Category - Religious Freedom

Arguing More With the New Critics of Religious Freedom
Holy Mary in a Bikini? #BurkiniBan
Germany Trying to Squeeze Round Mosques into Square Church Structures
Religious Freedom Is For Muslims
Muslims Call Religious Freedom “Religious Freedom”
Memo to State: Christians are Suffering Genocide, Too
A Philosophical Basis for Transatlantic Cooperation on Religious Freedom?
Islam, Religious Freedom, and Getting the Word Out
Dignitatis Humanae at 50
Calvin and the Caliphate

Arguing More With the New Critics of Religious Freedom

Over the past year or so, I and my colleague, friend, and fellow ArcU contributor, Tim Shah, have been arguing with what we call the “new critics” of religious freedom. They hold that religious freedom is a Western principle, reflecting Western power and history, and should not be exported, especially to the Muslim world. We demur.  Some previous pieces are here, here, here, and here.

Now, Tim and I have written an extended review essay of their most recent work, published in the Journal of Law and Religion. It’s our most extensive critique yet. We welcome continuing debate!

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.

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.

Religious Freedom Is For Muslims

This blog has given much attention to the religious freedom of Christians.  A human right, religious freedom is for everyone.  Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty — whose 50th anniversary was celebrated in December in Rome at the conference of Under Caesar’s Sword — teaches that religious freedom arises from human dignity.

Today, the religious freedom of Muslims merits attention.  U.S. politicians direct angry rhetoric against Muslims for political gain.  Donald Trump has called for an end to Muslim immigration into the United States.  He extolled an early twentieth century incident where an American general summarily executed Muslim prisoners in the Philippines with bullets “dipped in pigs’ blood.”  31 governors have refused to allow Syrian refugees into their state, often appealing to anti-Muslim sentiment.  In 2009, Tennessee residents sought to block the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on the grounds that Islam is a violent philosophy, not a religion (while others supported the Mosque).  The list goes on.

Two recent pieces are worth reading on this issue.  One is by Chad Bauman, professor of religion at Butler University in Indianapolis, one of our Under Caesar’s Sword scholars, and an expert on the religious liberty of Christians in India.  Writing for Religion Dispatches, he recounts an incident at a backpacker’s hostel where a Hindu proprietor, seeking to elicit solidarity, said to him and his friends, “Americans hate Muslims, too.”

Bauman explains:

Still today, when I travel in India, Hindus presupposing my agreement frequently make off-handed and derogatory comments about their Muslim neighbors. For those concerned about the effectiveness of the United States’ advocacy for religious freedom around the world, the perception that “Americans hate Muslims, too” should be a matter of great concern.

As I have written elsewhere, India’s Christians suffer from various forms of social and legal discrimination, and are vandalized, kidnapped, or attacked (occasionally even fatally) about 250-350 times a year. This is a serious problem, and one deserving international approbation. However, the repression and persecution of India’s Christians pales in comparison to that of its Muslim minority.

The perception that “Americans hate Muslims, too” helps to feed the view that American advocacy of religious freedom is little more than Christian advocacy:

In fact, Indians are also widely aware of the problem of hate crimes committed against Muslims in America, where, according to FBI statistics, and proportional to the respective national populations, they are roughly as common as attacks on Christians in India. (One of the reasons that this problem is of particular interest in India, of course, is that those intending to attack Muslims in America often mistakenly attack Indian American Sikhs or Hindus, as reported in this Times of India story.)

All of this, of course, simply serves to confirm the impression of many Indians that “Americans hate Muslims, too,” and that our advocacy for religious freedom is really just Christian advocacy. Overcoming this impression, so that the United States might become a more effective, credible advocate for religious freedom in India will require consistent, intentional work.

