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Furthering freedom of religion and belief in Muslim-majority countries

Ballot boxes before a culture of toleration for diversity of beliefs takes root in the minds of people can make things worse. Secularization and freedom of religion are a precondition of democracy.

Imams in Morocco ready to address developemental challenges. Photo: author's own

In Western Europe, it took years of bloodshed and long religious wars to settle the contentious dispute around whether rulers should rule by the authority of God or by that of the people. It is only when consensus was finally achieved around the idea that the authority of the state ought to be located in the people, that secularization gradually took hold, forming the backbone of the emerging liberal democracies in these countries.    

The same religious fanaticism that sowed the seeds for these medieval wars motivates today’s violent extremist groups, like Al-Qaeda and Daesh, in the global war they are waging in the name of God: from Chechnya to Nigeria and from Afghanistan to California going through Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Belgium and France.  

Muslim and Christian leaders issuing the Cairo Declaration, 2004.

The devastation these groups are spreading around the world is in part due to the fact that democracy has been “exported” to - or “imported” by - many developing countries before the battle for secularization and religious freedom was won. Most leaders, especially those in the exporting countries, do not recognize sufficiently that the fight for secularization and religious freedom is still a main item on the agenda of these countries, and do not appreciate that secularization and religious freedom are essential pillars to a country’s peace and prosperity. 

Full enjoyment of freedom of religion and belief is the mark that a new culture is taking root in people's minds and hearts, by which they finally come to realize that there are no absolute truths and that “on every subject on which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons,” as John Stuart Mill wrote in his defense of the sovereignty of people over their own minds, i.e., their freedom of conscience. Full enjoyment of religious freedom and belief becomes a reality only when everybody understands that nobody has the right to kill anybody in the name of any absolute truth.

Religious freedom and a culture of toleration of the diversity of beliefs and opinions is a precondition of democracy because democracy is nothing but a covenant among people to rule themselves as born equal in their physical and mental capabilities, and in their right to their own truths. Access to the means of a comfortable living for the vast majority of citizens is an equally important condition for the flourishing of democracy. The scourge of poverty and the despair created by long-term, chronic unemployment turn people into easy prey to preachers of extremist interpretations of divine revelations.   

Seen through the lenses of the “Spiral dynamic” model, first developed by social psychologists Clare Graves and Susanne Greuter and later expanded by Ken Wilber, most Muslim-majority countries, which were colonized by Western powers, were still in the “Tribal stage” of their development at the start of colonization. After they gained independence, they found themselves propelled artificially to the “Modern state” stage without having gone through the natural process by which Western countries moved beyond tribalism and established themselves as strong, secular nation-states. They chose a sui-generis form of governance mixing Sharia laws and Sharia courts with modern institutions that have all the bells and whistles of liberal democracies, topped up by allegiance to all sorts of international conventions on human rights. Yet they continue to turn a blind eye to traditional tribal customs such as female genital mutilation/cutting, forced and early marriage and other crimes done in the name of God.

The emergence of movements like Daesh is now threatening these fragile states, as their declared aim is to eradicate religious freedom and restore the authority of “God” in the conduct of human affairs.

With this complex historical backdrop in mind, the battle for religious freedom in Muslim-majority countries calls for the following:

-        To facilitate and support the opening of the debate about secularism and freedom of religion. Judging by the experience of Tunisia this is not going to be easy. Bourguiba, the leader of the Tunisian Liberation movement, was a staunch believer in laïcité, and although he had the courage to promote a family code granting equality of men and women under the law - in flagrant contradiction with traditional Islamic jurisprudence - he nevertheless had to accept that the new Constitution acknowledges that Islam is the religion of the state. Fifty five years later, no one in the Constituent Assembly charged with writing a new constitution, after the popular uprising of January 2011, dared to question its first article. Not only that, but religious freedom is, in many respects, more restricted today than under the previous regime - with some women being pressured to wear the hijab for fear of losing their jobs - notwithstanding the stronger language in the new constitution affirming all forms of freedom of conscience.

-        To promote and facilitate the start of a related discussion about whether political parties can be constituted on religious grounds. Some of the parties affiliated with the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood are rumored to want to convert themselves into civil parties. This is to be welcomed as long as they genuinely intend to re-align themselves on the principle of secularism and as long as they are willing to open a conversation about some of the traditional interpretations of Islam that legitimize the call to arms to impose a religious state and oppose universal human rights - in particular those of women.

-        To support the spread of a culture that embodies universal values by building trust and promoting critical thinking. The spread of such culture will help people take a personal stand against all harmful traditional practices and the overbearing patriarchal system. Large scale change in many region depends on the active participation of religious leaders, the guardians of values and cultural norms. It is vital to engage them into debates about universal human rights and religious freedom, while respecting their commitment and ethical views. In this respect, the remarkable work done with Muslim and Christian religious leaders to bring them on board combating the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Middle East and North Africa is worth emulating.   

-        To support and promote international cooperation in solving the major economic and environmental challenges facing the world today because sustainable development and peace cannot flourish in the swamps of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion. Responding to developmental challenges requires a human accord that surpasses all religious and denominational variations. It must be an accord that derives from spiritual heritage and mobilizes courageous responses. It is an accord that inspires something greater and deeper than any challenge!

Read more articles on our platform: Frontline Voices against Muslim Fundamentalism


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