Author - Jennifer S. Bryson

Islam, Religious Freedom, and Getting the Word Out
Does Islamic Theology Matter When Conflict Is (Mostly) Political?
State Department Discovers Religion, 2015 QDDR
Need for “Sufficiently Profound Responses” to Religion-Related Violence
When Christians Kill and Destroy but Also Make Peace, CAR Today
Abu Zayd: face terrorism with thinking, not fragility, in religious discourse
America’s Torture Treaty
Into the Heart of Poverty and Terrorism: Horses of God
Interrogators Against Torture
Countering Violent Extremism Needs Local Focus

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.

Does Islamic Theology Matter When Conflict Is (Mostly) Political?

During a recent lecture at the University of Edinburgh, Aurangzeb Haneef, a Ph.D. student from Pakistan, presented three reasons why the theological questions of tolerance and intolerance remain vitally important for Muslims, even when secular factors such as politics and history are core components of today’s “mess” of violence as well as oppressive narratives framed by religious rhetoric.

His own observations as a Muslim about Islam today offer much also for other believers engaged in their own intra-faith struggles at the edge of, and in the midst of, violence.

The stakes are high.  Haneef explains,

Precious lives are being wasted in the name of God to fight wars that have nothing to do either with God or religion…

So, asks Haneef,

If all of this is contextual, if the problems are really political in nature, and the main reason for an extreme manifestation of Islamic scriptural sources is this very messy social, political, and historical context, then is theology or religion still relevant? I mean we’re all talking about political context, and in such a political context, religion acquires a certain narrative, so is religion really irrelevant?

Some would say religion is irrelevant, or even a distraction, in the quest for solutions. He continues,

Tariq Ali, a Pakistani British writer and self-proclaimed atheist would give you an overview which is very similar to mine, but will conclude that theology is irrelevant, he would say that all this discussion on scriptural interpretation, Quran, and peace building, is a theological distraction. The real reasons are political, and so we must focus on fixing the political mess, and religion will automatically fix itself, that’s what he says.

I agree that the main problem is political, I also agree that the main conflict or set of grievances are political in nature, I also agree that it can be a distraction [if] we ignore the political context and if we try to find solutions only within religion but we’re not doing that here, I’m not doing that here.

Haneef presents 3 reasons why engaging theology is relevant, indeed necessary, in these situations.

I think that engaging with theology is neither irrelevant nor a distraction. In fact religious discourse has become so much distorted and extreme because of its political context that it has become an essential part of the problem, therefore it cannot be left alone and this is the first reason.

Second reason for engaging with religion is to be able to preserve what is called by an Islamic legal scholar, Khaled Abou al-Fadl, as the moral integrity of the Islamic religious tradition. What does it mean? It means that while interpreting one must recognize the overall moral thrust of the Quran, which is that of goodness, mercy, harmony, justice, and peace. No interpretation can violate this overall moral thrust. Therefore even when violence is allowed in the Quran, it is heavily regulated, and only as a last resort, in self-defense in order to reestablish the disturbed balance.

The third reason for engaging with religion is to be able to challenge the authority of those pseudo-scholars who speak in the name of Islam, so that one is not gullible to the extremist religious discourse.

And these are just some of the reasons.

Therefore religion needs to be part of the solution as well.

The video of Aurangzeb Haneef’s entire lecture, “Theology of Tolerance and Intolerance: Qur’anic Hermeneutics of Peacebuilding,” is available here, thanks to a video provided by the Islamic Society of Edinburgh University.

State Department Discovers Religion, 2015 QDDR

After decades of viewing religion as mostly irrelevant to international relations, the Department of State continues to open a new chapter of recognizing that religious faith is integral to the lives of vast portions of the planet’s human population.

A hopeful sign of this is that considering religion and engaging religious actors made it into the 2015 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), issued this week by the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Engagement of religious actors is included as one way to pursue the QDDR’s Strategic Priorities, including “Preventing and Mitigating Conflict and Violent Extremism” and “Promoting Resilient, Open, Democratic Societies.”

To expand the capacity of the Department of State and USAID “to promote democracy, governmental accountability, and respect for human rights,” the QDDR sets forth this task (p. 33):

Assess religious dynamics and continue to engage religious actors and institutions. Recognizing the relevance of religion to our diplomacy and development objectives, the White House issued the 2013 National Strategy on Integrating Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement into U.S. Foreign Policy. This strategy calls for engaging religious actors and institutions to promote development, advance pluralism and human rights, and mitigate violent conflict. Every overseas post and domestic bureau will seek opportunities to engage religious leaders.


Need for “Sufficiently Profound Responses” to Religion-Related Violence

In his 2015 annual report to the United Nations (A/HCR/28/66), Heiner Bielefeltd, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, focuses on “Preventing violence committed in the name of religion.” He outlines what “sufficiently profound responses” to this grave problem should include.