In my view, it is worth stressing that U.S. religious freedom policy is not just for Christians. By law and in practice, the U.S. government offices that promote religious freedom cover all religions, everywhere, and do a remarkably thorough job of it.  The annual reports of the U.S. State Department Office of International Religious Freedom and of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom are the best reports of international religious persecution and discrimination that one will find anywhere.  Bauman’s point is well taken.  For the U.S. to merit an international reputation that matches the balance of policy, it must publicly denounce the curtailment of the religious freedom of Muslims — and of everyone — with focused effort.

The other piece, by Laurie Goodstein in yesterday’s New York Times, details the efforts of imams in the West to teach a theology that counters that of ISIS.  At a time when so much attention is focused on ISIS and when such attention reinforces a view held by many that Islam is hard-wired for violence and intolerance, the piece documents intensive and courageous efforts by imams to offer a different voice.  The imams have suffered death threats from ISIS:

It is a religious rumble that barely makes headlines in the secular West since it is carried out at mosques and Islamic conferences and over social media.The

Islamic State, however, has taken notice.

The group recently threatened the lives of 11 Muslim imams and scholars in the West, calling them “apostates” who should be killed. The recent issue of the Islamic State’s online propaganda magazine, Dabiq, called them “obligatory targets,” and it said that supporters should use any weapons on hand to “make an example of them.”

The danger is real enough that the F.B.I. has contacted some of those named in the Islamic State’s magazine “to assist them in taking proper steps to ensure their safety,” said Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the F.B.I.’s field office in Washington.

It is critical that we hear all Muslim voices and encourage those who take risks for peace.  To do so will not hurt, but rather will give credibility to, the cause of persecuted Christians.  And, on account of human dignity, it is just the right thing to do.


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.”

Memo to State: Christians are Suffering Genocide, Too

Christians in the Middle East are suffering genocide.  This is the compelling conclusion of a report issued this past Thursday by the Knights of Columbus, written in collaboration with In Defense of Christians.  The report arrives on the eve of a deadline for the U.S. State Department to issue a finding about whether ISIS is committing genocide and which groups are victims.  This past October, officials at State suggested that their department might make a genocide determination on behalf of Yazidis but not of Christians.

Yazidis are suffering genocide, no doubt about it.  So are Christians, though: the Knights report leaves little doubt about this.  Intrepid journalist John Allen agrees.  The same conclusion has been voiced by Pope Francis, the United States Commission on Religious Freedom, the European Parliament, the Government of Iraq, the governing authority of Kurdistan, German Chancellor Angela Merkl, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Let’s hope Secretary of State John Kerry joins his voice to this chorus.

But would a genocide determination change U.S. policy?  Would a resolution declaring genocide being passed by the House of Representatives make a difference?  John Allen posts again today on what real hope for genocide victims would look like.



A Philosophical Basis for Transatlantic Cooperation on Religious Freedom?

Under the auspices of the British Council, Boston University, Notre Dame, and the Religious Freedom Project, a truly wide collection of individuals and institutions came together to organize a conference at Georgetown University on October 8-9, 2015 on the subject of transatlantic cooperation to advance international religious freedom. In the course of the conference, despite powerful countervailing trends, compelling theoretical and practical reasons emerged for thinking that such cooperation is eminently possible.

On first blush, there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the very idea of transatlantic cooperation to promote religious freedom. Consider the radically different approaches of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom to the question of church-state relations. America is known for its commitment to constitutional and institutional non-establishment combined with a highly religious political culture, complete with “In God We Trust” on its currency; France is known for its non-negotiable commitment to laïcité and a public square sanitized of religious symbols and ideas; and the U.K. is known for its Anglican establishment and its Erastian church-state arrangement in which the sovereign is the formal “governor” of the Church. On top of all that, as Robert Kagan opined more than a decade ago, Americans and Europeans tend to have markedly different ways of framing national priorities, assessing security threats, and implementing their foreign policies. As he memorably summarized the differences, “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” Could countries with such different foreign policy styles and with such different views of religion’s proper role in public life really have much in common — much less actively cooperate — when it comes to promoting religious freedom in the world?

