Why religious freedom is inseparable from progress in the Middle East


The revolutions that shook the Arab world in 2011 continue to reverberate throughout the region.  While each nation, with its own economic, socio-cultural, ethnic, and political realities, lends a distinctive character to the conflict there, in a deeper sense, these disparate struggles are the result of an encounter between modernity and fundamentalism in the Muslim world.  Caught in the middle of this struggle are many vulnerable religious minorities, including millions of Christians.

For some in the Middle East, the West provides a model for liberalism and prosperity that merits emulation.  Many Muslims, however, recoil in revulsion at any Western influence as corrosive and immoral.  The former see the West a roadmap for progress; the latter believe that Islam must be purified, purged of all Western influence, and returned to fundamentals.  Moderates, by definition, tend to lack a uniformity of thought and approach – a strategic weakness that fundamentalists, with their singularity of purpose, have been able to exploit to their advantage.  Yet as fundamentalists look to the past as the means to reclaim greatness, they often overlook a crucial component of early and medieval Islam – namely, its capacity to absorb and incorporate diverse thought as it grew from the faith an irrelevant tribe to global significance in a matter of decades.

The Golden Age of Islam was characterized by a general tolerance for “people of the book” (Jews and Christians), and free philosophical and scientific inquiry.  Early Islam encountered Greek philosophy with an open mind; the medieval philosopher Avicenna would even reconcile classical philosophy with Muslim revelation, as Aquinas would later do with Christianity.   Conquered peoples were made to pay the “jizya” (a tax on non-Muslims), but many, such as the Coptic Christians of Egypt, regarded the Arabs as liberators.  This new Muslim empire, which stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to North Africa and from the Levant to the borders of China, demonstrated a remarkable capacity to absorb diverse religious and cultural influences in a manner that served to strengthen, rather than weaken it.

Written By: Andrew Doran
continue to source article at washingtonpost.com


  1. The problem with Muslim fundamentalism is that it claims that by going back to the past they can retrieve the glories of Islam, when science, arts, trade, law, etc were at its height and flourished all over their empire; however, this period of explendor lasted four centuries ( from the VIII to XII centuries). After that period, religious faith began to stifle independent and rationalist thought. Perhaps one of the causes was the Mongol invasions and the Crusades with the massive destruction of centres of learning. Anyway, today’s fundamentalists aren’t going back to the times of Islam’s Golden Age but to the times when this era of creativity was in total decline, causing the Muslim world to enter in a long era of poverty, squalor and ignorance which led to colonialism by the Western powers. The long list of prohibitions of the fundamentalists (based on religious dogmas), and their total incapacity to fit into an ever changing world, means that they haven’t learned anything from History. A good start for a serious reform would be the separation of State and Church. Religion should be treated as a personal affair, not a public affair. If this separation cannot be achieved, any revolution of no matter what colour and no matter what season (Arab spring, summer or whatever) will be a loss of time.

    • In reply to #1 by Odalrich:

      The problem with Muslim fundamentalism is that it claims that by going back to the past they can retrieve the glories of Islam, when science, arts, trade, law, etc were at its height and flourished all over their empire; however, this period of explendor lasted four centuries ( from the VIII to XII…

      It depends which fundamentalist Islam you’re referring to. Taliban-style or bin Laden-style fundamentalists want to combine the Islam of Mohamed’s time, not of the more enlightened Middle Ages, with a global empire.

      Either way, you raise a very interesting contradiction that exists within such fundamentalism – a desire for progress in the form of regression.

  2. If a society succeeds in getting everyone to have the same beliefs, especially false religious beliefs, it is as though they had only one thinker in the whole society. It is bound to stultify.

    It is no accident the golden age of Islam was also the age of tolerance for diverse thinking.

  3. The young man/teenager in the foreground of the photo wearing a base ball cap appears to be simply aping the adults and has probably been doing so since he was a very young child; I wonder what would happen to him if he refused or failed to go along with it.

    I suspect it would take a great deal of courage on his part because he must know that it would render him a member of an out group; it’s one of the tricks of the trade that religions employ; and boy, doesn’t it work well! So what kind of “freedom” does freedom of religion afford him?

    I take the article’s author’s point about freedom “of” religion, but in my book, the only freedom worth having is freedom “from” religion.

  4. It was the defeat of the Umayyad by the Abbasid which heralded a truly ‘Golden Age’ for Islam, and this ‘age’ was centred around its capital, Baghdad, not Damascus or al Andalus, as the article suggests.

    It is characterised by a shift from ‘tribal’ (under the Umayyad), to pan-tribal associations – as can be seen by the ethnicity of its greatest thinkers, jurists, philosophers, etc’

    We should take every opportunity to explain why this golden age occurred – how the philosophies of the ancients were taken on board, studied, copied, debated and developed… and the crushing literalism which caused such an age to end – a potential Islamic Enlightenment strangled at birth.

    Muslims need to know and understand that what caused the demise of a very real Islamic Golden Age… was Islam itself.


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