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MUSTAFA AKYOL

In 2019, the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC, released a detailed report on how government restrictions and social hostilities toward religion have alarmingly increased around the world. The report also showed which religious groups are the most common victims of these mistreatments. The most persecuted group turned out to be Christians, who were targeted, with varying levels, in 143 countries around the world. They were closely followed by Muslims, who were persecuted in 140 countries. 

In other words, these two great religions, whose adherents constitute roughly half of humanity, have also been the greatest victims of humanity’s darkest urges: prejudice, hatred, oppression, and violence. (And, of course, they were not alone. They were followed by other religious groups that also face persecution, such as Jews, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Hindus, and Buddhists.) 

But why are Christians and Muslims the most common victims? One answer is that as the largest faith communities (2.1 billion Christians, followed by 1.8 billion Muslims), they are naturally the biggest targets to be hit by a myriad of forces of intolerance. Second, since both have universalistic claims, they have not already spread around the whole globe, but they want to spread even more—through mission, or da’wa (“the call”), which rings alarm bells among all those who want to discipline the conscience of individuals and the culture societies. Third, since both Christianity and Islam have a strong sense of transcendence, they irritate tyrants who demand absolute loyalty to themselves—those who want to see no king, if you will, but only Caesar. 

THESE TWO GREAT RELIGIONS, WHOSE ADHERENTS CONSTITUTE ROUGHLY HALF OF HUMANITY, HAVE ALSO BEEN THE GREATEST VICTIMS OF HUMANITY'S DARKEST URGES: PREJUDICE, HATRED, OPPRESSION, AND VIOLENCE.”

So, does this make Muslims and Christians natural allies for religious freedom? I believe so, and I will come to that, but first there is a complication I need to address: Some of the persecution Christians and Muslims experience comes from third parties: such as communist China, the Hindu supremacists in India, and various dictatorships around the world. However, some of the persecution takes place between themselves, which calls for an honest conversation.

As a Muslim, I believe that honest conversation is needed especially on the side of my faith community, because a considerable part of Christian persecution arises from extremist or illiberal interpretations of my own religion.

On the extremist front, we have terrorist groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, or Al-Shabab, who are fiercely violent against Christians—and, in fact, anyone who stands in their way, including many fellow Muslims. The havoc they have wreaked on humanity is well known and widely condemned.
 

“THE CALLS FOR A ‘REFORM’ IN ISLAM, IN THE SENSE OF REINTERPRETING ITS LEGAL TRADITION IN THE LIGHT OF MODERN NORMS OF HUMAN RIGHTS, IS INDEED RIGHT. AND THESE CALLS WILL MAKE MORE HEADWAY, I BELIEVE, AS MORE AND MORE MUSLIMS REALIZE THAT THESE COERCIVE MEASURES IN WHAT PASSES AS ISLAMIC LAW—THE SHARIA—DO NOT LIVE UP TO QUR’ANIC PRINCIPLES.”

But there are also serious problems within some of the more mainstream Islamic groups, who are willing to preserve and implement certain verdicts in medieval Islamic laws. These include the criminalization of apostasy from Islam, which puts converts to other religions, including Christianity, at grave risk. They include harsh blasphemy laws, which are used to threaten minorities, including Christians, in some Islamic states such as Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The latter does not even allow a single church to exist within its borders. 

In other words, the calls for a “reform” in Islam, in the sense of reinterpreting its legal tradition in the light of modern norms of human rights, is indeed right. And these calls will make more headway, I believe, as more and more Muslims realize that these coercive measures in what passes as Islamic law—the Sharia—do not live up to Qur’anic principles such as, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). They also bring no service or honor to Islam but rather only harm and shame.
 

TO ACHIEVE A WORLD THAT IS FREER FOR ALL RELIGIONS, THE TWO LARGEST RELIGIONS OF THE WORLD NEED MORE MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING, MORE EMPATHY, MORE DIALOGUE. THEY NEED TO SEE THEIR FAITHS NOT NECESSARILY AS RIVALS BUT AS FELLOW SEEKERS OF FREEDOM, DIGNITY, AND TRANSCENDENCE."

Meanwhile, Christians should realize that the religious freedom deficits in Islam today are the same problems that they had in their own tradition until fairly recently. Medieval Christianity had its own harsh verdicts against apostasy, blasphemy—or heresy—as well as chilling episodes such as the Inquisition or the Crusades. Some Protestants believed in religious coercion until the early modern era, as Americans can recall from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Catholic Church had reservations against religious freedom even until the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s.

That is why, in his notable book Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today, Catholic scholar Daniel Philpott perceptively argues that Islam has important “seeds of freedom,” which can be grown to maturity. He also argues that the development of freedom in Christianity can offer an example. 

The even better news is that there are already many movements, scholars, and intellectuals in the Muslim world today who are offering fresh interpretations toward expanding religious freedom in Islamic thought and Muslim societies. Christians would be well advised to learn more about them, not only to realize theological affinities but also to stand better against the darker forces within their own world who aim to revive the old bigotries or foment new zealotries.

In other words, to achieve a world that is freer for all religions, the two largest religions of the world need more mutual understanding, more empathy, more dialogue. They need to see their faiths not necessarily as rivals but as fellow seekers of freedom, dignity, and transcendence. They need to better realize, in other words, they are well equipped to be “neighborly faiths.” 

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Mustafa Akyol is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, where he focuses on the intersection of public policy, Islam, and modernity. He is the author of Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance (2021), Why, as a Muslim, I Defend Liberty (2021), The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims (2017), and Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (2011)all of which have been translated into several languages.

 

Akyol also teaches classes at the Islamic Civilization and Societies program at Boston College. He is the director of the Islam and the Muslim World course at Foreign Service Institute as well.


From 2013 to 2021, Akyol was a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, covering politics and religion in the Muslim world. His articles have also appeared in a wide range of other publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Financial Times, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera. He also used to be an opinion columnist in his native Turkey, when there was a relatively freer press.

He has been widely recognized as a Muslim thinker who highlights the roots of freedom and toleration within the Islamic tradition. In July 2021, the Prospect magazine of the UK listed him among “the world’s top 50 thinkers.”
 

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