shaped the way the state structured its relations with these two church groups, not vice versa.

Trying now to impose the structures of Catholic and Lutheran Christians on Muslims in Germany is, moreover, risky. As I have observed previously, “Entangling … explorations of Islam with governmental attempts to sanction one viewpoint over another…is more likely to stifle than encourage the much needed open, free public space for explorations of the meaning of Islam.”

In Sunni Islam, the branch followed by most Muslims in Germany, the capacity to accommodate internal diversity has developed organically over 1,400 years. While the coming and going of local political powers as well as empires led from time to time to relative centralization of religious structure, overall the broad distribution of authority in Sunni Islam is inherent to its vibrancy and flexibility.

Today the Muslim-majority countries with the most rigid centralization of religion tend also to be among the most theologically stagnant, where religion is often reduced to a political tool of the state, and the main concern of the state when it comes to religion is control. Many of the theologically dynamic minds of modern Islam tend to flee from such restrictive settings to open, free, diverse environments, without a religious hierarchy oriented to the needs of the state trying to establish an artificial uniformity of thought.

The reason Bishop Junkermann gives for Muslims in Germany to organize centrally is unsettling. She asserts, “Precisely at times of religious pluralization, the state has an interest in religiosity not being relegated to back alleys and clubhouses.” Her concern here is the interest of the state, not the interests of Muslims, nor the protection of religious freedom in Germany. By contrast in countries such as the U.S. and Canada, Muslims organize themselves however, and in as many different ways, as they themselves determine is appropriate; in these countries Muslims institutions are numerous and they are flourishing participants in and contributors to society.

It is unlikely that an artificially, externally imposed hierarchy could have serious credibility among all of Germany’s ca. 4.5 million Muslims, who are diverse not only in ethnic background but, not least of all, in their theological schools and interpretive approaches. The diversity among Germany’s Muslims is part of Islam itself.

Muslims Call Religious Freedom “Religious Freedom”

I work at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom (CIRF). There. I said it. I used the terms “Islam” and “religious freedom” in the same sentence. I did so in defiance of the many non-Muslim Americans who keep on telling me that speaking of “Islam” and “religious freedom” together just can’t, or at least shouldn’t, be done.

These non-Muslim Americans keep telling me this new organization, CIRF, chose the wrong name and that the organization should change its name ASAP, removing “religious freedom” from its name and using instead some vague phrase of obfuscation.

This fear, sometimes even panic, about using “Islam” and “religious freedom” together seems to be especially prevalent among non-Muslim Americans who do work related to countering violent extremism, which is ironic because religious freedom itself offers a powerful antidote to the ideologies of violent extremism. They tell me it is not the right “time” to speak of Islam and religious freedom together. They tell me what must be done is to “sequence” concepts and only introduce the idea of religious freedom to Muslims at the soonest many years from now.

The reality, however, is that the phrases “religious freedom” and “religious liberty,” as well as “freedom of belief” and “freedom of faith” are the language many Muslims themselves use in describing the vision they, as Muslims, have for a flourishing society. (Granted, “freedom of belief” and “freedom of faith” alone are less robust than “freedom of religion,” but they are closely related.)

Saying one “can’t” or at least “shouldn’t” speak about religious freedom with Muslims is not only condescending to Muslims, but it also serves to silence the voices of Muslims themselves.

As a non-Muslim who studies Islam and works together with Muslims, I try always to listen to what Muslims themselves say about their own religion. Many Muslims are writing and speaking about religious freedom and Islam, not only in response to international human rights discourse, but, significantly and most of all, internally in their own intra-faith discussions about Islam and being Muslim.

Here is just a sampling of what Muslims discussing their own religion have to say, and not only in English but other languages as well:

Abdullah and Hassan Saeed titled their 2004 book Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam. Abdullah Saeed titled his 2014 monograph, “Islam and Belief: At Home with Religious Freedom.”

