Unification News for November 2001

Religious Freedom and World Peace

by Dan Fefferman

From a presentation at the International Leadership Conference, Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill Hotel, October 13, 2001.

As the events of September 11 so forcibly reminded us, our world today is in crisis. Mutual respect among people of different religions and cultures is an essential pre-requisite to renewing our nations and the family. This is the fourth imperative mentioned in Rev. C.H. Kwak’s keynote this morning: "The barriers that divide people must be overcome; that is, barriers created by race, nationality, religion, language and culture."

I would like to address the question of "Religious Freedom and World Peace" today. I want to call the western democracies to greater faithfulness to the tradition of religious freedom and respect toward Islam, and to call the Islamic world to openness and dialogue with the west on the subject of religious freedom.

Protecting Religious Minorities

Generally, I must say that America and the western democracies have responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11 with commendable restraint in terms of government policy toward domestic Islamic minorities. The creation of a homeland defense ministry notwithstanding, I think there is little chance of widespread violation of the civil rights of Muslims in the US. But in terms of non-governmental attitudes, some troubling signs have emerged.

Acts of intolerance have been infrequent, but they are nevertheless serious, especially if they go unchecked: Mosques in the US have been firebombed and desecrated; Men of Arabic appearance have been refused seats on airplanes even after undergoing stringent security checks; American Muslim women report increasing incidents of being harassed by other Americans for wearing veils; Muslim schoolchildren face taunts and suspicion.

I think we can all agree that this type of intolerance is far more un-American than simply wearing distinctive religious clothing or praying five times a day. In fact praying five times a day sounds like a pretty good idea to me, as long as a law isn’t passed that says that I have to do it.

While I think the US government has done a fairly good job of balancing the need for increased security with the need to protect the civil rights of Muslims, in Europe there are moves afoot to use the terrorism issue against religious minorities. The so-called anti-cult movement seeks to manipulate fears of terrorism into government repression against religious minorities.

A legal revision contemplated by Germany would enable the government to ban religious groups if their political views are considered extreme. A law passed earlier this year in France empowers the courts to ban so-called "sects" and imprison their members for up to three years if they attempt to rebuild them. The Schengen Treaty of 1995, designed to liberalize immigration and at the same time control terrorists and drug smugglers, has been abused to prevent peaceable spiritual leaders such as Reverend and Mrs. Moon from entering Europe. France currently enforces a law which prohibits Muslim schoolgirls from such innocent activities as wearing veils or head scarves in school. Several European nations maintain official "sect-watching" agencies that not only watch for extremism, but also work with the older, larger religions against the smaller, newer ones.

So the western world needs to be true to its ideals of pluralism, tolerance, mutual respect and religious freedom. Unless there is actual evidence of criminal activity or conspiracy to commit criminal activity, we must not allow our understandable fear of terrorism to justify repression of religious minorities, be they Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or members of new religions.

Turning to the Muslim world, the question of religious freedom and tolerance is even more problematic. Religious freedom is not doing well in most Muslim countries today. According to Freedom House, the oldest US human rights organization, most of the nations designated as "not free" in the world today are Muslim nations. This contrasts to the days of the Cold War, in which most of these nations were Communist nations. The reasons are rooted in the Western and Islamic conception of the relation between religion and the State.

History of Religious Freedom

To start, it should be recognized that none of the three "Book religions"—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—has a particularly good record on religious freedom if we look at the issue over the broad scope of history. It took Christianity about 1600 years even to begin to tolerate and protect rival faiths. So let’s not be to quick to judge.

Ancient Judaism started out its national history waging war against the Canaanite tribes and violently suppressing Canaanite nature religions. Once Christianity got a foothold in the Roman Empire, it used the very imperial state apparatus that had persecuted Christians to suppress Roman polytheism, and even to put down the Jews and get rid of so-called heretics who considered themselves sincere Christians. Islam used military force to expand its territory and justified violence against the "infidels." And of course, we should not omit the Christian military crusades against the "infidel" Muslims to retake the Holy Land Nor should we forget the near genocide of the Jews by supposed Christian nations during WWII, and the creation of Israel as a refuge for the suffering Jews—but at the expense of the Palestinians.

So in terms of our historical religious traditions, none of us is blameless. How then, did religious freedom emerge? Christianity, as I mentioned, was quite late in coming to value religious freedom. Only the advent of the Protestant Reformation enabled the tradition of religious toleration in the West to come to the fore. Even then, Protestant reformers and their governments were often extremely intolerant toward Catholics, Jews and "heretics."

It was the background of the bloody internecine Christian religious wars that lead to Edict of Toleration in 1598 and the emergence of writers such as John Locke, whose essays paved the way for the acceptance of tolerance as a positive good rather than merely a way to avoid religious wars.

