“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.”
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