Surely, one of the most debated topics of the day is how Muslims view Christians and Jews, the rights of religious minorites in Muslim-majority countries, and whether there can indeed be democracy, freedom of thought and freedom of worship in Muslim countries. The world is used to seeing people who claim to represent Islam as they preach hatred, promote violence and terrorism while implementing dictatorial regimes and rejecting democracy and civil liberties. But is this true Islam? Do these people faithfully express Islam as we know it from Scripture?
Much of the time, people researching such matters turn to individuals or ideas as a point of reference, and these individuals or ideas are not at all reflective of the true nature of Islam itself. This is a major mistake; it is especially important to differentiate between bigotry supported by the classical rightist propaganda and the true teachings of Islam. In order to shed some light on the matter, it is imperative to understand the outlook of Islam toward democracy and freedom from its source: the Holy Qur'an.
As a Muslim, when I see any pressure put on Christians and Jews, especially in some countries where a majority of the society is Muslim, I feel intensely disturbed about this situation. I would be delighted when people live, trade, travel and pray at ease. And every true Muslim would share the same feelings with me. On the other hand, when the leftists are under pressure, it is equally something that makes true Muslims very uneasy. Thus it is my goal to ensure that everyone lives in peace and lives by their own beliefs sincerely, and to reveal that the persecution perpetrated in the name of Islam is not Islam itself but bigotry.
The rights of religious minorities, or the rights of others are generally an issue of legitimate concern in countries with Muslim-majority populations. However, this concern owes to the fact that true Islam is not being practiced in the countries of concern. Some people who are genuinely unaware of the morality of Islam, or obtain information from innacurate or dubious sources may end up harboring several prejudices and erroneous convictions on this subject. These people assume, for instance, that Islam will limit their lives or freedoms, or perhaps attempt to control their very thoughts or restrict the arts and sciences. The simple fact of the matter is, however, that Islam is a religion that ensures all manner of intellectual freedom as well as the freedom of worship and expression, that takes as a serious matter the rights of those people enjoined under its protection. Indeed, in a model where genuine Islamic morality prevails, Jews and Christians would be in the utmost peace and people from all walks of life, be they Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, or nonbelievers -regardless of faith, culture or ideology- would be living in comfort as first-class citizens and enjoying their equal rights.
According to Islam, it is not only those who believe in God, but even those who be classified as idolaters are granted asylum and protection, and it is the responsibility of Muslims to ensure that they are allowed to live undisturbed and in peace as well. According to the Qur'an, Muslims are responsible to protect people who worship idols, as these people go from one place to another, even at the expense of their own life. This is an important criterion that Muslims must not be obstacles but rather guarantors of people's safety and freedom. And Muslims have a God-given responsibility to establish the comfort for all people, whether they are Christians, Jews, Sahabbeans, pagans or else.
Islam forbids not only physical pressure but also the slightest coercion and removes the basis of discrimination. Thus Islam -in its purest form- is not a threat to freedom but the guarantor of freedom. God says "There is no compulsion in religion." (Qur'an, 2:256) Even though some critical voices would bring forth various interpretations of this verse to oppose me, God's statement in the Qur'an is quite explicit for a sincere Muslim and leaves no room for doubt. Imposition is incompatible with human honor and it is also prohibited in the Quran.
Another important fact we learn from the Qur'an is that Muslims must respect and protect Jewish and Christian places of worship. God says "… if Allah had not driven some people back by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, where Allah's name is mentioned much, would have been pulled down and destroyed. Allah will certainly help those who help Him – Allah is All-Strong, Almighty." (Qur'an, 22:40) As seen in the Qur'an, the monasteries, churches and synagogues that are mentioned as places of worship are protected by God. If Jews or Christians want to set up their own places of worship, they should be able to do so freely and without hindrance. If they want to go and worship in their churches or synagogues, they should be able to abide by their beliefs in safety and peace. In Islam, there can be no interference in people's beliefs, as that is something against God's will.
