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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Fighting for rights: Muslims join the battle for international religious freedom

Published: Thursday, April 5 2012 6:53 p.m. MDT

"The comment I hear most is, 'I didn't know Muslims thought that way,'" says Pinna, director of government and international relations at AIC. "We need to advocate for religious freedom. … It is a fundamental American right, but it is also something that is fundamentally Muslim — being an example for religious freedom and tolerance and advocating for religious rights."

Religious tolerance is close to Zainab Al-Suwaij's heart. As a Shia Muslim living under a Sunni-dominated regime in Iraq, she was discriminated against and persecuted while Shias all around her were jailed or killed for practicing their faith. In the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein, she stood in the street, fighting soldiers for her religious rights.

"We wanted the freedom to be able to practice our religion freely and live without wars," Al-Suwaij said from her office at AIC in Washington, D.C. "We ended up in an uprising where over a quarter of a million people got killed."

Al-Suwaij was injured in the fight, shot in the face and neck, but her experience taught her the value of religious freedom and branded her with a desire to spread it to all people. After the uprising failed, she fled to America and eventually started teaching at Yale University. Then, shortly after the attacks on 9/11, Al-Suwaij left her teaching post to organize and create the AIC. She co-founded the non-profit organization with the goal of building interfaith and interethnic understanding.

Today, AIC has offices in Washington, D.C.; Boston; Egypt; Iraq and Tunisia with multi-pronged outreach programs, including a violence prevention campaign launched in Iraq in 2010 to train residents in conflict mediation.

Since 2008, the Egypt office hosts the annual Cairo Human Rights Film Festival to increase awareness and build cross-cultural understanding.

Through a Middle East civil rights initiative, AIC translated a 1958 comic book about Martin Luther King Jr. into Farsi and Arabic. The comic book, which promotes non-violent protesting, was posted on the Internet, then printed and distributed in Egypt. Some credit the book for inspiring nonviolent activism during the Arab Spring.

In Tunisia, AIC is coordinating nine-month-long programs to train civil leaders how to communicate with and mobilize residents.

Because AIC is a Muslim organization, its initiatives are most likely more effective in Muslim communities than non-Muslim initiatives, says American University professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer. But AIC may also be hindered because of its Western ties, he says.

"Their impact is limited because they could be perceived to be an extension of the American government or American society — but nevertheless they have some influence and they can encourage people to follow the path," says Abu-Nimer, who specializes in interreligious conflict resolution.

On the other hand, the U.S. is a good example when it comes to religious freedom, Pinna says, and the AIC holds to that example in its efforts.

"We know if we advocate for religious freedom it's a doorway into women's empowerment, free elections and so forth," Pinna says. "There is a direct line and you don't have to look much further than the United States to see it."

Religious rights in Islam

In a 2007 WorldPublicOpinion.org poll of almost 4,400 people in Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Morocco, an overwhelming majority — 82 percent — agreed that "people of religion should be free to worship according to their own beliefs."

But the question of religious freedom in Muslim-majority countries is a complicated one.

"It really has to do with the specifics," Abu-Nimer says. "Are you asking about the right of Christians to build a church in Egypt? Are you asking about the punishment of those who leave Islam and convert? Or the punishment of a non-Muslim who tries to do missionary work in the country? The attitude is different based on the issue."