Well, yes, actually. And part of what inspires me to answer in the affirmative is a series of eloquent remarks my friend and colleague Fabio Petito of the University of Sussex offered in the course of the conference.

Religious freedom as the moral minimum of non-coercion

One remark was of a theoretical nature. On the last panel on the second day, Fabio Petito made the powerful point (which I paraphrase here) that the moral intuition that religious coercion is prima facie wrong is not a uniquely Western or modern intuition but widespread across cultures and across history. By religious coercion, I think Petito meant the deliberate use of force to compel people to alter, abandon, or muffle their religious beliefs and practices, or to punish and even eliminate people on account of their religion (where, he implied, such use of force cannot be justified by the very high demands of public justice or public order). Despite the fashionable anti-universalism that tends to prevail in such discussions, he forcefully asserted that this intuition is widely evident and available across an incredibly wide range of historical epochs, cultures, and religious traditions, and is not restricted to cultures influenced by, say, modernity, the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment.

It is worth underscoring, though, how much Fabio Petito’s assertion of the universality of religious freedom runs against the grain of important intellectual trends today. Indeed, a growing number of scholars today — whom Daniel Philpott calls the “new critics of religious freedom” — assert that the whole project of religious freedom presupposes modern, parochial, and controversial views of religion, the individual, freedom, and conscience. Rather than protect people from coercion, the project of religious freedom coercively compels people to conform to a reductive privatization, creedalization, and interiorization of religion. In the view of the “new critics,” religious freedom is in effect an ideology that serves certain powerful interests. According to this ideology, only “good” or “authorized” kinds of religion — essentially quasi-Protestant forms of religion that hinge on creedal confession and belief and are willing to submit to elite-prescribed privatization —are worthy of legal and constitutional protection. Or so one prominent “new critic,” Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, seems to argue in a new book. In fact, according to Hurd, the modern project of religious freedom is so narrow, demanding, and coercive that it is really an elaborate system of “mind control.”

Despite the spread of these fashionable views, Fabio Petito is on to something. The core idea of religious freedom is not coercive conformity. On the contrary, the core idea of religious freedom is precisely the opposite — non-coercion in religious matters.

Furthermore, the minimalist idea of religious freedom as religious non-coercion, far from being parochial or peculiar to the modern West, enjoys a widespread resonance across history and across cultures.

One sees this when one considers, for example, the apologetic works of the early church father Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 220). A number of these works Tertullian penned in order to refute anti-Christian calumny and halt anti-Christian persecution. Around the year 212, he addressed one such work to the Roman proconsul of Carthage, Scapula. As I note in a volume forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, Tertullian used the occasion of a fresh wave of anti-Christian attacks to advance an argument that religious coercion in general — not just anti-Christian coercion — is wrong as a matter of principle. Here is what Tertullian said:  “[I]t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature [humani iuris et naturalis potestatis], that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion — to which free-will and not force should lead us — the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind. You will render no real service to your gods by compelling us to sacrifice. For they can have no desire of offerings from the unwilling, unless they are animated by a spirit of contention, which is a thing altogether undivine.” Note that this compact and lucid argument for the intrinsically voluntary character of religion, and hence the intrinsic illegitimacy of religious coercion, appears in human history in North Africa in the early third century — some 1,300 years before the European Reformation and some 1,500 years before the European Enlightenment.

