State Department's religious freedom report shows global need for inter-faith tolerance


USA: November 21, 2009: (Jurist) John Esposito [Professor, Georgetown University and Founding Director, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding]: "Despite our increasingly globalized world

and the need to strengthen religious pluralism as well as to transform an outmoded notion of tolerance based simply on co-existence to one based on mutual understanding and respect and the equal rights of all citizens, many countries continue to fail the religious freedom litmus test. Religious discrimination, persecution, and violence continue to be issues in Muslim countries. On Saturday, August 1, 2009, after several days of rioting and violence over allegations that Christians had desecrated the Quran, an estimated crowd of one thousand stormed a Christian neighborhood in Gojra, Pakistan. The mob killed eight, including six women, and burned and looted dozens of houses. This was not an isolated incident in Pakistan, where blasphemy against the Prophet and the desecration of the Quran have often been used against Christians. Religious minorities in the Muslim world, constitutionally entitled to equality of citizenship and religious freedom, increasingly fear the erosion of those rights - and with good reason. Interreligious and intercommunal tensions and conflicts have flared up not only in Pakistan but also in Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Abuses range from discrimination, violence, and the destruction of villages, churches, and mosques to murder. The result in countries like Nigeria has been cycles of death and vengeance: Muslim massacre of Christians and Christian massacre of Muslims. In Pakistan and Iraq, intra-Muslim communal intolerance and violence have flared between Sunni and Shia extremist organizations and militias. Have Muslim governments and religious leaders done enough to address them? Clearly, this year's report again indicates that while progress has been made by some countries, many have not. Some governments ignore interreligious conflicts or exacerbate them. In others like Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and some Muslim communities in the West, intra-Muslim relations, in particular between Sunni and Shia, remain contentious. An area often conspicuously absent or only marginally covered is the extent to which some governments like Egypt and Tunisia substantially restrict religious freedom in their suppression of mainstream Islamic activist organizations. However, there are winds of change. Increasingly, Muslim reformers, a vanguard facing resistance from conservative and fundamentalist factions, call for and promote Islamic reform, challenging long held traditions. Most build on but also transform notions of religious pluralism already present in the Islamic tradition. They argue that the Quran recognized both Jews and Christians as "People of the Book," those who have special status because God revealed his will through his prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, which all three communities follow and that while classical Islamic law that classified Jews and Christians as "protected" (dhimmi) people who could live and practice their faith if they paid a poll or head tax (jizya) may have been advanced for its time, in today's world of modern nation-states, its application amounts to designating non-Muslims as second-class citizens. Reformers, who redefine and broaden traditional theological notions of religious pluralism, root their interpretations in the Quran's emphasis on the equality of all humanity: God's decision to create not just a single nation or tribe but a world of different nations, ethnicities, tribes, and languages (30:22; 48:13). Many argue that religious exclusivism is not in accord with the Quran's worldview and teachings: "To everyone we have appointed a way and a course to follow" (5.48) and "For each there is a direction toward which he turns; vie therefore with one another in the performance of good works. Wherever you may be, God shall bring you all together [on the Day of Judgment]. Surely God has power over all things" (2.148). Abdulaziz Sachedina of the University of Virginia reminds his readers that Islam and Muslims facing the future, like Christianity and Christians, are challenged to balance a sense of uniqueness or special dispensation with true respect for other faiths. For Sachedina, the "acid test of pluralism is whether a religion is willing to recognize members of other religions as potential citizens in the world to come. Is such citizenship conferred in spite of or because of the person's membership in another religion?" Muslim popular opinion in America reflects changing Muslim attitudes. Responses to a question on Islam and religious pluralism in a February 2008 Pew survey demonstrate a pluralistic trajectory. While a minority (33 percent) of those polled responded, "My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life," a majority (56 percent) believed, "Many religions can lead to eternal life." (Opinions expressed in JURIST's Hotline are the sole responsibility of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, or the University of Pittsburgh)

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