First Things journal published an article recently titled “The Islamic Case for Religious Liberty.” It was written by a Muslim scholar from the University of Melbourne in Australia. Abdullah Saeed’s article is an eloquent expression of the need for greater openness within Islam. He concedes that the strong case he makes for religious liberty is not observed in Muslim majority countries today.
Prof. Saeed is right about that. Freedom House, the respected U.S.-based organization that monitors the status of freedom throughout the world, shows only one country in the entire Mideast that is “free.” That tiny sliver of land is called Israel. Not one Muslim majority country in the Mideast or North Africa is listed as free.
We who live in freedom have a right to ask pointed questions about the broad swaths of “not free” regions. Of the 192 nations “represented” in the UN General Assembly, most are not free. If the PLO is given a voting membership in the UN, it will join dozens of other dictatorial regimes whose votes outweigh the free states’ delegates who vote there.
For many in the Muslim majority countries, tolerance is about the best they can hope for. Simply to be allowed to worship without fearing the knock at the door is considered an improvement. Don’t try this in Saudi Arabia. Or Iran.
What’s wrong with tolerance? Prof. Abdulla Saeed’s evident goodwill should be respected. He holds an endowed chair at his university that is supported by the Sultan of Oman. Oman is listed as “not free” by Freedom House. The situation in Oman is probably one of the better ones in the Arab Middle East. Still, a father who converts there, while he may escape murder, loses any paternal rights over his children. This, in a strongly patriarchal, family-oriented culture, is a powerful deterrent to conversion.
The U.S. State Department’s Religious Freedom Report portrays Oman in these terms. MERA is the Omani agency to whom you must report yourself as a religious dissenter.
The government, through MERA, continued to publish Al Tasamoh (Tolerance), a periodical devoted to broadening dialogue within Islam and promoting respectful discussion of differences with other faiths and cultures that includes articles by Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu religious scholars. MERA produced a documentary entitled ‘Religious Tolerance in Oman,’ showcasing the breadth of religious experience in the country by showing how, in its history and to this day, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and other religious communities have coexisted peacefully.
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