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Fighting for rights: Muslims join the battle for international religious freedom

It was a quiet Friday morning in the U.S. House chambers, with so many empty seats it looked like Congress had already adjourned for the year. But on Dec. 16, the day federal funding for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was set to expire, a small group of representatives stood and told their few colleagues in attendance why the commission, which tracks religious persecution abroad, should be reauthorized.

"The Coptic Christians are going through a very difficult time," said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. "The Iraqi Christians are being killed. In Tibet, the Buddhists are setting themselves aflame because of persecution. … The Christians in Sudan, in the Blue Nile area, are going through genocide and are being killed because of their faith."

USCIRF, a bipartisan group that monitors religious oppression worldwide and makes suggestions to the White House and Congress on how to respond, is "a beacon of hope" for those areas, Wolf said. And without much ado, despite having delayed the decision to the eleventh hour, the commission was renewed and spared for three more years.

Notwithstanding the empty room, organizations across the country were watching closely to see what happened that day. The commission, organized in 1998 to ensure that religious freedom circumferences the globe, had already started packing their boxes the week before. Their uncertain future didn't have anything to do with their mission — they were caught in a political power play — but still, religious groups across America took the commission's vulnerability as a sign that Congress might no longer value religious freedom abroad.

The implication that freedom of religion might no longer be a priority for the U.S. government was alarming, especially for the American Islamic Congress, a group that subsequently launched an all-out effort to preserve the commission.

Despite criticism in the media that USCIRF had a bias toward rectifying Christian persecution, AIC, a Muslim-American advocacy group, spearheaded a campaign to save it. They wrote letters to the White House, gathered media coverage and lobbied House representatives until they were assured that the commission would be renewed. It was a crusade of dire importance, in AIC's view, one the group wages every day.

"We are dedicated to people from all different faiths to help them guarantee their rights," said Zainab Al-Suwaij, AIC co-founder and executive director. "As a Muslim organization, we are very proud to be working on such a critical issue."

The AIC is one example of the involvement Muslims have in fighting for international religious freedom, but the endeavor doesn't stop with them.

Islam-majority countries have a speckled past when it comes to insuring religious freedom by rule of law, but influential Muslim voices from countries like Egypt, Bosnia and Indonesia are yet rising to call for change, with more modern interpretations of Islamic law that support religious freedom for all. As impacts from the Arab Spring unfold, those voices are in some ways now louder and more poised for influence than ever.

USCIRF guides U.S. responses to religious persecution, and groups like AIC make headway advocating for freedom and creating a better understanding of Islam, but the voices in Muslim-majority countries are the key to creating environments where religious freedom is assured, experts say. For a real, lasting change to occur in Islam, academics say it must come from within.

Unexpected advocates

John Pinna spends his days at AIC in Washington, D.C., working on public policy and advocating for civil rights and religious freedom. But whenever he tells people the nature of his work, and that it is for a Muslim organization, everyone is always surprised.

"The comment I hear most is, 'I didn't know Muslims thought that way,'" says Pinna, director of government and international relations at AIC. "We need to advocate for religious freedom. … It is a fundamental American right, but it is also something that is fundamentally Muslim — being an example for religious freedom and tolerance and advocating for religious rights."

Religious tolerance is close to Zainab Al-Suwaij's heart. As a Shia Muslim living under a Sunni-dominated regime in Iraq, she was discriminated against and persecuted while Shias all around her were jailed or killed for practicing their faith. In the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein, she stood in the street, fighting soldiers for her religious rights.

"We wanted the freedom to be able to practice our religion freely and live without wars," Al-Suwaij said from her office at AIC in Washington, D.C. "We ended up in an uprising where over a quarter of a million people got killed."

Al-Suwaij was injured in the fight, shot in the face and neck, but her experience taught her the value of religious freedom and branded her with a desire to spread it to all people. After the uprising failed, she fled to America and eventually started teaching at Yale University. Then, shortly after the attacks on 9/11, Al-Suwaij left her teaching post to organize and create the AIC. She co-founded the non-profit organization with the goal of building interfaith and interethnic understanding.

Today, AIC has offices in Washington, D.C.; Boston; Egypt; Iraq and Tunisia with multi-pronged outreach programs, including a violence prevention campaign launched in Iraq in 2010 to train residents in conflict mediation.

Since 2008, the Egypt office hosts the annual Cairo Human Rights Film Festival to increase awareness and build cross-cultural understanding.

Through a Middle East civil rights initiative, AIC translated a 1958 comic book about Martin Luther King Jr. into Farsi and Arabic. The comic book, which promotes non-violent protesting, was posted on the Internet, then printed and distributed in Egypt. Some credit the book for inspiring nonviolent activism during the Arab Spring.

In Tunisia, AIC is coordinating nine-month-long programs to train civil leaders how to communicate with and mobilize residents.

Because AIC is a Muslim organization, its initiatives are most likely more effective in Muslim communities than non-Muslim initiatives, says American University professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer. But AIC may also be hindered because of its Western ties, he says.

"Their impact is limited because they could be perceived to be an extension of the American government or American society — but nevertheless they have some influence and they can encourage people to follow the path," says Abu-Nimer, who specializes in interreligious conflict resolution.

On the other hand, the U.S. is a good example when it comes to religious freedom, Pinna says, and the AIC holds to that example in its efforts.

"We know if we advocate for religious freedom it's a doorway into women's empowerment, free elections and so forth," Pinna says. "There is a direct line and you don't have to look much further than the United States to see it."

Religious rights in Islam

In a 2007 poll of almost 4,400 people in Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Morocco, an overwhelming majority — 82 percent — agreed that "people of religion should be free to worship according to their own beliefs."

But the question of religious freedom in Muslim-majority countries is a complicated one.

"It really has to do with the specifics," Abu-Nimer says. "Are you asking about the right of Christians to build a church in Egypt? Are you asking about the punishment of those who leave Islam and convert? Or the punishment of a non-Muslim who tries to do missionary work in the country? The attitude is different based on the issue."

If Muslim countries are to embrace the concept of religious freedom for all, including the freedom to convert to another religion without facing death as a punishment, that change will have to come from within, scholars say — and the impacts will be far-reaching.

"I am convinced that the question of religious freedom is a litmus test for majority Muslim countries," said Jocelyne Cesari, director of the Islam in the West Program at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. "This is the litmus test that will make Muslim-majority countries fully democratic. Interestingly, there is no legal procedure that today guarantees religious freedom in most of those countries, even the secular ones."

With that in mind, Cesari says Egypt's debate on providing equal rights for every citizen, no matter their religion — as suggested by leaders at Egypt's premier Islamic university, Al-Azhar University — is especially interesting as the country builds a new constitution. Cesari oversees a database of information on the political viewpoints of influential religious figures on similar Islamic discussions at

There are other prominent Muslim voices calling for religious tolerance, but those voices aren't always heard in the Western world. That can be just as damaging as if no one was speaking at all, says John Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University.

"The constant asking of, 'Where are the moderate voices?' becomes a way of undermining those moderate voices that are constantly speaking because they become ignored," Voll said from his office in Washington, D.C. "What that question implies is that it isn't worth listening to the Grand Mufti of Egypt (Ali Gomaa) or the Grand Mufti of Bosnia (Mustafa Ceric) or the major Islamic intellectuals around the world."

While organizations like USCIRF can help shine a light on areas where religious persecution is strong, to make a greater difference they must also acknowledge Islam's own religious advocates, Voll says.

"They are giving attention to the extremists without recognizing the other voices that are there," he says. "Quite frankly, the problem with politics in general is that rational, middle-of-the-road politics don't make very many headlines."