When Mustafa Akyol talks about his own faith, he speaks of “religious freedom.”

Mohsen Kadivar titled his 2014 book, in Persian, Mujazat-e Ertedad wa Azadi-ye Mazhab (translation, forthcoming 2017: Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Freedom of Religion in Islam). His essay in a 2006 collection is titled, “The Freedom of Thought and Religion in Islam.”

Usama Hasan titled his monograph, “No Compulsion in Religion: Islam and the Freedom of Belief.”

Yahia Jadd titled his 2011 Arabic monograph, “Al-Ridda wa-Hurriyya al-Itiqad,” translated into English as “Apostasy and the Freedom of Belief.”

Shaykh Abd al-Mutal al-Sa’idi titled his 2001 book in Arabic, Al-Hurriya al-Diniyya fi-l-Islam (which translates directly to Religious Freedom in Islam).

Abdolkarim Soroush titled one of his essays, originally in Persian then translated into English, “The Inalienable Freedom of Faith Entails Freedom of Religion.”

Chapter 9 of Mohammad Hashim Kamali’s 1997 book is titled, “Freedom of Religion (Al-Hurriyah al-Diniyyah).”

Mohamed Talbi titled a 1985 article, “Religious Liberty: A Muslim Perspective.”

The title the International Institute of Islamic Thought gave to one of AbdulHamid AbuSulayman works in the English translation they published in 2013 is, “Apostates, Islam, and Freedom of Faith: Change of Conviction Versus Change of Allegiance.”

When Shaykha Reima Yosif addressed a conference of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, she spoke of religious freedom.

Imad ad-Dean Ahmed talks directly about religious freedom when he discussion is own faith.

This list above is only a sampling of media by Muslims on religious freedom. And then there are activists. Examples include:

Asma Uddin is an expert religious freedom lawyer who has been working at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty for six years, and she is the new Director of Strategy at the CIRF. Areej Hassan is Director of Media and Research at the CIRF. Asma and Areej are Muslim and they do not see a problem associating their names with the phrase “religious freedom.” And then there are the Muslims who applied for internships this year with CIRF. CIRF received more applications from Muslims than it could accept.

These Muslims are not just a small handful of Americans using the phrase “religious freedom” when they speak from their faith about their visions for human society. They are from Egypt, Denmark, Iran, Ireland, Maldives, Pakistan, Turkey, the U.K. et al. The International Institute for Islamic Thought, which publishes important contributions by Muslim scholars on religious freedom related topics, has offices in over a dozen countries.

While the phrase “religious freedom” may not roll readily off the tongues of all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, at the same time it is neither entirely alien nor toxically taboo. Islam is huge and complex. In some parts of the vast and diverse realms of Muslims in the world, Muslims themselves value religious freedom and that’s what they themselves call it: religious freedom.

On Saturday, April 16 Bayan Islamic Graduate School in Claremont, CA is hosting a one day symposium of Muslim scholars. What did they choose to title the event? “Islamic Perspectives on Religious Freedom.”

Muslim Opposition to Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law

In a four-part series of articles this year, Pakistani researcher and activist Arafat Mazhar has outlined his case for why he believes his Islamic faith does not support the popular claims in Pakistan that the country’s blasphemy law, which carries the death penalty, is based on the religion of Islam:

Part 1: The untold story of Pakistan’s blasphemy law

Part 2: The fatwa that can change Pakistan’s blasphemy narrative

Part 3: Why blasphemy remains unpardonable in Pakistan

Part 4: Blasphemy and the death penalty: Misconceptions explained

Mazhar is also founder of an organization, Engage Pakistan, dedicated to reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The website for Engage explains, “The mass support for this narrative,” supporting the blasphemy law in Pakistan, “makes it a potent legal instrument for intimidation, violence and enacting personal vendettas, and specific persecution of minorities.  We are attempting to deconstruct the law and its surrounding social narrative through the framework that informs it,” i.e. through the framework of Islamic law in the Hanafi school of jurisprudence which is dominant among Sunni Muslims in Pakistan.