When Bielefeldt came to the United Nations, apparently he didn’t get the memo explaining that as a U.N. official he should issue lots of bureaucratic blah-blah-blah. Instead, his annual reports have repeatedly been substantive and insightful. The 2015 report is no exception.

Something can be done to reduce religion-related violence, explains Bielefeldt.

His recommendations for states are clear:

Legislation that renders the existence of certain religious communities “illegal” in the country should be revoked.

States should repeal anti-blasphemy laws, anti-conversion laws and any other discriminatory criminal law provisions, including those based on religious laws.

For private citizens and civil society organizations, he emphasizes breaking through cultures of silence. “Silent majority” no more is one of his core recommendations, especially for those in areas with state protections for freedom of speech and cultures of openness who enjoy lower risks than others. Speak out for those who feel they cannot speak for themselves – and do so wisely.

Bielefeldt rejects anemic over-simplifications of religion-related violence. “[P]ublic rejections of violence,” he argues “…should not succumb to the temptation to reduce the issue of violence in the name of religion to mere “misunderstandings” and external abuses. This would amount to an irresponsible trivialization of the problem.”

Instead, he explains, “theologians and religious leaders,” and others too, I would add,

should actually expose themselves to the disturbing fact that perpetrators of violence — or at least some of them — may be convinced to perform an act of service to God when killing fellow humans. Taking seriously these ideas, however bizarre and distorted they may seem, is the precondition for giving sufficiently profound responses. Only by confronting the perverse “attractiveness” of violent religious extremism for some people, including people living in precarious and volatile political circumstances, will it be possible to tackle the various root causes of violence, including polarizing religious interpretations and incitement to religious hatred.

“Violence in the name of religion,” concludes Bielefeldt, “does not “erupt” in analogy to natural catastrophes and it should not be misconstrued as the inevitable result of sectarian hostilities that supposedly originated centuries or millennia ago, thus seemingly lying outside of the scope of the responsibility that different actors have today.”

The actors with responsibility to counter violence in the name of religion are individual citizens including religious leaders, civic and religious organizations, and states – which is to say, all of us can do something to reduce religion-related violence.

Step one: seek greater understanding of this problem. This 2015 report by Bielefledt is a good place to start.

Step two: move beyond simplistic trivializing. Bielefeldt is right to call instead for “sufficiently profound responses.”

Step three: silent no more.

When Christians Kill and Destroy but Also Make Peace, CAR Today

Consistency Deficit Disorder is a problem among Christians these days. Many Christians have been at the forefront of asking Muslims, “So, what are you Muslims going to do about violence committed by Muslims today?” while we Christians ourselves at times, perhaps not infrequently, turn a blind eye to violence committed by Christians. We need to stop, and then pray and think about this. The Central African Republic (CAR) is a good place to start.

A few days ago U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power tweeted about the “frightened Muslim pop[ulation]” in the CAR. Imagine if you and your family were living in the midst of a civil war and a group from a different religion and ethnicity were targeting people of your religion and ethnicity. I would be frightened, as I suppose you too would be.

For those of us who are Christian, there is an added gut-wrenching element to this: many of the perpetrators of death and destruction in the CAR, who are targeting the Muslim population, are from the Christian population.

Ambassador Power explained to reporters that as of her recent visit to CAR, 417 of the 436 mosques in this country had been destroyed, and around 20% of the country’s 4.5 million people have fled. Muslims are not the ones destroying mosques in CAR, Christians are.  Moreover, many, if not most, of the nearly 1 million people who have fled are Muslim, and they are fleeing from violence committed intentionally against them at the hands of the Christian population.

To my fellow Christians I ask:

So, what are we Christians going to do about violence being committed by Christians in CAR?

I ask for two reasons. The first is my concern about our Christian Consistency Deficit Disorder. The second reason is  because I continue to wonder:

What is the responsibility of religious believers in a given faith to engage fanatics advocating ideologies of hate while claiming to act in the name of this faith?

I am not sure what the answer to this question is. Violence is a human problem and we humans have responsibility for each other, regardless of religious affiliation. But even so, I do not think that “nothing, no responsibility at all” is the right answer to this question. Aside from this, Jesus teaches me, “love your neighbor.” The people of CAR are among my neighbors in this world. I had to stop to ask myself what I am going to do about this. I have neither a magic wand nor billions of dollars to donate. But I can do at least something.

First I did some research to learn about the conflict, and then I contacted a Christian expert I know with decades of experience doing development work together with the people of this region. I asked him for advice, and learned about some important peacemaking efforts led by Christians in CAR — efforts which can continue only with financial support.

Today I sent a donation to World Vision International’s Central African Relief Fund. World Vision’s peacemaking efforts in CAR are a collaborative effort involving Protestant and Catholic Christians together with Muslims.  Catholic Relief Services is a partner in this work. Another Christian partner in this work is INOVARCA.