Furthermore, note that Tertullian is appealing here to what he takes to be a common-sense, moral intuition, to use Fabio Petito’s phrase, as well as a common-sense, shared intuition about the nature of religion. He is not building an elaborate theoretical edifice. Nor is he advancing (or assuming) a parochial conception of “religion” or a narrowly Christian moral, theological, or philosophical argument. His assertion of the injustice of religious persecution occurs in an apologetic work he crafts precisely for the sake of persuading people who violently oppose his Christian views — views that were, as a matter of fact, held by an exceedingly tiny proportion of the population of Carthage in the early third century C.E. He therefore seeks to rest his argumentative case on premises such as the illegitimacy of religious coercion that he is confident his pagan audience will be capable of understanding and embracing. In other words, a doctrine of religious freedom — a phrase, by the way, that it is not anachronistic to apply to Tertullian because he uses the very phrase “libertas religionis” or “religious liberty” in his Apology of 197 — appears in his writing not as the conclusion of an elaborate philosophical or theological chain of reasoning. Rather, Tertullian presents his assertion of the injustice of religious coercion as a shared, inarguable starting-point in a practical plea for an end to state-sponsored Christian persecution. He expects that even on their own understanding of piety, religion, and justice, his pagan interlocutors should be able to grasp the unjust and unreasonable character of religious coercion and persecution.

Religious freedom: intimations of universality

There are many further hints, I believe, that the simple moral intuition that religious coercion is essentially wrong as a matter of principle is indeed widely shared across vast historical, cultural, and religious distances and is certainly not restricted to a few cultures or traditions.

One detects the intuition underlying the edict of the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka in India in the 3rd century B.C.E. that “a man must not…disparage [the sect] of another man without reason.” One sees it underlying — and indeed driving — the moral drama of the narrative in the deuterocanonical First and Second Books of Maccabees, in which a large contingent of Jews rebel against the Hellenizing policies of king Antiochus in the 2nd century B.C.E. that sought to impose religious and cultural uniformity. (As Mattathias responds, “We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left” (1 Maccabees 2: 22).) One sees it in Sophocles’ Antigone, in which the heroine defies Creon’s unjust decrees — decrees that are unjust chiefly because they impose a kind of religious coercion by preventing the fulfillment of a central, binding obligation of piety. One sees it in the church father of the late second century, Irenaeus, who pithily and powerfully declares, “there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually” (Against Heresies, Book IV, Ch. 37, sec. 1). One sees it in the early fourth-century church father Lactantius: “For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free-will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist” (Divine Institutes, Book V, Ch. 19, sec. 20). One sees it with enormous force and clarity in the famous injunction of the Qur’an: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256). And one sees it in the fact that the nearly 2,500 bishops from around the world who gathered for the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65) concluded their months of deliberation and drafting on religious liberty with a declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, that revolves around the simple proposition that “all human beings ought to be immune from coercion” in religious matters.

In other words, contrary to the “new critics,” religious freedom is the basic and remarkably widespread idea that as a general rule people should enjoy a simple freedom from compulsion and coercive interference in religious matters. It is not the normative expectation that individuals and communities should conform or aspire to some particular, parochial, quasi-Protestant notion of religion, or to some specific kind of church-state (or mosque-state…) arrangement. Nor does it insist that they should conform to notions of individual autonomy peculiar to modern Western liberalism. Rather, religious freedom is more a No than a Yes. It is a great No to the idea that any human agent enjoys a presumptive, standing right to coerce the consciences of individuals or communities in their beliefs and practices in matters of religion. What it precisely does not do is prescribe or entail any particular, elaborate religious, philosophical, or political doctrine.

Now I would be quick to emphasize that, in my own view, religious freedom is ultimately rooted in or founded on deep truths about the nature of the human person, the nature of the divine, and the nature of the relationship between the two. However, various — and indeed very different and even conflicting — interpretations of those truths can all nonetheless converge on the simple and indeed very minimalist idea that coercion in religious matters is presumptively wrong. One kind of view might ground and articulate the essential wrongness of religious coercion in terms of a violation of basic justice. Another view might articulate it as a violation of the inherent natural rights or inherent dignity of all human beings. Another view might articulate it as an attack on the nature and integrity of true religion or piety, understood as the duty to seek the truth about God, and then freely to conform one’s conscience and actions to the truth one has found. Another might reject religious coercion as an assault on the moral autonomy proper to all rational beings. But the basic idea or principle of religious freedom as such is different from the various religious or philosophical views that might ground or justify or explain the underlying rationale(s) for religious freedom. Religious freedom in and of itself is not an elaborate social doctrine or lofty political aspiration or complicated philosophical theory. Properly understood, it is not a ceiling, but a floor. It is not “mind control,” but a moral minimum.

