Freedom of Religions Persecution Secularism

Notes & Comment

3The Review of Religions – March 2004 Religious Freedom: The freedom of thought, conscience and religion is today almost universally held to be a fun- damental human liberty, an inalienable right of every man and woman. This right is based not upon science, nor upon social theory, but on the inviolable dignity of the human spirit. While particular beliefs may be right or wrong, better or worse, the right to reach, hold, debate, exercise and even change those beliefs is basic and non-negotiable. These rights have been proclaimed in diverse texts, both scriptural and political. The Holy Qur’an, revealed, as Muslims believe, approximately 1400 years ago, states most c a t e g o r i c a l l y: ‘T h e re is no com- pulsion in religion’. ( C h . 2 V.257) and ‘And say: It is the truth from your L o rd, where f o re let him who will believe and him who will disbelieve.’ (Ch.18: V. 3 0 ) Many centuries later, and after much strife and persecution caused by intolerance over religious belief, the first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America declared: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or pro- hibiting the free exercise thereof’. In the last century, these principles have been reaffirmed in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article 18: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.’ Yet the unhappy fact remains that even today in various countries and societies throughout the world people are prevented from freely and openly practising their religious beliefs. The denial of this fundamental human right takes many forms, some blatant and openly oppressive, some subtle and hidden. Despite the emphatic proclamations of the Holy Qur’an regarding the inviolability of freedom of conscience, some of the most oppressive persecution takes Notes and Comment 4 The Review of Religions – March 2004 place in Muslim countries – the denial of the most basic religious freedoms to Ahmadi Muslims written into law in Pakistan being the most obvious and outrageous example, but sadly not the only one. Muslim society in general seems to have been infected with a virulently intolerant ideology that holds it own narrow interpretation of Islam to be absolute, and that brooks no a rgument or debate. Sadly, this infection seems to have spread to Bangladesh that has recently moved to ban the production, sale and even possession of literature produced by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. Religious freedoms in today’s world are threatened not just by the forces of religious extremism, which deny the legitimacy of any religious belief or practice other than their own, but also by the forces of illiberal secularism, which seek to deny the legitimacy of any form of religious expression in public life. To them, religion is something that can be tolerated if practised in private among consenting adults, but that must be stamped upon if it seeks to raise its voice in the civic sphere. In many countries in the West, and in particular Europe, we face the strange situation that public policy may claim to be inspired by Socrates or Kant, Adam Smith or Karl Marx, Darwin or Einstein but never by any form of religious belief or tenet. There has been much controversy recently over the attempts to pass a law in France banning signs and clothing which conspicuously display a pupil’s religious affiliation. Even beards grown out of religious conviction may be banned, although a beard that is merely a fashion statement would be acceptable! Wi t h o u t getting into the details of the debate on this proposed law, one wonders how different in spirit it is from Pakistan’s laws which have seen Ahmadi Muslims arrested for the use of basic Islamic terms and phrases which are perfectly legal when used by other Muslims and even non-Muslims. Religious extremism and illiberal secularism are perhaps two sides of the same coin – linked by the firm conviction that their world-view is the only reasonable one. We need to move back to, or in some cases remain committed to, values that promote pluralism and tolerance of all faiths and creeds; a liberal secularism that sees itself as the Notes & Comment protector of all forms of religious belief as well as no belief at all. In addition we need to recognise that religious beliefs have a part to play in public and civic life and should not be devalued or dismissed out of hand. The words of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of the State of Pakistan, in his address to the Constituent Assembly in Karachi, on the eve of Pakistan’s birth, may perhaps serve as inspiration for us in this regard: ‘You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan… You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state…We are starting in the days when there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another…We are all citizens and equal citizens of one state…all members of the Nation…and you will find then in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslim would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state…My guiding principle will be justice and complete impartiality…’ By Mahmood Hanif – UK 5 Notes and Comment The Review of Religions – March 2004 PLEASE NOTE: In this journal, for the ease of non-Muslim readers, ‘(sa)’ or ‘sa’ after the words, ‘Holy Prophet’, or the name ‘Muhammad’, are used. They stand for ‘Salallahu alaihi wassalam’ meaning ‘Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him’. Likewise, the letters ‘(as)’ or ‘as’ after the name of all other prophets is an abbreviation meaning ‘Peace be upon him’ derived from ‘Alaih salato w a s s a l a m ’ for the respect a Muslim reader utters. The abbreviation ‘ra’ or (ra) stands for ‘Radhiallahtala’ and is used for Companions of a Prophet, meaning Allah be pleased with him or her (when followed by the relevant Arabic pronoun). Also ru or (ru) for Rahemahullahu Ta’ala means the Mercy of Allah the Exalted be upon him.