Religious Freedom and Islam

Thomas F. Farr is associate professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University.  An excerpt from his new book, World of Faith and Freedom, appeared in this months issue of the journal, First Things. It is a thoughtful, constructive analysis of a way forward to defuse Islamic radicalism.  Highlights include:

The threats [of Islamic radicalism] are unlikely to be defeated by U.S. military power alone, even when that power is combined with good intelligence, efficient law enforcement, and creative diplomacy.  What American foreign policy needs, as well, is a new religious realism….

Evidence suggests that democracies mature when they possess a “bundled commodity” of core rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, equality under the law, and religious freedom.  The absence of religious liberty can yield democracy-killing religious conflict, religious persecution, and religious extremism.  The presence of religious freedom is highly correlated with political, social and economic good.  As Brian Grim [Pew Forum] puts it:  “Most advanced statistical tests suggest there is indeed a critical independent contribution that religious freedom is making.”

Among other things, such findings tell us that if we want democracy to grow in Muslim lands – especially as a means of draining the swamps of the pathologies that nurture extremism – we must figure out how to advance religious freedom.  We must encourage nascent liberal Islamic political and social movements to put religious freedom at the core of their political theologies.  This is a tall order.  So daunting, in fact, that few outsiders would even consider it.”

If we are to defeat Islamic radicals, we must supplement sound military strategy, good intelligence, vigorous law enforcement, and state-to-state diplomacy with what has, until now, been the missing link.  Ordered liberty demands realism about human nature.  If democracies are to succeed in highly religious societies, they must be grounded in religious freedom.


I think Farr’s thesis is astute and his argument persuasive.  Only, I don’t think he goes far enough.

For religious freedom to have the leavening affect on an Islamic society as he proposes, there has to be more powerful forces at work than statecraft and foreign policy to produce the tolerance of such diversity.  And the very nature of Islam—theologically and politically—makes it difficult.

Rather, I would argue that history proves that the presence of vibrant, authentic Christian faith can be the most effective catalyst to provoke such change. That stimulus can be generated from outside the respective cultures or it can emerge from within.  When both sources work synergistically (effective sodalic efforts from without and vibrant local, modalic efforts from within), then we may actually have a chance to see the type of transformational change that Farr advocates.

I believe both can be accomplished.  It is going to require committed, skilled men and women willing to cross geographical, cultural, and language barriers, give their lives to live incarnationally within Islamic cultures,  and be—in word and in deed—the presence of Jesus.  It also means that they work hand-in-glove with those whom God has already set aside as his people within such settings.

It’s possible.  Is is happening.  It isn’t fast.  And it isn’t glamorous.  It won’t attract those with the money and resources who want quick fixes and triumphalistic results.

But in the long run, if we want to see genuine transformation in what is the greatest challenge to the Western world in the 21st century, such a missiological commitment is an absolute necessity.

One Response to “Religious Freedom and Islam”

  1. Tyler Says:

    Sam, great highlight. I liked it as much for what your highlight didn’t say as what it did.

    One continual frustration for me in this conversation is the equation of Islamic extremism as the “greatest challenge for the Western world in the 21st century.” That perspective, in my opinion, is not only highly subjective but potentially highly antagonistic.

    I think religious extremism is the bigger, and encompassing, challenge.

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