That is, religious freedom should not be seen as the long-term end or goal of a political society. It should be seen as a necessary beginning, without which even a minimally decent and stable society is either impossible or exceedingly difficult to achieve and sustain. It is what societies need to do to get past the gate of acceptability, not what societies should do in order to achieve social or political perfection. (In some ways, this whole way of thinking about religious freedom might be called the “religious liberty of fear,” inspired by Judith Shklar’s minimalist understanding of liberalism epitomized by her phrase, “the liberalism of fear.”)

Of course, the claim that the intuition of the essential injustice of religious coercion is widespread must reckon with the obvious and countervailing fact that the practice and justification of religious conformity and coercion are infinitely more widespread. And the new critics of religious freedom are right to point to the ways in which even ideologies and systems that claim the label of religious freedom have been used to mask or legitimate atrocious forms of religious coercion. Isn’t it hard to argue that religious freedom is universal when religious freedom has been so seldom respected, and when systems of religious coercion and conformity are the assumed and legitimate order of the day, even at this very moment?

My own take is that the widespread intimations of the essential injustice of religious coercion gain even more force and are even more impressive when they are juxtaposed with the widespread, systematic violations of this moral intuition across human history, including in the present day. My reasoning is roughly as follows. Powerful regimes and groups — including regimes and groups that think of themselves as liberal and democratic — always possess enormously tempting incentives to impose religious uniformity and limit religious difference and dissent. Religion has probably been the single most powerful source of political legitimacy in the history of humankind. Any religion beyond the control of a political community therefore represents a potentially serious threat to its authority, unity, and stability — a powerful potential source of political de-legitimation, or political division, or both. Some rulers and some political communities will therefore always see even a modicum of religious freedom as a risk they cannot afford to take. Given all of these powerful incentives, it is all the more remarkable that the intuition that religious coercion is unjust has been so regularly and widely articulated across history — against all the odds, one might say. In order for this perpetually uncomfortable idea to have overcome the odds in so many different contexts, it seems reasonable to conclude that it must be rooted in fundamental and enduring intuitions concerning the nature of humanity, the nature of morality, or the nature of religion, or all of the above.

Religious non-coercion: a shared theoretical and practical basis for cooperation?

Fabio Petito expressed another insight that argues in favor of the possibility of more robust transatlantic cooperation on religious freedom. As a practical matter, he argued in an intervention from the floor on the first day of the conference that what Western governments can and should do with respect to advancing international religious freedom is focus on working together to reduce and stop the worst forms of persecution in matters of religion or belief. In other words, what they should do is focus on the most extreme forms of coercion inflicted against individuals and communities in their religious beliefs, norms, practices, and institutions. And they should intentionally work harder and work more closely together to encourage societies around the world to stop these forms of coercion.

This, of course, is a simple point. But it is striking that this second, practical policy point converges very powerfully with the first, theoretical point about the widely shared intuition of the wrongness of religious coercion. Together, they yield the following, crucial conclusion: To focus on the most serious forms of coercion in religious matters around the world is not to pursue a lowest-common-denominator understanding of religious freedom. To focus on such forms of religious coercion is not just a practical, policy imperative. It is not something we should do simply because it is a goal that is easier to reach or one we can more easily agree on despite our differences — low-hanging fruit, as it were. Rather, to focus on such forms of religious coercion presupposes a more theoretically sound and more precise understanding of what religious freedom actually is in the first place.

