Editor's Note: Asma T. Uddin is founder and editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com and an international law attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
By Asma T. Uddin
Religious persecution in Muslim countries has gotten a lot of ink lately, but what's been mostly overlooked is that Muslims themselves are the most frequent victims of that persecution.
Members of minority religions are hurt disproportionately, owing largely
to the government's failure to prosecute crimes committed against these
individuals. But in terms of sheer numbers, it is Muslims of minority sects or Muslim dissidents who are most consistently victimized. The recently released annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) makes this abundantly clear.
Shiites are usually the main victims, given that they're the minority sect in Islam and are also often associated with an Iranian political threat.
In Saudi Arabia, Shiites constitute 10 to 15 percent of the populace but occupy very few top government positions. Members of Ismailism, a Shiite sect, often face apostasy and blasphemy charges; Hadi Al-Mutif, an Ismaili, was sentenced to death in 1994 for apostasy and is still in prison today - despite the fact that he says he is a Muslim.
Blasphemy laws are also a huge problem in Pakistan, where they're used to exact revenge on business or personal rivals. Because these laws do not penalize false allegations nor require proof of intent or evidence beyond allegations, extremists use blasphemy allegations to intimidate minority groups, including Shi'as and members of the Ahmadiyya sect, who consider themselves Muslim.
Similarly, Egypt's blasphemy laws are wielded against Shiites and Koranists, as well as dissident Muslims from the majority Sunni population.
The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is an illegal organization in Egypt
and its members are routinely tortured or detained for long periods of time, without any evidence of violence or incitement to violence. The Egyptian government persecutes the Brotherhood because of its socio-political influence in Egyptian society and across the Muslim world.
The group, which seeks to overthrow the current secular government and implement Islamic law in Egypt, did fairly well in recent parliamentary elections - despite government repression during the voting process.
In Iran, meanwhile, senior religious leaders who oppose the government's
religious and political practices are subject to house arrest, detention
without charges, and torture. Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, once the designated successor to Khomeini, died in December 2009 after years of imprisonment and persistent harassment because of his strong opposition to Iranian clerical rule.
Two patterns emerge in these cases.
First, the use of blasphemy laws to protect a state-sponsored definition
of Islam. Second, state control of religion politicizes religion.
Blasphemy laws presuppose a single version of a given faith that is "right" and that all other interpretations are necessarily wrong. Stultifying debate by freezing religious interpretations is extremely dangerous-not just because it robs religious groups and individuals of the ability to define their religion for themselves, but because it prevents the type of reform and revival of faith that make it relevant to changing times.
Suppressing social activism under the pretext of blasphemy is even more
dangerous. It takes away people's right to express these elements in a peaceful and productive way, driving them underground instead. With the public square sealed off, they run to the mosque as the only free space. Social activism ends up taking on religious overtones and becomes radicalized against the government. The result is often terrorism.
The way forward? The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's report recommends that the U.S. government fill the vacancy for the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
While various government working groups have been established on inter-religious dialogue, the report says that these groups give mere passing reference to religious freedom. Religious freedom programs must be funded, and U.S. government agencies interacting with religious actors abroad need to make religious freedom a central component of these efforts.
Faith is central to most of the world's inhabitants. When they are oppressed on account of it, instability ensues - and the world becomes unsafe for everyone. If only out of self-interest, the U.S. would do well to pay more attention to religious freedom.