SALT LAKE CITY — Ismail Royer's journey to a job researching and writing about religious freedom began in a U.S. prison. He had pled guilty to weapons charges after being linked to a militant group in Pakistan.
His more than 13 years behind bars gave him a chance to think, to talk, to study and to think some more about practicing a dangerous, deadly version of Islam. He was still a Muslim when he was released, but he was changed.
"I saw that Islam was a lot deeper than the narrow view I had," he said.
Today, Royer is part of a growing movement of scholars and activists working to save the global Muslim community from its association with terrorism. These leaders reject organizations such as the Islamic State group that promote violence in the name of Allah and work to defeat them with teachings from the same collection of texts.
"When you read the classical commentaries, you see the way (Islamic scholars) talked about the things I'm talking about now," like religious freedom, Royer said. "To extremists, their words sound so foreign, like they're from Christianity. But, in reality, it's part of their own religion."
It's difficult to fight bombings with books, especially when it's not just terrorists complicating the relationship between religious freedom and Islam, said Jennifer Bryson, Royer's boss and director of the Religious Freedom Institute's new Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team, which launched earlier this month. In the United States and around the world, Muslims are often silenced for praising pluralism and shut out of the organizations that fight for conscience rights.
"Ill-informed, anti-Muslim attitudes can create a barrier for Muslims who want to participate in religious freedom advocacy," she said.
The Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team seeks to increase understanding of the religion's support for conscience rights among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Team members publish articles, lead education programs, advocate for fair policies and engage with followers on social media.
The goal is to build a world "in which Muslims support and are protected by religious freedom," Bryson said.
In the process, they're discovering countless ways to make a case for religious freedom from within Islam, said Royer, the team's research and program associate.
"There's no need to resort to some sort of foreign document. Why should I try to convince Muslims that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the best thing to base your life on if I can show them the exact same lessons in their tradition?" he said.
Making the case
Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East account for some of the world's worst religious freedom violations. Members of minority faiths are imprisoned or put to death for their religious practices, and even Muslims suffer due to dueling interpretations of Islam.
But the leaders who condone horrific violence or mandate worship of Allah shouldn't be allowed to speak for all of Islam, Bryson said. The religion supports religious freedom, even if some of its most prominent practitioners don't.
"We have to realize that some of the religion's deep traditions are separate from the current political environment. Muslim-majority countries led by political, authoritarian regimes don't represent the religion itself," she said.
In reality, religious freedom has been part of Islam since the earliest days of the faith, said Eftakhar Alam, strategic relationship specialist for Islamic Relief USA.
"The essence of Islam is to speak up and protect others," he said, citing stories about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. When the Prophet Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina to escape religious persecution, he made a pact with his new neighbors to live in peace.
"He didn't ask for people to convert to Islam. He didn't want them to confirm he was the prophet. He wanted everyone to have the same freedom level and protect one another," Alam said.
Global Muslim leaders revisited this period of Islamic history in January 2016, when they met to reaffirm their faith's commitment to religious freedom. Scholars from more than 50 countries issued the Marrakesh Declaration, proclaiming that Islam doesn't permit punishing non-Muslims.
"The Marrakesh Declaration brought back to light this more inclusive, nondiscriminatory aspect" of Islamic history, said Brian Grim, president and founder of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation.
The document was an important step forward, but it didn't clear up all the confusion that surrounds the concept of religious freedom in the Middle East, Royer said. Muslims there sometimes struggle to know what conscience-rights activists are asking of them.
"One major problem is the word often used for 'religious freedom' in Arabic," he said, noting that it translates to something like "all religions are equal" instead of "all religions should be respected."
This problem leads some people in the Muslim world to conclude that embracing religious freedom means thinking of their own faith as less sacred, Bryson said.
"There's a lot of confusion. Religious freedom is associated with … an effort to remove religion from the public square. It's associated with being anti-religious," she said.
Muslims may reject it in order to reject Western influence, even if they support religious diversity, Grim said.
"Religious freedom is either not understood or it's seen as code for an American agenda or secret missionary work or something like that," he said.
Moving forward, religious freedom advocacy must focus on the grass-roots level, helping everyday Muslims understand their faith's relationship to religious diversity in new ways, said Kent Hill, executive director of the Religious Freedom Institute.
"Many Muslims have not heard a coherent case for religious freedom based on their own sources," he said. "We want to make that narrative available to Muslims throughout the world."
