Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Essentials of Liberty in Law

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The freedoms of religion and speech are first among the freedoms of our Bill of Rights and also fundamental human rights in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  They are essentials of liberty in law for any government, but they are denied in Islamic nations where apostasy and blasphemy laws are enforced as part of Islamic Law, or shari’a.  In fundamentalist Islam, or Islamism, shari’a prohibits any secular law that conflicts with its dictates, and that includes libertarian human rights.

            There can be no liberty in law or peace and justice without the freedoms of religion and speech, and those freedoms are denied when shari’a functions like a constitution and preempts fundamental human rights, as it does in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan.  But U.S. foreign policy has been ambivalent on that issue, proclaiming a policy to promote the freedoms of religion and speech while providing aid and assistance to nations that deny those freedoms. 

            On August 8, 2016, Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinkin presented the annual report on international religious freedom that affirms its primacy in U.S. foreign policy:
“Support for religious liberty guides the U.S. and our foreign policy every day.
…Our abiding commitment is affirmed by the priority we’ve given to defending and championing international religious freedom everywhere, but especially where it is under threat.  …When a government denies religious liberty, it turns citizens who have done nothing wrong into criminals, igniting tension that breeds contempt, hopelessness, alienation. Far from a vulnerability or weakness, religious pluralism shows respect for the beliefs of every citizen and gives each a tangible reason to contribute to the success of the entire society. That’s why no nation can fulfil its potential if its people are denied the right to freely choose and openly practice their faith.”

            President El Sissi of Egypt and Erdogan of Turkey have used apostasy and blasphemy laws to repress opposition to their authoritarian regimes, often in the name of security concerns.  Secretary Blinkin acknowledged that security is a concern with violent extremist groups, but cautioned:
“But security concerns are not a defensible reason to suppress peaceful religious activities, deny fair treatment to religious groups, apply collective punishments, or deny freedoms that are essential to religious practice, including those of association, assembly and expression.  We express this point not solely to defend the principle of religious freedom, but also because terrorists are quick to exploit evidence of discrimination in trying to rationalize their actions and attract new members.  Whatever the intent, repression tends to fuel terrorism, not stop it, which means that the denial of religious liberty is not only wrong but profoundly misguided and self-defeating.”

            The Executive Summary of the International Religious Freedom Report for 2015 cites the brutal enforcement of apostasy and blasphemy laws and vigilante actions that have been ignored in Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran.  Egypt is not mentioned, perhaps for political reasons, but there have been numerous reports of similar abuses there.  It is obvious that U.S. foreign policy has failed to promote the freedoms of religion and speech in the Middle East.

            There is irony here.  While U.S. policy is to promote the freedoms of religion and speech where it is lacking abroad, at home fundamentalist believers have carried those freedoms to oppressive extremes.  They have demanded the right to discriminate against homosexuals, who they consider sinners, denying them equal protection of the law; and some have used religious freedom to fan the flames of religious hatred.  In the U.S., the abuse of the freedoms of religion and speech by some have undermined liberty in law for others.         

            The radical Islamist terrorists of ISIS thrive on Christian hypocrisy and moral decadence in libertarian democracies and attract disaffected young Muslims to their cause with the promise of religious purity through a strict shari’a that imposes the death penalty for insulting God (blasphemy) and betraying God/Allah by leaving Islam (apostasy).
            After the Arab Spring it appeared that Islam was becoming more compatible with libertarian democracy, but a continuous flow of young Muslims to ISIS and a trend toward Islamism by Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and Iran have challenged that assumption.  The refugee crisis has made matters worse.  Public fear and anger over Muslim refugees has been exploited by populist demagogues to polarize religions.  The jury remains out on whether Islam will develop into a religion of freedom, justice and peace or one of oppressive religious laws and violence.

            New strategies are needed to reconcile Islam with libertarian democracy.  They have been hampered by an Administration that denies any connection between Islam and radical Islamist terrorism to placate Muslims who do not want to associate Islam with terrorism.  It is an example of political correctness hampering national security.  ISIS is an ideology based on a radical form of Islamism.  The ideology cannot be defeated by U.S. military force.  It must be denied legitimacy among young Muslims, and only Muslims can achieve that strategic objective.    

            Religions provide their believers with standards of legitimacy (what is right).  For a religion to be compatible with freedom and democracy, its standards of legitimacy must be considered voluntary moral standards rather than enforceable laws.  Judaism and Christianity abandoned enforcement of their religious laws after the Enlightenment (although Massachusetts still has a blasphemy law on its books), but Islamist regimes continue to enforce shari’a.  There can be no liberty in law in Islam until apostasy and blasphemy laws are no longer enforced.         

            The conflict between libertarian democracy and authoritarian Islamism is testimony to the pervasive and often perverse role of religion in our politics and law.  The reconciliation of competing religious ideologies requires that Jews, Christians and Muslims share the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves as a common word of faith.  We love our neighbors in other religions by sharing our freedoms of religion and speech with them.  That can reconcile religious differences and promote liberty in law, together with peace and justice.                

Notes and references:  

Liberty in law is borrowed from America the Beautiful (words by Katherine Lee Bates, 1904):
America! America! God mend thine every flaw.
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law. 

The Pew Research Center has confirmed the prevalence of apostasy and blasphemy laws throughout Islamic cultures in the Middle East and Africa, and that they are being enforced.  See  On key findings on Muslims in the U.S. and around the world, see

On religious freedom seriously lacking for three-fourths of the world’s population, see

The International Freedom of Religion Report for 2015 was released on August 8, 2016, and its Executive Summary is at   

An excerpt of the 2014 Report is provided in the Notes of related commentary on Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good, at

On related commentary on Faith and Freedom that references The 2013 International Freedom of Religion Report, see

On abuses of the freedoms of religion and speech in the U.S., see Moral Restraints on the Freedom of Speech at

On trends in the law that expand the freedom of religion to give Christian fundamentalists a right to discriminate against others, see,
On related commentary on Religion, Human Rights and National Security, with references to President Obama’s ambiguity on human rights and his unwillingness to acknowledge any connection between ISIS and Islamism, and the problem of providing aid to Egypt’s oppressive government while ignoring human rights violations, see

On the contrast between human rights in libertarian democracies of the West and Islamic regimes in the East under shari’a, and the contrasting views of Islamic scholars on that topic, see Religion,Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights (pp 6-17) at

On the causes of religious violence like that of ISIS, the role of shari’a, and ways to combat radical Islamist fundamentalism with libertarian human rights and the secular rule of law, see
On Religious Fundamentalism and a Politics of Reconciliation, see

On The Greatest Commandment as a Common Word of Faith, see

On Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? see

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