To elaborate, if the foregoing theoretical reasoning about the basic and widespread notion that religious coercion is presumptively and essentially unjust, then religious freedom precisely is the avoidance of such forms of religious coercion. That is, both by universal or near-universal definition and by universal or near-universal intuition, religious freedom is nothing other than the right of individuals and communities to immunity from coercion in religious matters. Therefore, religious freedom can be said to be respected in a society — indeed, fully respected — precisely insofar as that society simply lacks or avoids undue or unjust religious coercion. It follows that a society can be said to have at least basic religious freedom insofar as it simply avoids the most serious, substantial, and obviously unjust forms of coercion of individuals and communities in their religious beliefs and practices. On this understanding, then, from both a theoretical and practical point of view, it becomes a sound goal of policy — and a solid basis for transatlantic policy cooperation — to identify and to stop the most serious and substantial forms of religious coercion being carried out by governments and non-state actors in the world today.

Of course, this way of looking at religious freedom does not resolve all theoretical and practical difficulties. For one thing, there are obviously very different types of coercion. And there are very different levels of coercion. And there are difficult questions about what precisely constitutes coercion. When members of one religious community are de jure unequal under the law for certain purposes, with fewer rights and opportunities in the economic sphere or political sphere, does that constitute coercion — perhaps subtle, perhaps indirect, but nonetheless real and serious coercion? When members of one religious community experience de facto discrimination in society for the purposes of employment or housing, does that in effect constitute a kind of coercion or coercive punishment for holding certain religious beliefs or for having certain religious identities?

These are not easy questions. But focusing on religious coercion may help us retrieve and clarify what religious freedom is all about. And, at the very same time, it may help us articulate a realizable policy goal that very different governments — including governments on both sides of the Atlantic — as well as people of very different religions, cultures, and philosophical perspectives can rally around.

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.

Dignitatis Humanae at 50

This coming December 7th, the Catholic Church will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty.

Of all of the Council’s teachings, Dignitatis Humanae evoked the hottest debate and broke most sharply with the past.  A great enthusiast for the document, I recall sharing my interest with my Protestant grandmother: “Well, it was about time,” she shot back tartly.

Why indeed did the Catholic Church take so long to embrace a principle that Protestants had discovered three centuries earlier and that Enlightenment philosophers had proclaimed two centuries earlier?

The Enlightenment was part of the problem.  While Rousseau and the Jacobins who launched the French Revolution pushed for religious freedom for the individual, they brooked no sympathy for the institutions of the Catholic Church — the purveyor of inquisitions and purges and a siphon of loyalties that should now be directed towards the state, as they saw it.  So, they forced Catholics to swear loyalty to a Church without the Pope, exiled and beheaded priests and nuns, and carried out what was perhaps the first modern genocide against Catholics in the Vendee region.  Throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, liberal republican legatees of the Revolution continued to advocate for a state management of religion that curtailed the powers of the Church.

The Church’s slowness to come around to religious freedom was not mere reaction, though.  Its ideal of Church-state relations continued to be that derived from the Middle Ages: a close partnership in which Church and state worked together to fashion a thoroughly Christian society.  The Church would direct its members’ loyalty towards the state.  The state would not only guard the privileges of the Church but would actively promote Catholic culture, customs, morals, and beliefs.   And, centuries after the heretic’s pyre and medieval torture chambers had disappeared, the Church still taught that it could, in principle, where possible, legally restrict non-Catholic expression of religious faith.  Even as late as the 1950’s, the Pope and top cardinals espoused this doctrine.

How did the Church go from this stance to its declaration that all people enjoy the human right of religious freedom?

First, Catholic intellectuals, including John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, Heinrich Rommen, and John Courtney Murray, did the hard intellectual work of laying the groundwork for a genuinely Catholic doctrine of religious liberty, one that explained why people and communities of every religion had the right to express and practice their faith, but that also was rooted in philosophical and theological commitments friendly to Catholic beliefs.  Their ideas at once broke with medieval politics and avoided the pitfalls of Enlightenment individualism.  The key was human dignity — the dignity of the human person as one who searches for and potentially embraces religious truth.

