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

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

If Muslim countries are to embrace the concept of religious freedom for all, including the freedom to convert to another religion without facing death as a punishment, that change will have to come from within, scholars say — and the impacts will be far-reaching.

"I am convinced that the question of religious freedom is a litmus test for majority Muslim countries," said Jocelyne Cesari, director of the Islam in the West Program at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. "This is the litmus test that will make Muslim-majority countries fully democratic. Interestingly, there is no legal procedure that today guarantees religious freedom in most of those countries, even the secular ones."

With that in mind, Cesari says Egypt's debate on providing equal rights for every citizen, no matter their religion — as suggested by leaders at Egypt's premier Islamic university, Al-Azhar University — is especially interesting as the country builds a new constitution. Cesari oversees a database of information on the political viewpoints of influential religious figures on similar Islamic discussions at www.islamopediaonline.org.

There are other prominent Muslim voices calling for religious tolerance, but those voices aren't always heard in the Western world. That can be just as damaging as if no one was speaking at all, says John Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University.

"The constant asking of, 'Where are the moderate voices?' becomes a way of undermining those moderate voices that are constantly speaking because they become ignored," Voll said from his office in Washington, D.C. "What that question implies is that it isn't worth listening to the Grand Mufti of Egypt (Ali Gomaa) or the Grand Mufti of Bosnia (Mustafa Ceric) or the major Islamic intellectuals around the world."

While organizations like USCIRF can help shine a light on areas where religious persecution is strong, to make a greater difference they must also acknowledge Islam's own religious advocates, Voll says.

"They are giving attention to the extremists without recognizing the other voices that are there," he says. "Quite frankly, the problem with politics in general is that rational, middle-of-the-road politics don't make very many headlines."

Email: achoate@desnews.com

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