Furthermore, forcing people to believe in a religion or compelling them to practice something is completely contrary to the essence and spirit of Islam. The responsibility placed on believers in Islam is to invite people by means of peace and in the most respectful manner. The decision whether or not to believe, whether or not to implement the advises, lies strictly with the other party. Forcing that person to believe, or trying to impose anything on him, is a violation of Qur'anic morality. God says that one is "... not responsible for their guidance" (Qur'an, 2:272) and states that "So remind them! You are only a reminder. You are not in control of them." (Qur'an, 88:21-22) And in another verse, God tells "... you [O Muhammad] are not a compeller over them." (Qur'an, 50:45)
Islam is a religion based on voluntary and sincere acceptance and practice. In other words, belief and worship are only of any value when they are directed to God by the free will of the individual. If a system imposes belief and worship on people, then they will become religious not out of sincere conviction, but out of fear of that system. From the religious point of view, what really counts is that religion should be lived for God's good pleasure in an environment where peoples' conscience is totally free.
On the other hand, God says in the Qur’an that various faiths exist. There are Muslims, and the People of the Book; Christians, Jews, Sahabbeans, and fire-worshippers as well as Zoroastrians, pagans, hypocrites and atheists. Their existence is perfectly legitimate, and God creates them all. There can be no limits on freedom of ideas; it would be immoral to try to put chains around the minds of people in any way. Suppressing the freedom of speech is persecution. People can become irreligious or become a Christian while previously a Muslim, or embrace Islam while they were irreligious before, all as they wish. Nobody has the right to interfere if a Christian becomes a Muslim, and nobody can interfere when a Muslim becomes a Christian. We must respect everyone and as everyone is judged by their own decisions, God makes it clear that everyone's religion is his/hers. According to the Quran, a Muslim's reply is; "To you your religion, and to me, mine.” (Quran, 109:6)
As is seen, the primary concepts of democracy –freedom of speech and belief, treating everyone equally and as first class citizens, not putting any pressure upon anyone for any reason, respecting people regardless of their opinions and beliefs– are already present in the morality of the true religion. The origin of democracy as a reference to the rule of the people derives from the ancient Greeks. However, the spirit of democracy started with the Prophet Adam (pbuh) and has continued with all the prophets as they have been the true representatives of intellectual freedom and plurality.
Democracy and one's feeling free is wholly essential because when there is no democracy and no freedom, people's minds become inactive as if they are paralyzed, as people under authoritarian pressure generally lose their productivity feeling strained; they would not be able to speak in a relaxed and sincere way. Freedom comforts people, and it logically follows that it would increase their creativity, self-expression skills. For instance, a painter can't paint if you put pressure on him, or a composer or an author writing a book would lose his inspiration if he feels depressed. Pressure annihilates the healthy functioning of the brain. But when one is feeling free and secure and filled with love, and then he can paint, write and speak in a very good manner. That is why democracy and freedom are like cures for these disorders. History has witnessed many examples of this, and during the time of the communist regime in Russia (and still present in China), people act as if their humanity have been sucked out of their body and act with the coldness of automatons. Just like their human appearance diminishes, their artistic side also becomes equally paralyzed. This is because pressure causes people to fall into this state, and that is why it should be every state's concern to lift pressure over its people. So whichever government, whoever takes a step towards democracy, should definitely be supported. Freedom is a cure, a medicine for the human soul.
On the other hand, freedom comes with responsibilities and therefore one is not completely free in his actions. In other words, one's freedom cannot override other's rights. For instance, a Muslim cannot act in a way to hurt another person or damage his honor and self-respect. Along the same line of thought, an idolater or atheist cannot also act in any way against another's dignity, self-respect or chastity. Thus, nobody can interfere with another’s rights. The important thing is for people not to harm one another, not to insult or physically attack one another. Otherwise, they should be as free as the birds of the air and enjoy their right to express themselves and behave. As long as people do not act violently or interfere with other's freedom, there should be unlimited freedom.
Consequently, a model of society in which people are forced to worship is completely contradictory to Islam. In fact, it is not the threat of Islam but it is the threat of bigotry that concerns people. If true Islamic moral values were lived in the countries in question, there would be painting, music, art, science, democracy and freedom of ideas and belief, and Christians and Jews as well as others would be enjoying their freedom in the truest sense of the word and living in peace and in safety.
The author is a political and religious commentator from Turkey, and an executive producer at a Turkish TV network. She is also the spokesperson of a prominent international interfaith organization. She can be reached on http://www.facebook.com/sinemtezyapar and https://twitter.com/SinemTezyapar.