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.”