The idea of religious freedom took hold strongly in the American colonies. The story of the Pilgrims coming to America in search of religious freedom is the founding myth of this nation. And I use the term "myth" not in the sense of something untrue, but something archetypal.

It took a century or two to evolve into its final form, but religious freedom truly is the bedrock on which America was built: Experiments in religious freedom in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and other colonies created the foundation for a national commitment to religious liberty; Only through people of diverse religious traditions fighting side by side during the Revolutionary War was it possible that independence could be won; Thomas Jefferson considered Virginia’s religious freedom law to be one of his greatest accomplishments. ; Religious liberty was the first freedom enshrined in the US Bill of Rights. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or abridging the free exercise thereof."

Having been enshrined as America’s "first freedom," religious freedom, at least in theory, has been the cornerstone for the many nations which followed the US example in liberating themselves from colonialism. If America has been a pioneer of anything, it is a pioneer of religious freedom.

In his keynote address, Rev. Kwak, stated, "The United States is described frequently as a superpower. Ordinarily, this refers to America’s military and economic power. However, America’s true power and global authority will depend on its moral and spiritual power."

I would like to submit that religious freedom is the most essential gift that God gave the United States to share with the world. As Rev. Moon himself said in his testimony to the US Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution in 1984, "Without religious freedom…God cannot fulfill His ideal. The Pilgrim Fathers understood that if you do not have religious freedom, you have no freedom at all."

Certainly America’s record on religious freedom is less than perfect too. But there is no other nation in which so many religious traditions live together in close proximity, in such relative harmony, and with so much freedom, as in the United States. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the US established a noble tradition of protecting the rights of previously persecuted minorities such as Catholics, Jews, Unitarians, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, Hindus, Buddhists, non-believers, and New Age faiths. The struggle against Nazism and Communism and the protection of the rights new religious movements of the 70s and 80s seemed to have cemented the victory of religious freedom as we moved into the 21st century.

Islam and Religious Freedom

Let us turn now to the Islamic conception of the state and religious freedom. While many supposedly Islamic governments have sought to compromise with modernity, most scholars would agree that a truly Islamic state is thought to have the duty to implement the Shari’a, or Islamic law. This is what the current battles between the Islamic fundamentalists on the one hand, and the "moderate" Muslim states on the other, are basically about.

Of course, most Muslim fundamentalists do not support terrorism. And in fairness it should be pointed out that the Shari’a grants tolerance and freedom of worship to people of the other recognized Book religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. For Christians, however, this degree of toleration is problematic, for it forbids evangelism. And "apostasy"—that is, for a Muslim to convert to Christianity or another religion—is theoretically punishable by death. Moreover, the toleration granted by Islamic law to people of the Book is not granted to others, such as Hindu’s, Buddhists, animists, or other "pagans."

This uncomfortable reality of Islamic law’s opposition to the western concept of religious freedom—not to mention related human rights such as women’s rights, freedom of speech, press, etc.—lies at the root, I believe, of the current crisis. I said previously that Islamic fundamentalists do not support terrorism. But they do support the state’s enforcement of Islamic law and the expansion of Islamic law beyond its current borders. Many of them believe a person such as Usama bin Laden stands not for terrorism but for true jihad, righteous struggle to implement the law in oneself and throughout the world.

In practical terms, no Islamic state has completely enforced the Shari’a since the days of the Caliphs immediately following the Prophet Mohammed. The Taliban regime, in its way, has been attempting to do so. It should be mentioned that Shari’a is not a formalized legal code, but is a fluid and evolving body of Islamic jurisprudence. Thus while Usama issues a fatwah (ruling) for jihad against Americans, a mainstream leader issues a counter-fatwah against the terrorists and Bin Laden. Nevertheless, attempts at reform or modernization of the Shari’a, have met with dubious success. Indeed, the confrontation of Islam and modernity is often credited for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in reaction to the westernizing and secularizing influences of the reformers.


Thus, we are left with the disturbing fact that religious freedom and Islamic law are in serious tension. How we as a world work to resolve this tension will shape the work of world peace profoundly in the coming decades.

To conclude I would offer the following three positive suggestions.

First, I would like to see a movement for serious dialogue between Islamic and western scholars through the UN, intergovernmental agencies, religious organizations, and non-governmental organizations such as the IIFWP.

Second, I encourage people of the western and Islamic traditions at all levels to begin reading each others scriptures and traditions, for if these scriptures were indeed inspired by God, and if God is a God of peace, then perhaps He can inspire us to make peace through such readings.

Third, I would encourage pastors and other religious leaders to reach out to their Muslim neighbors and begin interfaith friendship nights and dialogues. Invite a Muslim leader to speak in your church, find out if you can pray together, eat together, sing together and play together. Muslim leaders can do the same with their Christian neighbors. In short, create in your local community the type of ecumenical, intercultural ideal that America itself ideally represents—one nation of many diverse people, but One Nation, in freedom, united Under God.

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