Second, in the West, regimes that were hostile to religious freedom eventually became liberal democracies friendly to religious freedom, thus convincing the Church that it could flourish and operate in a democratic context.  This did not happen until the close of World War II.  Indeed, upon closer inspection it turns out to be an anachronism to say that the rest of the world had arrived at religious freedom while the Church remained behind.  The fascist and communist regimes that arose in the 1920s and 1930s were among the harshest deniers of religious freedom in the history of the world, while regimes like that of Mexico in the 1920s also suppressed religious freedom sharply.  Even Protestant rulers like Bismarck were imprisoning Jesuit priests in the late 19th century.  After World War II however, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy all sprouted liberal democratic constitutions with fairly robust religious freedom.  Catholic statesmen like Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, and Konrad Adenauer served as great political leaders during this period.

Third, by the time of the Second Vatican Council, new and serious threats to religious freedom had emerged, especially where the Church lived under Communism, as it did in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine, and China.  Such regimes exceeded Jacobinist restriction and replaced it with totalitarian eradication.  One of the most eloquent advocates of religious freedom at the Second Vatican Council was Polish Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.  In places like Poland, religious freedom meant the Church’s survival.

Fourth was the United States.  There, the Church lived under liberal democracy but had a very different experience than it did in liberal republican Europe.  It flourished in an environment of freedom created by the First Amendment’s religious liberty clause.  Doubtless, anti-Catholicism was directed at Catholics, sometimes in the form of violence and discrimination.  By and large, though, the Church grew and could flourish in practicing its faith.  While the lesson came slowly perhaps, the United States taught the Catholic Church that freedom and faith could co-exist in practice.

This coming December, a major conference in Rome will commemorate Dignitatis Humanae by looking at how Christian communities around the world respond to persecution.  The very idea of the conference reflects a new reality for the Catholic Church fifty years after the Council.  In countries spanning from China to India to Pakistan, Catholics are now the persecuted rather than the persecuting.  Even in advanced liberal democracies, they are experiencing new restrictions.  What does Dignitatis Humanae mean now, then?

Calvin and the Caliphate

ISIS fighters on parade in Tel Abyad, Syria, January 2014. (Reuters / Yaser Al-Khodor)

I have Catholic friends who never quite tire of quoting Cardinal Newman at me, that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I’ve often wondered if the same sort of thing isn’t true of international relations scholars; that to be deep in history is to leave the narrow, ransacked way the discipline tends to treat international history. At which point, what John Owen does is doubly special in his latest argument in Foreign Affairs (from his book, Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from The West’s Past).

A little historical comparative can go a long way to moderating the conversation on the contemporary Middle East. At its broadest level, he writes, “Western history shows that the current legitimacy crisis in the Middle East is neither unprecedented in its gravity nor likely to resolve itself in any straightforward way.” Political-theological strife is hardly unknown in the West, and even after the so-called church and state question was “settled”, many – like David Koyzis – have argued that the various ‘isms’ that tore Europe apart in the nineteenth and twentieth century were more than a little religious. It is hard, as an inheritor of the western canon and tradition, to sit too smugly on this side of the twentieth century and claim the special privilege of having transcended sectarian and religious conflict.

In fact, what Owen writes of the seventeenth century might ring just as true of the twenty-first, that “choosing an ideology was as much a political commitment as a religious one…”  Certainly this is the argument of people like William T. Cavanaugh who, in The Myth of Religious Violence, makes a long case that the Wars of Religion were more about supplanting an old political-theological sub-stratum with a new one, or as he puts it, a hostile takeover of the church by the state, than an orderly separation. None of which invalidates the history Owen writes about, though it does make it clear – as he does – that the contest in the Middle East today is at once about the meaning of the religious and the secular, their boundaries, and how those things shape political legitimacy, as they were in Europe.

© 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.