Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Evolution of Religion and Politics from Oppression to Freedom

  Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            If a religious nation takes freedom and democracy for granted, it does so at its peril.  Before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 opened the door of a religious world to the secular libertarian values of the Enlightenment, the Christian church opposed freedom and democracy with the oppressive dictates of the divine right to rule.  And political Islam, or Islamism, continues to dictate religious and political oppression in Islamic cultures today.        

            De oppresso liberto liberate from oppression—is from the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 61:1-2), and Jesus cited that passage in speaking of his own mission (Luke 14:16-21).  But it would be 1,800 years before political freedom and democracy defined politics, and then only in part of the world.  And today religious fundamentalists still consider God the absolute sovereign, with their ancient scriptures and laws the immutable word of God that defines truth in religion and politics.

            The Enlightenment introduced the social contract theory that supports the sovereignty of man over God, with democracy and libertarian human rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech.  Those libertarian priorities are provided in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights and represent our foundational values, and they are shared with Europeans.  But most Muslims in Islamic nations favor the imposition of Islamic laws (shari’a) that deny fundamental freedoms.

            Why is that important?  Because when religion dictates politics, it threatens the political status quo in an increasingly pluralistic world.  And as long as Islam enforces apostasy and blasphemy laws that oppose the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech, Muslims will be suspect in libertarian democracies.  Such conflicting religious and political concepts of freedom and human rights can only lead to more religious discrimination, hatred and violence.

            Rana Elmir has noted the plight of Muslim women who wear the distinctive hijab in America and Europe.  They are treated as both villains and victims--villains as Muslims who are associated with radical Islamist terrorism, and victims as Muslim women.  Civil rights laws can protect Muslim women against unlawful discrimination, but not against prejudice and hate. 

            One way to minimize the problem is for Muslim women to forego wearing the hijab, but the long-range solution is for Islam to evolve into a progressive religion of peace and justice compatible with libertarian values.  Muslims can make that happen by treating shari’a as a voluntary code of morality rather than enforcing it as law in Islamic cultures. 

            Freedom and democracy cannot coexist with oppressive and immutable religious laws.  When mainstream Islam embraces democracy, along with human rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech and the rule of secular law, it will undermine the legitimacy of Islamist terrorists like al Qaeda and ISIS and change the image of Islam worldwide; but polls indicate that most Muslims in Islamic nations continue to favor shari’a as their rule of law.

            There is no danger of Islam undermining freedom in libertarian democracies.  Judaism and Christianity have conformed their religious doctrines to democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law, and most Muslims in libertarian democracies prefer freedom and democracy to the enforcement of shari’a.  But democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law remain constrained in Islamic nations where shari’a is the rule of law. 

            Globalization has made the world smaller and more pluralistic, and Islam is projected to gain influence as the world’s largest religion by the end of the century.  And until mainstream Islam embraces those fundamental freedoms at the foundation of libertarian democracy there will be continuing religious conflict that fosters religious discrimination and threatens world peace.

            What can we do about the problem?  Only Muslims can determine the future of Islam, but the rest of us can encourage and support progressive Muslims who are promoting a form of Islam compatible with human rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech.  To that end Americans need to remind their leaders that our foreign policy is supposed to promote human rights and religious freedom overseas, even if we ignore it in practice.

            The evolution of religion and politics will continue to shape the projection of freedom and democracy in the world for the foreseeable future—for good or bad.  For good, if mainstream Islam evolves to be compatible with libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law; or for bad, if Islamism continues to promote exclusivist religious doctrines and enforce oppressive religious laws, like those that make apostasy and blasphemy crimes.

Notes and References:

The Pew Research Center has confirmed that the apostasy and blasphemy laws prevalent in Islamic nations in the Middle East and Africa are being enforced.  See   On key findings on Muslims in the U.S. and around the world, including their support for shari’a, see

For excerpts of the International Religious Freedom Report for 2015 that affirm that religious freedom is an objective of U.S. foreign policy, see the freedoms of religion and speech as essentials of liberty in law, at

For related commentary, see Liberty in Law: A Matter of Man’s Law not God’s Law, at

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