Obstacles in the West
Unfortunately, even Muslims in the West often feel disengaged from religious freedom advocacy, experts said. The term is increasingly understood to signal support for a particular political agenda, rather than a shared value.
"It's become politicized," Grim said.
In the U.S., almost all state-level, religious freedom-related legislation proposed in 2018 was sponsored by Republican lawmakers, according to research conducted by the Deseret News.
This situation complicates efforts to attract Muslims to the cause. Only 13 percent of Muslim Americans identify as Republican or lean toward the Republican Party, the Pew Research Center reported last year.
Many Muslims feel Republican lawmakers villainized Islam in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and continue to make false claims about America's Muslim community. Since 2015, Republican officials in 49 states have made public remarks about the threat of Islam, according to a recent BuzzFeed News investigation.
"I want to be very blunt. I'm a conservative Muslim with regard to my politics. But, in my opinion, Republicans have closed the door to Muslims," Alam said.
Although members of this faith group celebrate religious freedom, few feel comfortable advocating for this value alongside lawmakers who want to limit Muslims' ability to practice their faith, Bryson said.
The same is true in Europe, where the same leaders working to protect religious minorities around the world support bans on religious head coverings in their own countries, she added.
"In Europe, I think it's even worse than in the United States. Muslims who want to be involved in religious freedom are, due to the political environment, shut out of the groups doing religious freedom work," she said.
Political tensions stand in the way of meaningful partnerships. Muslims can be key allies in efforts to end the current decline of religious freedom, said Emilie Kao, director of the Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
"I have worked with American Muslims in religious freedom advocacy for several years at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the State Department and now at Heritage," she said. "Muslims have been at the forefront of battles for religious liberty both in the U.S. and overseas."
Widespread anti-Muslim rhetoric complicates the work of groups like the new Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team. As they try to raise Muslims' awareness of Islamic teachings on pluralism, they must also convince non-Muslims that their efforts are worthwhile, Hill said.
"They are up against a very steep hill when 80 percent of news stories (about Muslims) have to do with some terrorist or extremist making a wild claim in the name of Islam," he said. Muslims advocating for religious freedom "have to compete with that interpretation."
A more peaceful future
Bryson is well acquainted with evils committed in the name of Islam. From 2001 to 2008, she did counterterrorism work for the U.S. military, observing how Muslims who support religious freedom were silenced by their more extreme counterparts.
"I thought if you could have religious freedom for Muslims in Muslim-majority countries, you could pull a log out of the logjam," she said.
In 2009, she began working toward this goal full time. She researched Islamic teachings on religious freedom and built bridges with the Muslim community. She planned online education programs, seminars and online media tools, which the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team will give her a chance to implement.
The Religious Freedom Institute welcomed Bryson and her research partners because its own investigation into Islamic extremism had identified a need for more interactions with Muslims at the grass-roots level, said Hill, who leads the institute's Middle East Action Team.
"We want to work very specifically with Muslims who believe that a case can be made from within their tradition for religious freedom," he said.
Scholars at the Religious Freedom Institute are committed to making Muslim-majority countries friendlier to non-Muslims and to increasing opportunities for American Muslims interested in religious freedom.
"What we're saying is Muslims deserve a right to make a case for pluralism and religious freedom. And that there's many who want to make it," Hill said.
These activists don't deny that Islamic teachings can be twisted to compel violence. After all, Royer, who once helped recruit Islamic militants, is on staff.
But they're tired of Islam being associated with its most deadly adherents. They want to set the record straight.
"We all know that quotes taken out of context can lead to disastrous results. That's true for Judaism, for Christianity, for all traditions. If someone chooses to quote (a sacred text) out of context, we end up with a very different message," Hill said.
The Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team is focused on increasing engagement with religious freedom among Muslims on the grass-roots level. It publishes reflections on little-known Islamic texts, shares inspiring quotes on social media, speaks on college campuses and provides subtitles for videos of Islamic scholars discussing the beauty of pluralism.
They're bringing the best parts of Islam back into the spotlight, said Royer, noting that he rarely quotes from documents younger than 200 years old.
"What we're trying to do is revive, rather than invent something new — revive these values and virtues within people," he said.
This mission is, of course, personal to Royer, who is less than two years removed from his prison cell. Understanding Islam more deeply helped him turn his life around, and he wants it to do the same for people around the world.
"If we don't agree to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, … we can't have a civilization. Everything is going to collapse," he said.