The Boundaries of Religious Freedom and Pluralism

By Leo D. Lefebure

Board Trustee, Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions

In 2007, a group of 138 Islamic scholars from a wide range of traditions issued “A Common Word between Us and You,” a public letter addressed to the leaders of the Christian world, including Pope Benedict XVI and a long list of others. The letter proposed the biblical teaching of love of God and neighbor as a common heritage uniting Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and invited further dialogue based on this shared principle. There have been a number of earlier international gatherings that have discussed this proposal at the Vatican, at Cambridge University, Yale University, and at Georgetown University. On April 24, 2013, Georgetown University, the Jesuit university in Washington, DC, which serves as the North American site for the Common Word Project, hosted the most recent Common Word Conference, focusing on “The Boundaries of Religious Pluralism and Freedom: The Devil is in the Detail.”

The opening panel, chaired by Richard Cizik of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, explored the question: “Are There Limits to Religious Freedom that Religions Agree On?” The statement introducing session proposed the premise, “Few dispute the value and centrality of religious freedom,” and then went on to pose the question of whether religious traditions can “agree to limitations on blasphemy, building churches, and missionary work.” Professor David Law of Washington University in St. Louis reflected on the question in light of globalization, noting two opposing views. According to Thomas Friedman’s model, globalization is a “happy” process of convergence upon increasingly shared values, largely those of Western constitutional democracies. According to the competing model of the late Samuel Huntington, globalization is a process of polarization with growing conflict over values that are incompatible. Law suggested that while there is some evidence for the model of convergence, there are also problems with this interpretation. Combatting the stereotype that only Muslim majority counties have blasphemy laws, Law noted that the constitution of Ireland contains laws against blasphemy. Law suggested that there are many exceptions to Friedman’s proposal, but he also rejected Huntington’s suggestion that the main polarization is the West against the “Other.”

Thomas Farr, who served as the first director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, rejected the premise of this session that “few dispute the value and centrality of religious freedom.” Farr maintained that there is no consensus on religious freedom either in the United States or in Western Europe or in the rest of the world. He noted the controversial questions surrounding blasphemy, building churches, and proselytizing and mission activities. He strongly defended the right of religious minorities to erect houses of worship, and to share their religious views in a non-violent, non-coercive manner. He suggested that the most successful democracies allow for freedom of religious expression, including proselytism. He objected to violent responses to the expression of religious opinions. He noted the difficult but important change that the Roman Catholic Church went through in its view of religious freedom, and he cited the teaching of The Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) of Vatican II, that the Catholic Church demands the right of religious freedom not only for itself but for every other religion.

Farid Esack, a South African Muslim theologian who is professor at the University of Johannesburg, agreed with Farr that the premise of the session was faulty. Esack proposed that the devil is not just in the detail but in the subject of religious freedom and in the notion that “religions” can agree. He said that there is no “Islam” to make an agreement; there are Muslims who can agree. He acknowledged that many in the Muslim world do not affirm the value and centrality of religious freedom. He suggested that there is often a selective application of concern for human rights, noting that during the apartheid era in South Africa, there was widespread condemnation of the practice of detention without trial; but today the United States, the United Kingdom, and other nations use this same practice because of their deep anxieties regarding terrorism. He suggested that building churches and missionary activity are embedded in a larger ideological project, and he noted that this was true of dawa activity sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the former government of Libya, where the propagation of Islam was linked to ideology.

In another panel focusing on religious pluralism and the Arab Spring, Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, reflected on the status of religious scriptures in the Arab spring. He supported and encouraged the new exegetical moves to appropriate the Qur’an to promote civil religion and society, with tolerance of others as equals. He lamented that often interreligious declarations are crafted by the upper-level leaders but never reach the grass-roots communities. He stressed the vital importance of the training in seminaries; many people are connected with their local religious leaders and reflect the values and attitudes instilled by these local leaders. Much of the new exegesis of the Qu’ran is very academic and is not reaching the ordinary people. This creates problems for pluralism and peaceful, harmonious co-existence.

The next speaker, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington, DC, began by saying, “Wow!” to Sachedine’s remarks. He noted that “the way forward changes all the time,” pointing out that just recently there have been many changes in religious leadership: there is a new Catholic Pope, a new Coptic Pope, a new Catholic Coptic leader, a new Archbishop of Canterbury—all since October 31, 2012, when this conference was originally scheduled. Cardinal McCarrick observed that many recent events are very worrisome, from the Boston bombing to the kidnapping of the two archbishops in Syria to countless other tragedies. He agreed with Sachedine that if we deal only with the elites, we may not know what is going on among ordinary people. The cardinal cautioned that a single election does not make a democracy, and acknowledged that the United States has only a very limited ability to promote change in other cultures: “We are neither coach not captain, but we have a change to become coach.” Dalia Mogahed, the former executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, acknowledged the difficulty of getting accurate data in some countries and stressed the importance of United States support for democratic transformation in the Middle East.

In another session that focused on issues of gender, Kathleen Moore, Professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, described how Islamic women in the diaspora are active in feminist issues, challenging patriarchy with a hermeneutics of equality. Many Muslim women in the United States seek to transcend the polarity between freedom of self and the restrictions of the Islamic tradition by reinterpreting the Qur’an, the hadith (reports concerning Prophet Muhammad), and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Merve Kavakci-Islam, originally from Turkey and now professor at George Washington University, stressed that the suffering of women in the Islamic world is not homogeneous. She challenged the imposition of Western models, such as secularization, on Muslim majority countries such as Turkey. Margot Badran of Georgetown University reported on her extensive experience in Egypt since the revolution in 2011. She proposed that what divide Egyptians is not religion but authoritarian politics and corruption. She observed that the most vulnerable groups, women and Christians, are also the most symbolic. Badran claimed that while there are politically motivated incidents involving women and Christians, there is not a general sectarian or a Muslim-Christian problem in Egypt at the present time. There are efforts to repeal the legislation of 1923 regarding the minimum age for marriage, as well as other efforts to undo the gender gains of recent years, for example by requiring women to have the permission of their husbands to travel abroad. Badran encountered many young Egyptian men and women who are “more determined than ever” to combat patriarchy and to establish gender equality under the law. These people want to make Egypt “its own type of democracy,” not in imitation of other nations.

The conference offered an important international forum for exploring many challenges in inter-religious relations. Much needs to be done to spread knowledge of such efforts and to invite more and more people to become involved.