Tag - Islam

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Muslims Call Religious Freedom “Religious Freedom”
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Islam, Religious Freedom, and Getting the Word Out
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Does Islamic Theology Matter When Conflict Is (Mostly) Political?
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Our social commons: two climate challenges
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Abu Zayd: face terrorism with thinking, not fragility, in religious discourse
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Interstellar and the Mother of All Collective Challenges: Can We Decarbonize?
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Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions

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.”

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 www.IslamAndReligiousFreedom.org

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.

Our social commons: two climate challenges

The growing crises in ecological sustainability and identity politics are straining our social commons. As part of responding to both climate challenges, protect and invest in our social commons.

The doomsday clock has been moved to 3 minutes to midnight. Climate change, fed by carbon emissions, is expected to push us above the 2 degree temperature increase threshold in 30 years, based on current trends in usage of our carbon budget. This manmade crisis creates far-reaching issues of justice. Those best positioned to act unilaterally to protect themselves from climate change harm- in the near term- are the wealthy, who have also been the biggest contributors to the problem. Those most likely to suffer from it are the poor, who did the least to create the problem. Mitigation demands collective action in numerous arenas and at different levels. The scale, complexity, and number of related problems stretch our institutional capacities for addressing them collectively.

Meanwhile, our global identity-politics tensions are heating up, largely but not exclusively from the clash of civilizations narrative and various nationalisms. This latter form of climate change wears and rips at our social fabric, ultimately threatening to widen and escalate conflicts into humanity-encompassing mutual destruction. Public opinion in Europe and the US, particularly after the traumatic Paris attacks in January, has gravitated further towards a clash of civilizations mentality. Identity politics- my side, right or wrong- can be contrasted to principled deliberation about principles. Without redoubled efforts to provide meaningful avenues for addressing injustices, and to counter the identity clash story, a self-fulfilling prophecy will result.

Our social commons— the community space in which we meet and engage with the other to devise answers to our shared problems— is under strain. The best responses to both types of climate change start with invigorating our social commons to generate participatory answers. This means nurturing a more responsible global civics: acknowledging and affirming the humanity of the other through an ethic for mutual obligation, such as the Golden Rule; including religion, not solely for the pragmatics and semantics, but also for the consciousness of the intrinsic worth of nature; appreciating that diverse scales and social ecological settings require a polycentric approach, while supporting the critical functions of central government; and maintaining vigilance against the vigilantes on all sides, cooling identity-based conflict escalations and promoting cooperation for the common good.

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.

Interstellar and the Mother of All Collective Challenges: Can We Decarbonize?

Our planet is losing its ability to sustain human life. That’s the premise of Christopher Nolan’s recently released Interstellar. Amid blight, dust, and skepticism about science and technology, a secret effort launches something even more improbable than a proverbial moon shot. Without getting into more detail and giving away the movie, what if we entered the story much earlier, and knew what we needed to know to prevent collective catastrophe- would we be able to make the needed changes?

 

This is about where we find ourselves now. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the system is blinking red. In the most important  assessment of global climate change yet- a report based on 30,000 scientific papers- the panel has warned of “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” unless carbon emissions are cut rapidly. At present rates we will use up our global “carbon budget” in 30 years, pushing us over the 2 degrees centigrade rise in average temperatures- a threshold beyond which severe impacts are far more likely.

 

We need to decarbonize now to avert a tragedy of our climate commons. It’s the mother of all collective action problems: no single group or individual can solve it. Some individuals will have an incentive to seek a “free ride” by continuing to pollute while others cut back- hoping that others’ cutbacks will suffice to avoid catastrophe. Left uncurtailed, free-riding will undermine collective action.

 

Late in 2015 in Paris, the world will see the next round of global climate talks. We can each take tangible steps to make a difference. Raise awareness. Cut back on red meat consumption. Switch to LED bulbs. Adjust our modes of transport. Work for alternative energy in local communities. Lobby politicians. And yet top-level summits and individual actions are unlikely to succeed on their own.  We need a shift in consciousness to support multilevel cooperation in the push to cut carbon emissions. What ethical foundation might promote such collaboration?

 

One possibility is the Golden Rule: to want for others what you want for yourself.  Both sacred and secular, shared by many religious and humanist traditions, the Golden Rule can support diverse covenants- agreements on the obligation to work together to tackle shared problems, fostering trust and reciprocity, contributing to a collection of globally consequential interventions from many places. This may appear idealistic- and yet, in many cases where a tragedy of the commons was predicted, communities figured out mechanisms and rules to govern their behavior and sustain their shared commons resource. Can we, in differing steps and scales, do this for our global climate commons?

 

To the extent that the Golden Rule helps bridge divisions to build community and address difficult collective challenges, it is more urgent to affirm now than ever. That way we might be able to go Interstellar not from desperation, but choice

Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions

ISIL claims to be Islamic. Now, a letter signed by over 100 highly respected Muslim scholars has decisively condemned ISIL’s rhetoric and behavior, and urged the ISIL leader to desist and repent. The signatories describe their views as representative of the “overwhelming majority of Sunni scholars over the course of Islamic history”. Given that ISIL draws some recruits from Sunni Muslims in its fight with Shii Muslims, this letter has the potential to dissuade some recruits, provided that media outlets and social networks help publicize it.

The letter makes 24 points on ISIL’s assertions and activities. Taking a traditional jurisprudential approach, the document cites religious reasoning forbidding virtually all the abhorrent acts feeding ISIL’s notoriety, such as mutilation, killing emissaries, enslavement, torture, desecration of graves and shrines, and ill treatment of women, children, and other religious groups (especially Christians and Yazidis). In these alone, the letter is noteworthy.

Yet this document does more: it addresses the extraordinarily consequential question of who can interpret Islam, and what assertions count as religiously authoritative interpretations. To better explain this, consider that Islam in general, and Sunni tradition in particular, is decentralized in religious authority structures: there is little in the way of a clerical hierarchy. Social conflicts and new communications technologies have added to the crowded field of self-proclaimed religious voices.

Decentralization means that it is hard to mobilize an authoritative response to misguided religious claims. However, decentralization does not necessarily mean interpretative anarchy. There are established norms governing religious interpretation. The first point made by the signatories is that fatwas (religious legal opinions) cannot be offered without the necessary learning requirements, and must be grounded in Islamic legal theory. From this follow points about specific prerequisites for religious legal interpretation, such as mastery of language and refraining from “cherry-picking” sacred texts, and several points related to ISIL’s wrong assertions about jihad.

Religious vigilantes are those with rudimentary Islamic education who arrogate to themselves to the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. Religious vigilantes like ISIL deviate from the norms that guide traditional religious deliberation.  By condemning ISIL’s behavior, this document condemns vigilante brutality in the name of Islam. By affirming the prerequisites of religious interpretation, this document demands a more elevated religious deliberative community.

In one religious ideal, a non-coercive setting would permit the coexistence of different religious interpretations, with people effectively agreeing to disagree. This would allow for thoughtful public deliberation where diverse views are aired and carefully examined. The reality is that some refuse the ground rules, and disputes can turn into shouting matches, where the biggest megaphones and fists prevail. To work for long-term peace, the wider community should breathe life into norms of public deliberation, opening avenues for the redress of grievances, and ensuring that all injustices are held to account.

© 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.