NEW YORK — In his new book, Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today, Notre Dame scholar Daniel Philpott considers the status of religious freedom in the world’s 47 Muslim majority countries.
Ahead of Pope Francis’s trip to Morocco this weekend, Crux spoke with Philpott about the status of religious freedom in that country, his expectations of the trip, and why “the Muslim landscape is also diverse and contains grounds for hope.”
Crux: For starters, why do you believe it necessary to consider if religious freedom is compatible with Islam?
Philpott: Much hinges on the question of religious freedom and Islam. Here in the West, a culture war has raged over Islam at least as far back as the attacks of September 11, 2001, pitting “Islamoskeptics,” who say that Islam is hard-wired for violence and that the West must gird up for a long civilizational struggle, against “Islamopluralists,” who say that Islam is as peaceful as any religion and that westerners ought to avoid provoking extremists. The culture war takes place on talk radio, the internet, and cable news, but also in higher brow venues like The New Republic and the National Review. Much is at stake.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton fought out this culture war in the election of 2016, and, once Trump took office, he undertook both policies and rhetoric that demeaned Muslims and almost certainly encouraged hate crimes against Muslims. There are other reasons why religious freedom matters, too. It is correlated inversely with religious terrorism and civil war and positively with democracy, peace, economic development and the advancement of women, goods that are disproportionately lacking in the Muslim world.
Finally, religious freedom is a matter of justice, plain and simple. When Bahais, Jews, or Christians suffer repression in Muslim-majority countries, just as when Muslims are mistreated in western countries (think only of the recent atrocities in New Zealand), human dignity and human rights are diminished.
If the majority of countries in the world with low levels of religious freedom are “Islamist,” what are we to make of that?
That finding supports the Islamoskeptics. Countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Sudan are religiously repressive on account of “Islamism,” an ideology that calls for the state to promote a conservative form of Islam in all walks of society. Islamoskeptics are also strengthened by the finding that Muslim-majority states are in the aggregate considerably less religiously free than the global average or than Christian majority states. Other findings in my new book, though, bear out the Islamopluralist perspective.
Forty percent of the Muslim-majority countries that have low levels of religious freedom are “secular repressive,” which are governed by a western-inspired ideology that calls for privatizing religion in the name of achieving a modern, economically developed nation-state. Religious freedom falls victim to the French Revolution nearly as often as it does to the Iranian Revolution. Finally, my profile of the Muslim world was filled out by the discovery of eleven (out of 47) Muslim-majority countries that are in fact religiously free, most importantly the “West Africa Seven.” These are not outliers and demonstrate the possibility of genuine religious freedom in Islam. So, yes, there are Islamist states, but the Muslim landscape is also diverse and contains grounds for hope.
Pope Francis has dedicated significant time traveling to Muslim majority countries. What motivates this and what do you believe has been the effect to date?
Popes have engaged the Muslim world since the Second Vatican Council called for interreligious dialogue in the great document of 1965, Nostra Aetate. Pope Francis has taken up this call with particular vigor. He has been a bridge builder and a reconciler, which goes with his stress on mercy and peace. His trip to the UAE last month was significant in being the first visit of a pope to the land where Islam was founded. The visit was a success, building trust and friendship between the two religions and raising the profile of Christian minorities who inhabit the Arabian Peninsula. He also raised the issue of religious freedom, much to his credit.
As my last answer indicated, this human right is widely compromised in the Muslim-majority world and is one in which the Church has a great interest and stake, and it would be remiss to see the Holy Father simply having his picture taken with Muslim leaders and failing to raise this critical issue. He did raise it, though, and we can be thankful for that.
What, then, do you believe we can expect to hear from Pope Francis in Morocco?
Pope Francis will speak of friendship between Catholics and Muslims; the Moroccans will speak similarly; pictures will be taken. Pope Francis will encourage the tiny Catholic community in this country whose population is 99 percent Muslim. I hope and expect that he will bring up religious freedom, too. In my categories above, Morocco is in the “secular repressive” category, though it is not an extreme version of it, as are Egypt and Syria, whose repression of traditional Muslims makes them among the worst practitioners of torture in the world.
Still, there are problems in Morocco. Tiny communities of Christians, Shia Muslims and Bahais are harassed by the government and fellow citizens and often cannot worship without fear. The Muslim community can favor a harsh Islamism. In 2017, Morocco’s Supreme Ulema Council put out a fatwa declaring that leaving Islam no longer merited the death penalty — this was progress, but also draws attention to the kinds of harsh measures that prevailed heretofore.
My hope is that Pope Francis will not only speak about religious freedom but also will demand some real concessions that will set an example for other Muslim countries—perhaps by way of increased protections for minorities. Pope Francis is holding the cards. Diplomatically, the Government of Morocco stands to gain far more in international prestige from Pope Francis’s visit than does Pope Francis, who is already renowned for his foreign travels.
In instances such as the brutal killing of Father Jacques Hamel — the French priest who was slain while celebrating Mass — or on other occasions, Pope Francis has denounced such tragedies by labeling it as “absurd violence” and denouncing hatred, yet he always steers clear of identifying it with Islam. What’s his strategy here?
I suspect that Pope Francis is trying to avoid repeating a scenario like that following Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Speech of September 2006, when Muslims took to the streets around the world and in many places carried out violence, even killing a Catholic nun in Somalia. Given the emotions typically surrounding violence, he probably wanted to let things cool down rather than risking to appear linking Islam wholesale to the killing of Hamel. If my interpretation is correct, Pope Francis’s reaction may have been wise.
Still, the Church’s commitment to justice and to religious freedom, stemming from its landmark declaration of 1965, Dignitatis Humanae, call for raising the issue of religious freedom in the Muslim world. To be silent about religious freedom is to fail to keep solidarity with the vulnerable — religious minorities as well as Muslims who suffer at the hands of both Islamist governments and secular repressive governments that are often propped up by Western powers.