Former Muslim says religious liberty in Muslim nations will only come after bloodshed

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The liberation of Iraq has opened a door for religious freedom in Islamic nations, but it may only come after much bloodshed, Emir Caner, dean of The College at Southwestern said during Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s first conference on Baptist distinctives Sept. 8.

Caner warned during the “First Freedom” conference on religious liberty that the struggle for religious liberty exacts a heavy toll on those who seek it. Religious liberty in the West was the result of 1,500 years of religious persecution, he said. He pointed to early martyrs, such as the Apostles Paul and Peter, and the persecuted church under the Roman Empire. At times, even the persecuting Romans were “sickened by so much bloodshed,” Caner said.

All people, including Muslims, have a limit to how much oppression they will allow, Caner said.

Earlier this year, Caner met with General George Sadah, personal advisor to Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s interim prime minister. Recalling centuries of religious oppression in Iraq, Caner asked Sadah why he considered religious liberty a possibility. Sadah told Caner “it’s possible because Americans have shed enough blood that we are willing to listen to them now.”

With the support of the Iraqi people, Iraqi officials are now trying to “implement” religious liberty within their government, Caner said.

This opportunity to introduce religious liberty into the Islamic world comes when views of Islam are varied and confused. Since Sept. 11, 2001, academic centers of Islamic studies have recoiled from honest discussions of Islam, Caner said. Arguments about the differences between extremism and mainstream Islam are common.

Caner mentioned two groups of Islamic belief and practice. Purist Islam, he said, is Islam of the seventh century, interpreting the Koran in literal and historical terms. This is the Islam of Muhammad, he said. Extremist Islam, on the other hand, goes “beyond Muhammad’s statement.” Female holy warriors are extremists because Muhammad only called men to war; he excluded women and the invalid.

“Therefore, there is extremism within Islam, but just to assume everything is peaceful or to say anyone who picks up a sword in the name of Islam is extremist, is not only insulting to the mind and conscience, but insulting to many Muslims around the world,” Caner said. He reported that the current movement in the Islamic world is to revert to purist Islam.

“In fact, the present resurgence of Islam is not moving towards a moderation of faith, but a desire to traditionalize the faith. Millions of Muslims across the world desire to regress to an Islamic faith much closer to Muhammad and much farther away from the West.”

No foundation for religious liberty can be found within purist Islam because it interprets the Koran literally, including commands to execute apostates. Instead, Caner looked to Scripture as a basis for religious liberty within Islamic countries. He called this a conservative-exclusivist view, or a “hermeneutic of hope.”

“Religious liberty is not based on actions, attitudes, or ambitions of man, but on the very eternal Word of God. Through adherence to its doctrines, liberty can be created in an otherwise oppressive society,” Caner said. He then asked how it is possible for a Muslim, who doesn’t observe Scripture, to find a basis for liberty.

The first step to creating religious liberty within Islamic nations is the communication of biblical principles, he said.  “The Christian worldview believes liberty is born out of the courage to stand firm on … eternal principles, regardless of the cost,” he said.

Historically, suffering precedes religious liberty and will occur during any attempt to attain religious liberty. “Where persecution is greatest, liberty is just around the corner,” Caner said.

He traced Christian history to Constantine and his “Edict of Toleration,” which seemed like an attempt at religious liberty. With ties to the government, however, the Catholic Church gradually began to persecute those who didn’t follow church practices, such as infant baptism.

Oppression within the medieval church stimulated the discussion of religious liberty during the Protestant Reformation, Caner said. After the Reformation, persecuted sectarian groups such as Baptists sought religious liberty in America.

“The blood of the martyrs is not only the seed of the church, it is the bedrock of freedom,” Caner said. 

Christians must be ready to make sacrifices if they desire to see the growth of religious liberty in oppressive nations, Caner said. He said that liberation depends on Christians who are willing to proclaim the gospel and endure persecution for an extensive time.

During his presentation, Caner discussed two other modern views on the growth of religious liberty in Islamic nations. The moderate revisionist viewpoint holds that democracy in Islamic countries is improbable. “They must redefine terms such as freedom and democracy, while at the same time conceding to defeat,” Caner said.

On the other hand, the liberal pluralist viewpoint holds that Islam is a “peaceful religion, and simply needs to be nudged from its extremism today.” Caner dismissed this view, saying that a literal interpretation of the Koran leads to religious oppression.

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