The capacity of ISIS to enthrall and recruit youth and young adults from Western democratic countries has left many baffled. It is such a counterpoint to the spirit of the mass demonstrations that characterized the Arab Spring, which now seems a thousand years ago, so quickly have the dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa changed.
The question that ISIS places before the faith community is whether those of us who are committed to a society in which diversity is the norm, including religious diversity, and where all have to capacity to thrive through mutual respect can create as compelling a narrative. If we fail to do so, we empower religious radicalism of all types whether in the Middle East, Burma or India. If we fail to do so, we reinforce the secular suspicion that faith of any sort divides people and is inherently seditious of public good and world peace as captured in Lennon’s song, Imagine.
The capacity of faith to create a vision of common community, of common life lived in justice and peace, is on trial in the minds of many.
A robust commitment to religious liberty is required for such a vision. Several years ago, as I addressed religious leaders, Christian and Muslim, in Beirut, I argued that “religious liberty is common ground for the common good.” I still believe it is so.
Driven from England in the early 1600s by laws outlawing any but the state church, a handful of Baptists returned. Their leader, Thomas Helwys, a lawyer by training, responded to the ongoing persecution of dissident Christians by writing the first defense of religious liberty in the English language. His argument extended not just to dissident Christians, such as Baptists. His vision was for religious liberty for all, whether Jews, Muslims, Roman Catholics, dissidents or nonbelievers.
This passion for religious liberty led Roger Williams, a Baptist minister, to found Rhode Island where all were guaranteed religious liberty. And it led Baptists after independence to petition for full religious liberty to be guaranteed through what we now call the Bill of Rights. The amendments guaranteeing freedom of religious speech and the separation of church and state were seen as essential to a country in which people of various faiths could live and work together for the common good.
Such a vision of religious liberty for all is essential today to a vision of a common society where all might flourish. There are critical elements to such a vision. First, religious tolerance does not suffice. Tolerance suggests that I practice my faith only by others’ indulgence. Religious liberty built on the bedrock of the inviolability of individual conscience in matters of faith alone suffices as a guarantee of this right that is the fountainhead of all other human rights. Apart from this basic human right, all others are at risk.
Second is a government that is neutral in matters of faith claims. The Baptist insistence on the state’s incompetence to establish faith creates not a secularized forum but a free forum to which each faith has equal access and is able to make its unique contributions. Apart from a government that respects the religious status of all, minority faith traditions and their adherents will always be second class and barred from full participation in society.
Third is a willingness to respect the other and to acknowledge the good in another. We must move beyond the suspicion that to see good in one of another faith is to somehow diminish the commitment to my own. By recognizing the good in others we build upon our common humanity which is God’s gift to us and we honor the image of God present in each.
A vision of a world neighborhood where we live and prosper side by side obviously rules out violent opposition to the other. It was heartening to hear Muslim voices condemn the violent attack in Garland, Texas, as being more defamatory of their prophet than any depiction could be. But Christians and others cannot be silent when religious liberty is interpreted as taunting our neighbor and flaunting freedom in ways intended to inflame and offend. Liberty must always serve the purposes of love.
Ultimately, the only narrative that is sufficient to challenge the narrative of religious extremists is the one that our Abrahamic faith traditions share, one in which “neighbor” is loved and cherished, one in which love is expressed in concrete situations through dealing justly and mercifully with one another. Religious liberty is essential for such a vision here and now.