Religious Freedom: Brief Insights From A Muslim’s Perspective

Religious Freedom: Brief Insights From A Muslim’sperspective

Prof. M. Din Syamsuddin


Religion is a fitra, an innate natural disposition. In this sense, every human being would naturally or greatly need to embrace a religion or something similar to it. Throughout history of mankind, religion has been an important part of their life. Even those who reject what so-called organized religions (including atheists), would innately have their own belief system or a set of beliefs they rely upon.Some scientists have argued for a God spot or a God module existing in every human being, which is responsible for their interest in religious or spiritual matters. Even though followers of a religion and atheists might differ in interpreting the ‘God spot’ phenomenon in human body, this ‘God spot’ might explain the continuous attractionor attachment of people to faith traditions.

However, religion has been heavily criticized on many fronts in recent years. Some secularists would say that religion tends to bring about or legitimize authoritarian regimes, considering it as a dangerous political tool for social control. In many parts of the world, they speak against any notion of bringing religion into politicsas if religion has only harmful impacts on diversity, democracy and human rights.Some scientists would say that religion is an impediment of the progress of science, assuming it as largely incompatible with science. Many atheists would even highlight the perceived conflicts betweenreligious beliefs and scientific findings and regard religion as a construct intended to give solace and a sense of relationship with larger forces – which science has revealed today.In some developed countries, they openly criticize what they regard as the irrational nature of religions and consequently the irrational nature of holding on to thesebelief systems.They compare religion to mental illness and delusional behavior. Moreover, some feminists would regard religion as responsible for many forms of the oppression of women and domestic violence. Still, some people from various backgrounds would be of the opinion that religion is the root cause of many tensions, conflicts and violent actions taking place all over the world. The list of criticism of religion can still continue, however.

With these harsh criticisms, religion has sometimes regarded as conflicting with freedom, progress and peace. This image of religion has even been reinforced by several instances where films, cartoons, policies, power rivalry, politic, and others related to a certain religion result in highly-publicized controversies, deadly incidents and disturbing tensions.

People argue that conflicts between religions are caused by religious teaching. This argument is referred to some religious texts, such as the Qurán, the Bible and Torah. Muslims hatred to Judaism, for example, is based on their beief that Jewish are people that anti-Islam. Historically, however, despite theological differences between the two religions, people tend to disregard good relationships between them. Islam is not a religion that is anti-Judaism. Instead, both Islam, Christianity and Judaism are monotheistic religions. Believe in the Torah and Bible is one of basic tenet of Islam. Relationships between Muslims and Jewish people during Prophet Muhammad era and nowadays are generally good. Muslims have harmonious social relationships with Jewish. It is reported that secretary of prophet Muhammad was a Jewish. Historical analysis discovered that when Prophet Muhammad dispelled some Jewish from Medina, the main reasons were not because of their religion, but their disobedience to Medina Charter, because most of jewish remained in Medina and lived peacefully with Muslims. It is important to note that most of so-called religious conflicts are mostly related to non-religious factors.

As a matter of fact, it is hate toward the people who are different – either in terms of belief, ethnicity, nationality, or others – that has often been the crux of the problems related to the perceived clash between ‘religion’ and ‘freedom’ – rather than how ‘freedom’ is viewed from religious perspective.

One needs not to assume that religion and liberty/freedom are always in conflict. Both can be reconciled and might even enhance each other. Liberty can provide the context within which religion can play a greater role in people’s life. On the other hand, religion – with its strong justification and motivation, as well its adherents – might significantly help people obtain liberty. Liberty, once people achieve it, can be best described as a means toward a higher end – which is, for most people, value and morality. Meanwhile religion itself can have positive social impact necessary for obtaining liberty.

In fact, one can find an emphasis on freedom – including freedom of religion – in religious doctrines themselves. In Islam for instance, it is emphasized that “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Q 2: 256). A recommended response or attitude toward people who have different beliefs is to declare that “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion” (Q 109: 6). It is implied in the Qur’an that plurality of religions is natural (Q 2: 148, 10: 99). Not only people can choose which religion they embrace, they are also free to decide not to embrace any religion. People are free to believe or disbelieve. It is stated in the Qur’an that, “... whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve ...” (Q 18: 29). To disregard other religions is also prohibited. It is stated for instance that, “Do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge” (Q 6: 108).Even to those who follow a different faith tradition and once disrespected yourself, you should not be unjust to them (Q 5: 6).

Dealing with the relationship between religion and freedom, one question remains: how to build mutual relationships between religion and freedom? A very simple answer is building a culture of dialogue that involves competence of listening, knowing, understanding and accepting differences. It requires one step action where people need to go beyond their cultural and religious barriers. A high level of understanding on the origin of religions could help people grasp the true meaning of religion. Likewise, religious people need to have an open mind to see culture, not solely from its observable expression but value underneath. Appreciation on culture is essential to avoiding or reducing language gap between religion and freedom.

Failure to understand the language of religion and freedom could lead to quantification of religion. People are trapped with numbers such as majority and minority. The perception of majority could lead to superiority arrogance that caused alienation of minorities. Security and justice are still luxurious matters for minority groups elsewhere in the globe. Existence of minority is very frequently less-counted because of generalization and “efficiency” in decision making processes.

In the future the world needs to build a culture of tolerance rather than series of regulations and formal sanctions. The world requires “cross border” that bridge the gap between religion and freedom.

It has been increasingly acknowledged that in many conflicts associated with religion, external factors (such as political and economic interests) play a much more decisive role rather than religion itself. Due its effective power, religion is often exploited to incite or preserve conflicts for hidden political and economic agenda. Moreover, people tends to focus on conflicts “between religions”, while there have been many conflicts, killings, massacres “within the same faith” throughout history. In most major religions, many more people are killed by co-religionists than are killed by people from different religions. Most conflicts are in fact about land, power and resources. In most cases, religion can bolster, but does not originate the conflict. In addition, one should also remember that there have been also many examples of how religion is used to transform conflictsand even address terrorism. Religion itself can help any attempt to forge peace.    

Furthermore, there have been efforts to enhance peace among the followers of different religions through interfaith programs and activities. There have been even interfaith dialogues and cooperation intended toaddresssocial problems, such as poverty, human rights abuse, corruption and environmental degradation. Interfaith partnership for the common good has been on the rise in the last decade, involving more and more religious leaders and activists.


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