My legal and advocacy work both in the U.S. and abroad has given me the unique opportunity to view challenges faced by the Muslim community in multifarious socio-political settings. What is clear to me is that the challenges faced, and to be faced in the coming century, by the Muslim community require the utilization of the same individual and societal instruments under evaluation. These include the appropriate and permissible application of individual and communal freedoms, the freedom as an individual to study one’s faith and offer new and relevant interpretations of such, and the freedom for a community as a whole to practice its faith in the public and private sphere. And so, I see major challenges faced by the Muslim community in the twenty-first century as coming from two arenas: 1) intra-community differences, such as disparate interpretations of gender roles, or differing theological and historical critical interpretations of the Quran; and 2) extra-community relations, such as variant understandings of how self (Muslim) versus other (non-Muslim) should interact and the responsibilities of each toward the other.
Much of my legal and advocacy work while at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit, non-partisan law firm that protects the free expression of all faiths, has been in Muslim communities in the Muslim world, particularly in Egypt and Pakistan, where the central short and long-term challenge is a government that is authoritarian and/or corrupt. State control of religion, whether through monitoring of mosque sermons or prosecution of “deviant” interpretations — Shia, Koranist, Ahmadi, or even Sunni — under national security pretexts, politicizes religion so that “Islam” ultimately becomes a tool to be manipulated by the state to best serve its interests. The realization of religious freedom, free speech, and other fundamental human rights is dependent on adequate checks on government power. With activists routinely imprisoned and harassed, the countercurrent to government restrictions is always struggling to gather momentum.
There is also a deeper misunderstanding among those in power about the nature of human rights. Human rights as articulated in international instruments are all too often dismissed as “Western” and therefore not only irrelevant to Muslims, but also dangerous because they carry with them an imperialistic agenda. Moreover, religious freedom is interpreted as part of not just Westernization but also the Christianization of the Muslim world. Recently in Morocco, Christian expatriates have been deported out of fear that their religious expression is disruptive to the stability of the country and represents the agenda of foreign governments. Similar deportations have occurred with Shias, underscoring again the intra-Muslim element to religious freedom restrictions.
Even among individual Muslims, the vast majority of whom are freedom-loving, there are several ingrained misconceptions about human rights. Religious freedom is conflated with anarchy, particularly of the sexual sort — the misconception being that religious freedom is ultimately about freedom from religion, which for many Muslims is freedom from moral constraints and thus total freedom to succumb to hedonism.
Liberty is, as such, confused with libertinism, whereas in fact these two sorts of freedom are entirely distinct. The freedom to be a human being with rights, duties, and consequences for one’s actions is different from freedom from constraints. Like authoritarian approaches to freedom — the over-application of rules so that individuals are unable to make their own decisions — libertine approaches infantilize people. Rules are needed to help shape and develop society, but if everything is regulated by the state, people can never learn to regulate themselves.
Religious freedom, rooted in human dignity, not only does not create anarchy but also in fact leads to more public order; societies thrive when people are allowed to freely and peacefully express their deepest held beliefs. External oppression of religious expression does not eliminate it but forces it underground, often causing it to mutate into violent, extremist forms.
In the realm of free speech and free religious expression, I have heard all too often that “rights are limited” — that is, that we cannot conceive of rights without also articulating correspondent responsibilities and limitations. While this is no doubt true, and fully accounted for in every international human rights instrument, there seems to be a tendency among the Muslims I meet with abroad to think that the limits are somehow more important than the right itself. The limit — whether in the form of blasphemy laws, apostasy laws, or anti-conversion and anti-proselytization laws — is vaguely and broadly defined, thus leaving it to the whims of the individual, or worse, the government to interpret it as best suits its own interests. While theoretically, limitations make sense, as applied, the limit swallows the right. The push for anti-defamation measures at the United Nations is a good example of an attempt to “protect” the integrity of Islam by placing a restriction on freedom of speech.
To some extent, these biases can be found among American Muslims as well, particularly those who insist on self-ghettoization, which in turn positions them against or in contrast to the American majority rather than comfortably integrated within it. Even among the relatively better integrated members of the community, the biggest challenge when it comes to religious freedom is the articulation of proper strategies to overcome Islamophobia. Too often, Muslims resort to advocating legal sanctions on, for example, hate speech, rather than trying to understand approaches that are in the community’s strategic interests. The result is that Muslims continue to be leveled with accusations of being anti-free-speech and anti-religious -freedom.
As a religious freedom attorney, especially one regularly involved in media, I am very aware of the need to address the issues facing the international and domestic Muslim community by helping Muslims understand both the international human rights framework and the American constitutional framework. There is a need to translate these frameworks into terms that make sense culturally and theologically for Muslims.
While barriers to understanding and implementing human rights are the biggest challenge facing the community from within, particularly in the international context, from without, Islamophobia is a huge problem. The Danish cartoon controversy is a prominent case in which there was a marked failure of communication. An undoubtedly offensive portrayal of the Prophet led to an international fiasco as the Muslim community struggled to express the hurt and offense the cartoons had caused. However, language failed, and a segment of the international Muslim community turned to violence to express its anger.
The Muslim community often fails to successfully articulate to a non-Muslim audience its understanding of common norms. For example, it remains alienated largely on questions related to gender, whether it be veiling, women’s rights, gender roles, and so on. At the same time, the community struggles within when it comes to realizing true gender equality. With forums such as my web magazine, Altmuslimah.com, it is possible to strive to fill that communication gap by fostering meaningful, compelling dialogue that is illuminating not just for Muslims, but also non-Muslims seeking to learn more about gender issues in Islam.
Altmuslimah’s contributors argue passionately for what they believe, and the comments section is always alive with constructive feedback and sincere attempts at dealing with tough issues and finding workable solutions. Altmuslimah is, in this sense, uniquely probing. Its readers and contributors rarely engage in identity politics, instead focusing on a clear articulation of Muslim beliefs and socio-spiritual experiences. By taking control of their own narratives, Altmuslimah’s writers make it less likely that others may attribute motives to them. They are sincere, but not apologetic, and are ultimately comfortable with disagreement.
In the coming century, the Muslim community in the U.S. and abroad will be faced with challenges that require a concerted and critical response. There is a great burden on community leaders to meet these challenges with an eye to the future, rather than simply predicating current behavior on past examples. A burden of proof has been placed on the Muslim community to prove that its religious tenets stand up to the scrutiny of international human rights standards. In addition to a general mistrust of the perceived heritage of such standards, variant interpretations of Islam and conflicting cultural identities complicate such a task. To adequately meet the challenges ahead, the Muslim community must be willing to actively and openly engage both its members as well as outside communities. The Muslim community must not be afraid to ask the question, “What does it mean to be a Muslim today?”
Article originally published in Patheos and featured in their “Future of Islam” Series.