So, what are we Christians going to do about violence being committed by Christians in CAR?

Prayer for the people of CAR and those working with them is part of my action-plan. Prayer matters. And alongside prayer is a need for as many people as possible to support concrete, wisely conceived action, such as the work by the Christian groups World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, and INOVARCA.



Abu Zayd: face terrorism with thinking, not fragility, in religious discourse

Today 12 people were murdered, including four cartoonists, in Paris in an attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Muslim scholar Nasr Abu Zayd (1943-2010) experienced persecution in Egypt when he tried to exercise intellectual freedom. In a 2009 interview conducted by James Le Sueur, Abu Zayd talked of the importance of not being terrorized by those who use aggression to oppose other viewpoints to the point that people “give away any kind of academic integrity.”

Abu Zayd and Le Sueur in Holland, 2009

Abu Zayd and Le Sueur in Holland, 2009

In the interview he also discussed the problem of some Muslims responding to art, cartoons included, with violence today. Starting at 1:50:17 he comments on the Salman Rushdie case and similar situations today.

Abu Zayd saw the core of the problem as the “fragility” of religious discourse among Muslims.  This, he argued, is what must change. He said, “The religious discourse in the Muslim world are [sic] so fragile that a nothing would present a threat to an entire civilization called the Islamic civilization.”

Abu Zayd rejected this fragility. He instead saw challenge and thoughtful response to challenge as integral to healthy, robust, rich engagement by people of faith with their own religion. When facing differing, even opposing, views in arts and cartoons, Abu Zayd wanted to see fellow Muslims,

respond in a civil, rational way to any kind of challenge. Muslims should take this as a challenge, not a threat. [When] it is a threat, you immediately, you know, make retaliation. But in case of a challenge, you have to think about what was said. Criticism of religion, criticism of religious figures, is something that is very important to the development of religious ideas themselves, and the history of every religion is the history of…going beyond the challenge of the dogma, and only when the dogma is challenged, only after being challenged it is able to reconstruct itself. Otherwise it would be frozen. This is the history of the development of all religions.

Similarly the former Prime Minister of Indonesia Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009) rejected the idea that God is so weak, so fragile, that God would need human defense against blasphemy. He too did not fear challenge. In his essay, “God Needs No Defense,” he argued, “Defending freedom of expression is by no means synonymous with personally countenancing or encouraging disrespect towards others’ religious beliefs, but it does imply greater faith in the judgment of God, than of man.” (And by the way “God Needs No Defense” is available in Arabic too.)

Press releases today denouncing this terrorist attack in Paris will not suffice. Active rejection of fragility and embrace of challenge are needed.

America’s Torture Treaty

In the whirl of public discussion since release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on CIA detention and interrogation after 9/11, I mostly hear a back-and-forth volley of one side insisting, “Torture worked!” (implied: “therefore it is o.k.”), and the other side insisting, “Torture is wrong, just wrong! (And it doesn’t work.)” For me, having already made clear my opposition to torture, I find it deeply disturbing that torture is even considered debatable.

At the same time, I also find it perplexing that the two sides argue with such vehemence that one might think the winner of the media debate would get to set policy — policy right now, on a whim.

I think it is worth reminding Americans, or notifying them if they don’t already know, that the U.S. signed (1988) and then ratified (1994) the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT).

UNCAT defines torture as:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Furthermore, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” (Article 2)

When the 9/11 attacks happened and I went to work for the Department of Defense late in 2001 I had never heard of UNCAT. In 2003 when I was informed that my next assignment, then with the Defense Intelligence Agency, would be interrogation training followed by deployment as an interrogator to Guantanamo, I had never heard of UNCAT. I suspect even today many Americans have never heard of UNCAT; this is unfortunate.

I learned about UNCAT because the Department of Defense included this as a mandatory component of our interrogation training. I distinctly remember that after the instructor explained the history and content of UNCAT, he told us in no uncertain terms, “This is the law of the land.”

Into the Heart of Poverty and Terrorism: Horses of God

On May 16, 2003 twelve boys from an impoverished slum of Casablanca blew up themselves and 33 victims in an attack coordinated by an Islamist cell in Morocco. They targeted a Spanish-owned restaurant, a Jewish-owned restaurant, a Jewish cemetery, a Jewish community center, and the Belgian consulate.

In the excellent short novel Horses of God author Mahi Binebine provides a fictional account of this attack and, most importantly, the lives of some of the attackers. This story is told from the perspective of the afterlife by one of the dead attackers, a boy named Yachine.

Yachine tells us about his life, and the lives of his brother and close friends who also become attackers, growing up in poverty. Desperation, a pervasive culture of day-to-day violence, and bitterness are the stuff of life in their neighborhood.

