Future of Islam
Burden of Proof: Personal Liberty, Islamic Faith, Public Morality
Liberty is, as such, confused with libertinism, whereas in fact these two sorts of freedom are entirely distinct. The freedom to be a human being with rights, duties, and consequences for one's actions is different than freedom from constraints. Like authoritarian approaches to freedom -- the over-application of rules so that individuals are unable to make their own decisions -- libertine approaches infantilize people. Rules are needed to help shape and develop society, but if everything is regulated by the state, people can never learn to regulate themselves.
Religious freedom, rooted in human dignity, not only does not create anarchy but also in fact leads to more public order; societies thrive when people are allowed to freely and peacefully express their deepest held beliefs. External oppression of religious expression does not eliminate it but forces it underground, often causing it to mutate into violent, extremist forms.
In the realm of free speech and free religious expression, I have heard all too often that "rights are limited" -- that is, that we cannot conceive of rights without also articulating correspondent responsibilities and limitations. While this is no doubt true, and fully accounted for in every international human rights instrument, there seems to be a tendency among the Muslims I meet with abroad that the limits are somehow more important than the right itself. The limit -- whether in the form of blasphemy laws, apostasy laws, or anti-conversion and anti-proselytization laws -- is vaguely and broadly defined, thus leaving it to the whims of the individual, or worse, the government to interpret it as best suits its own interests. While theoretically, limitations make sense, as applied, the limit swallows the right. The push for anti-defamation measures at the United Nations is a good example of an attempt to "protect" the integrity of Islam by placing a restriction on freedom of speech.
To some extent, these biases can be found among American Muslims as well, particularly those who insist on self-ghettoization, which in turn positions them against or in contrast to the American majority rather than comfortably integrated within it. Even among the relatively better integrated members of the community, the biggest challenge when it comes to religious freedom is the articulation of proper strategies to overcome Islamophobia. Too often, Muslims resort to advocating legal sanctions on, for example, hate speech, rather than trying to understand approaches that are in the community's strategic interests. The result is that Muslims continue to be leveled with accusations of being anti-free speech and anti-religious freedom.
As a religious freedom attorney, especially one regularly involved in media, I am very aware of the need to address the issues facing the international and domestic Muslim community by helping Muslims understand both the international human rights framework and the American constitutional framework. There is a need to translate these frameworks into terms that make sense culturally and theologically for Muslims.
While barriers to understanding and implementing human rights are the biggest challenge facing the community from within, particularly in the international context, from without, Islamophobia is a huge problem. The Danish cartoon controversy is a prominent case in which there was a marked failure of communication. An undoubtedly offensive portrayal of the Prophet led to an international fiasco as the Muslim community struggled to express the hurt and offense the cartoons had caused. However, language failed, and a segment of the international Muslim community turned to violence to express its anger.