Op-Ed: America Must Protect Religious Freedom Abroad
In the mid-1960s my family fled the oppressive Baath regime of Syria for liberty’s shores in the United States. Raised in Wisconsin as an American Muslim, I learned that my faith was best served by a nation founded in liberty with a Constitution that guaranteed genuine religious freedom.
As I watched the Arab Awakening unfold in 2011 and 2012, I had high hopes that my co-religionists might finally be lifting the yoke of their oppressive secular dictators for the freedom that I have enjoyed here in the United States. But now as 2013 opens, we are witnessing the frightening ascension of an even greater oppressive force than the dictators who had a stranglehold on the region for almost five decades -- Islamism (political Islam).
Islamism combines the autocracy of the secular Arabist dictators with unrestrained religious supremacy. The primary battle front, where Islamists suffocate their enemies, is on religious liberty.
The plight begins in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where the royal family, in a bid to maintain power, essentially gave control of religious life to the radical Wahhabi elements within the country. The petro dollars of the Kingdom have spread this lethal Islamist ideology around the world. They are joined by the Qatari through arms like the Al Jazeera Media Group, which, after decades of failure, just recently acquired access to more than 40 million American homes through the purchase of Al Gore’s Current TV.
The recipe is simple: Islamists are government theocrats who promote a particular version of an Islamic doctrine in order to impose their fascist interpretation upon all citizens. They use elections and so-called “democracy” in order to empower a single version of Shariah – their interpretation of Islam’s legal framework for the “Islamic state.” Islamists exploit their own perceived divine mandate to justify a litany of draconian laws upon their people. The most obvious permutation of those laws leaves no room for religious tolerance let alone religious liberty.
Make no mistake, the victims of Islamist control are both religious minorities and those with dissident beliefs, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, who are against the theocrats.
Throughout the region we are seeing a significant increase of oppression of religious freedoms. In Pakistan this week, the Ambassador to the United States has been indicted by the Pakistani Supreme Court under blasphemy laws for simply saying that the country needs to rework its blasphemy law.
In Iran, we continue to see case after case of devout Christians, Baha’i, and Islamic apostates who face death penalties for expressing their religious beliefs. It is not a coincidence that this plight coincides with a government that at the same time is pounding its collective Islamist chest in seeking nuclear arms and feeding the genocide against an entire dissident citizenry in Syria.
On Monday, a 32-year-old Christian pastor, former Muslim, and American citizen, Saeed Abedini will stand trial for supposedly “compromising national security.” His real crime to the Iranian theocrats is his own human expression of religious freedom through the development of an underground network of home churches. He will face the infamous Islamist Judge Abbas Pir-Abassi, known for sending innocent dissident believers to Iran’s dungeons.
In Egypt, with the ink hardly dry on the new Egyptian Islamist Constitution, the Muslim Brotherhood has wasted no time in bringing their Islamist justice to the people of Egypt. Nadia Mohammed Ali was sentenced this week to prison along with her children and the clerks who documented their Christian identity cards. The plight of Christians signals the future of religious freedom for all in Egypt. Ali and her children are now imprisoned simply for their chosen faith of Christianity.
The silence from devout Muslims around the world must end. It is time to rise up as free-thinking Muslims against governments and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood which exploit the faith of Islam for their own supremacist mission. The essential fuel of Islamist political parties and systems is the idea of the “Islamic state.” Nadia and her family are canaries in the coal mine of the Islamic state.
The silence from the White House also must end. We must stand with Nadia as human beings. An Obama Doctrine is nowhere to be found and at this point the administration is unlikely to ever lay out a coherent foreign policy strategy with regards to religious liberty in the Middle East. Real global leadership for human rights needs a Liberty Doctrine. Free-thinking Muslims, however, are most directly positioned to repair this rupture within our collective soul.
The stifling of religious freedom is a natural evolution of an Islamist system fueled by an obsession upon one faith and its divine mandate. As a Muslim, I know the Islamist state will never evolve into genuine democracy. I reject the entire notion of the Islamic state and I see no other way to defeat Islamism but through the separation of mosque and state. Mollifying Islamism into some kind of tolerant form is a fool’s endeavor with example after example in Islamic history of failure. That is why my family came to the U.S.
In the U.S., I learned that whether I am in the minority or the majority, the only way to realize religious freedom is to live in a society where its governmental laws are based in reason and government stays out of the business of determining which religious legalisms are righteous. There are sadly hundreds to thousands more cases like these of courageous religious minorities and also dissident Sunni and Shiite Muslims from within the majority in countries like Egypt and Iran who are at the tip of the spear. They are often alone cutting through the battle raging inside the soul of Islam and Muslim communities across the world.
As leaders of the free world, our nation can choose to abandon these canaries in the Islamist coal mine or we can lift up their plights as beacons of freedom that can ultimately defeat Islamism. It is time to call out the governmental oppressors of innocents like Nadia Mohammed Ali in Egypt or Saeed Abedini in Iran for what they are—ruthless fascist theocrats (Islamists) who use religion as a tool to destroy the spirit of their citizenry.
If the United States stands for anything we need to vigorously and consistently stand for the protection of religious freedom abroad that is not only enshrined in our own founding documents, but in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we are supposed to protect.
M. Zuhdi Jasser is the author of the recently released book, “A Battle for the Soul of Islam” and is President and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix, Ariz. He is also a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (the opinions here are his own).