The website further explains that Pakistan’s blasphemy law, “has gathered mass support through its conceptualization as a divine decree that cannot be tampered with.” The Engage Pakistan website highlights that whereas previous attempts at reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy law have pitted religion against secularism, this effort by Engage is by contrast coming from within the Islamic tradition. Engage exists to foster an internal Muslim-to-Muslim dialogue among Sunni Muslims in Pakistan about this law.

Arafat Mazhar is not alone as a Muslim in his support for religious freedom. For example, he serves together with other Muslims on the Advisory Council of the Islam and Religious Freedom Project whose website provides access to media by Muslims across the globe supporting religious freedom.

Islam, Religious Freedom, and Getting the Word Out

co-authored with Areej Hassan

In a 2015 discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations about countering violent extremism, Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah said,

The problem is more a communication problem than it is actually a problem of rooting these truths in the tradition itself. That part is the easier part because there’s plenty of things that enable us to do that. But the problem is, how do we get this rootedness in the tradition for these concepts out to much larger audiences?

In this, Shaykh bin Bayyah expresses the experience we have had in studying Islam and religious freedom. We find that the Islamic faith has rich traditions, not least of all the overarching objectives of the Islamic faith, as well as sophisticated interpretive tools, to help Muslims in the modern day find ways to live authentically with their faith and peacefully in the diverse societies of their globalized world.

When it comes to religious freedom, the problem is not lack of content by Muslims supporting religious freedom from within their own faith tradition. Rather the problem is a lack of awareness of and access to these Muslim faith resources related to religious freedom.

It is true that restrictions related to religious freedom have increased in some Muslim-majority countries due, in part, to a strict or ignorant understanding of certain hadiths or Quran verses. This is not only problematic, from the perspective of many Muslims, but also ironic. Using these primary sources for the justification of very specific actions with little to no indication of a greater good to be expected from such actions, as has happened in many Muslim-majority countries, is at odds with the Islamic tradition. Islam’s theological and juridical traditions demonstrate that religiously motivated calls to action must be critically assessed, consistent with the greater objectives of the religion, and understood within the context of the existing environment, as underscored by classical jurists’ recognition of local custom as a factor when they strove to understand divine rulings.

Though there are many Muslims who recognize this and who address issues related to religious freedom critically in a manner more in line with the traditions of Islam, their works remain unavailable to many other Muslims. Their media are banned in some countries, and these media are available often in languages inaccessible to many and in publications marketed only to academic audiences.

It is for this reason that the Islam and Religious Freedom Project was created. The mission of this project is to increase availability and circulation of media on religious freedom-related topics by Muslims who engage with the Quran and hadith as well as the intellectual juridical approaches established by the Islamic tradition.

The Islam and Religious Freedom Project takes already-existing religious freedom media by Muslims, and then (to the extent copyrights allow) in three ways increases the availability and circulation of these media:

  1. More languages: The project includes media in, at present, 13 languages. We search across many languages for media, we commission translations of texts, and we subtitle videos.
  2. More media formats: The project creates audio-books from our pool of written media and we hope to expand soon into the creation of video presentations of texts.
  3. More media outlets: The project has created YouTube and SoundCloud channels for video and audio, respectively, and an important part of this project is promoting circulation of these media via Twitter, Facebook, and an e-newsletter. In addition the project has created and is constantly adding to a free online bibliography of Islam and religious freedom media at Zotero.

When it comes to Muslim support for religious freedom, this is what Shaykh bin Bayyah would call a “communication problem,” not a content problem.

To learn more, visit the Islam and Religious Freedom Project’s website at

Jennifer S. Bryson is Director of the Zephyr Institute in Palo Alto, CA and Areej Hassan is Project Manager of the Zephyr Institute’s Islam and Religious Freedom Project.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.