Book Review: ‘Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today’ by Daniel Philpott

Review by Paul Marshall

In the West and elsewhere, views of Islam are sharply divided. To put the matter far too simply, one side describes Islam as a “religion of peace,” while the other contends that it is particularly disposed to violence. Similar strife occurs in debates about law, democracy, religious freedom, and other human rights in the Muslim-majority world. In Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today, Daniel Philpott avoids inflammatory labels like “Islamophobic,” instead framing the debate as a contest between “Islamopluralists” and “Islamoskeptics.”

Philpott, one of the world’s leading scholars of religion and politics (and especially of religious freedom), hopes that even if these arguments cannot be resolved, they can at least be engaged more fruitfully. He believes that much of the debate can be best addressed through asking, “Is Islam receptive to religious freedom?”

To answer this question, he gives a broad overview of the empirical, historical, and theological issues at stake, and he does so judiciously.

A Bleak Portrait

Philpott’s desire for even-handedness does not lead him to downplay the major troubles in the contemporary Muslim-majority world. While acknowledging that no religion, or non-religious movement, has a monopoly on repression and violence, he argues that these vices are now most prevalent within Islamic societies.

He puts the matter starkly: “My own research found that in 2007, 91% of all terrorist groups in the world proclaimed a radical Islamic message. Political scientist Monica Toft finds that today about three-quarters of the world’s civil wars that are fought over religious issues involve at least one Muslim [side].” Furthermore, “since the end of the Cold War, 71% of these wars have involved a Muslim-dominated government and predominantly Muslim rebel groups; and that Islamist rebels are implicated in all 14 instances of this kind of war that have broken out since 2000.” And finally, “[W]hereas half of the world’s countries are electoral democracies, only a fifth of Muslim-majority countries are electoral democracies.”

This grim picture continues when we focus on religious freedom. As Philpott notes, “From a satellite view, the landscape of Muslim-majority states favors the Islamoskeptics. Of 47 Muslim-majority states, 36, more than three quarters, have strong restrictions on religious freedom. Taken as a whole, the set of Muslim-majority states is far less religiously free than the global average or the set of Christian-majority countries.” He concludes as follows: “Taken as a whole, at the present moment, the Muslim-majority world is less free and more violent than the rest of the world.”

Having sketched this bleak portrait, Philpott next examines the religious freedom situation more closely and notes the many complexities involved. Over half of the book is devoted to a detailed analysis of the travails of religious freedom in the Islamic world. The key takeaway is that, despite undeniably troubling tendencies, all is not as grim as it first appears, and there are plausible paths to improvement.

Only 11 of the world’s 47 Muslim-majority states (the total number is disputed) have high levels of religious freedom. However, of the other 36, writes Philpott, “some 42% … are governed not by a radical form of Islam but by an aggressive form of secularism imported from the West.” He classifies the remaining 19 as both religiously restrictive and Islamist, which means they are “governed by a regime that deploys highly restrictive laws and policies to promote” some purportedly traditional form of Islam. This is a distressingly high number, but it is still a minority—approximately two-fifths of the Muslim world—and this provides some grounds for hope.

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Source: Christianity Today