Islam’s Religious Freedom Problem Deserves a Closer Look

I just published a piece at “The Monkey Cage” at The Washington Post titled, “Are Muslim Countries Really Unreceptive to Religious Freedom?”  It draws from the research for a book that I am writing on Islam and religious freedom.

The title question of the WaPo piece wades into a culture war:

The West’s cultural war over Islam has entered an intense new phase since the rise of the Islamic State. The debates are familiar: Is Islam inherently violent and intolerant, or is it peaceful, diverse and often the victim of Western domination? A good criterion for answering the question is religious freedom – the civic right of persons and religious communities to practice, express, change, renounce and spread their religion. Whether the adherents of one religion can respect the beliefs and practices of another, or whether they respond to this otherness by violence or discrimination, is at the heart of these debates.

A global view looks grim:

An aggregate, satellite view does indeed show a dearth of religious freedom in Islam. A comparison between the world’s 47 or so Muslim-majority countries and the rest of the world – derived from measurements developed by sociologists Brian Grim and Roger Finke and undergirding the Pew Forum’s rankings on religious freedom – shows that Islam clearly has considerably lower levels of religious freedom than the rest of the world and Christian-majority countries. In their 2011 book published on the same data – “The Price of Religious Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century – Grim and Finke show that 78 percent of Muslim-majority countries have high levels of government restrictions on religious freedom, compared with 43 percent of all other countries and 10 percent of Christian countries.

But a closer look reveals more complexity – and hope:

Do these aggregate scores prove that Islam is indeed generally inhospitable to religious freedom, then? No. Zooming in from a satellite view to a more fine-grained view reveals far greater diversity. First, it shows that 12 out of 47 Muslim-majority states fall into the category of “low restrictions on religious freedom,” meaning that they are essentially religiously free. Even among the other 35 Muslim-majority states, which have moderate, high or very high levels of restriction, there are significantly different patterns of repression, which yield different conclusions about Islam. There are two patterns in particular, namely “Islamist,” which represent 21 of these countries, and “secular repressive,” which represent 14 of these countries.

The piece comes out of a workshop on Islam and International Order hosted by the Project on Middle East Political Science.  For the other short pieces to come out of the workshop, see here.

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Daniel Philpott

© 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.