The closest Yachine gets to hope is in his dreams of someday marrying the sister of a friend from his neighborhood. Yet even this bit of hope is crushed when, as they emerge into adolescence, Yachine becomes increasingly aware that his lack of education and lack of job skills, and his lack of opportunity for either, make it basically impossible that her family would allow her to marry him.

The film version of Horses of God, directed by Nabil Ayouch, just recently became available in the U.S. at Netflix and Amazon Prime. Horses of God was Morocco’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Academy Awards. The film is quite good, though I recommend the novel over the film, or at least reading the novel before seeing the film. The novel goes deeper into the hearts of these boys.

In either format, Horses of God serves as a powerful reminder that just telling or trying to make Islamist extremists to go away is entirely insufficient. For those vulnerable to recruitment into Islamist extremist movements, there must be a meaningful choice on offer. In their slum there is nothing for Yachine and his friends but the brutal daily grind of extreme poverty in which hope of change seems at best absurd, at worst a cruel delusion. Poverty alone does not cause terrorism, but it cannot come as a surprise that when Islamist extremists swoop into town– offering at least something – that some of the boys take note.

For Yachine and his friends, neglected, essentially abandoned, by the wealthy members of society, it is the Islamists who bring community and camaraderie, male role models, and opportunities for physical training – all attractive to teenage boys. The Islamists top it all off with a simplistic ‘Islam-is-the-solution’ ideology giving angry, confused boys meaning and direction, though sadly very dark meaning and direction.

In an interview about Horses of God, author Binebine acknowledges, “utter destitution is not the only factor in the manufacture of human bombs,” rather it can serve as a sort of “fertilizer.” A sad and dangerous “fertilizer.” He observes, “When you’re born into scum, without any prospects, no hope of escape, you become easy prey for the first dream merchants to come along.”

For those who would like to use Horses of God in school curricula or book clubs, there is a discussion guide available, based on the novel, from the Zephyr Institute.

Does the attack accomplish bringing about any changes in the boys’ desperately poor neighborhood? What does the afterlife hold for the attackers in this story? The movie does not tell us. But the novel does. For the answers to these two important questions you will need to read this powerful novel.


Interrogators Against Torture

Experienced American interrogators along with other intelligence professionals and senior military leaders are collaborating to oppose torture.  Human Rights First recently released a statement which has, as of the time of this blog post, 21 signatories. I am one of them. I believe we should “Support Interrogation, Reject Torture“.

The central message of the October 2014 Human Rights First statement is:

“Torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are illegal, ineffective, counterproductive, and immoral.”

Our media have been filled with opinions about this highly sensitive issue, with profound moral implications, from many pundits with no experience in the field of national security, to say nothing of experience in interrogation itself. This needs to change. As this new Human Rights First statement makes clear, debates about interrogation, “should be informed by the real-world experiences of professionals in the areas of counterterrorism, interrogation, human intelligence collection, and national security policy.”

Our real-world experiences and more tell us that “Torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are illegal, ineffective, counterproductive, and immoral.”


Countering Violent Extremism Needs Local Focus

The Globe and Mail reports that the young man identified as the shooter in Ottawa at a war memorial and at Canada’s Parliament building had “caused frictions with the elders at the house of worship, who asked him to stop attending prayers” at the mosque in Burnaby, British Columbia. This is exactly the opposite of what one would hope for when a young person is heading off the rails. It is precisely the local community which has the best chance to identify and work with such individuals.

Yet engaging young people who begin to be disruptive in a local community is no easy task. More needs to be done to provide local communities with encouragement, education, and resources for engaging youth who are troubled and troubling, and who may at a point of starting to find extremist ideology attractive.

Counter-terrorism researcher Dr. Clarke Jones at Australian National University has criticized a new “Team Australia” campaign, urging the Australian government instead to support “community based” programs.  “The government has to knuckle down and dedicate funds to interventionist programs,” asserted Dr. Jones. This includes developing programs which can provide role models and address issues of identity. Also Dr. Jones maintained, “”If you are talking to these people you’ve got to address some of the reasons why they feel disenfranchised in the first place.”

In the U.S. the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) has launched a program to provide thoughtful resources to local communities.  The MPAC effort is called the “Safe Spaces Initiative“. MPAC explains, “We believe that, in order to keep our nation safe, the American Muslim community must take a proactive approach to identifying and intervening individuals who may be susceptible to violent extremism.” With its Safe Spaces Initiative, MPAC seeks to foster greater understanding of violent extremism in local Muslim communities and provide these local communities with tools to counter this. MPAC deserves credit and support for this excellent initiative.

Violent extremism comes in many forms. This need for encouraging and assisting local community engagement applies to various types of movements. Overall more effort, resources, and research need to go into finding ways for local communities to be the dead end, not the starting point, on the (hopefully only would-be) road to violent extremism.


© 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.