Duke University, Religious Liberty, and Islamic Supremacism

J. Scott Bridger — January 16, 2015


The recent attacks in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo have once again raised numerous questions about the nature of Islam. Most of them cluster around the issue of authenticity. Among the questions being debated and discussed are: What versions or expressions of Islam are most faithful to the sources? To what extent do the earliest and most authoritative sources legitimize violent jihad? Who makes the determination regarding what is truly Islamic and what isn’t? While we know that most Muslims repudiate jihadist versions of Islamism, what about those advocating non-violent versions of Islamism? To what extent are they willing to modify their positions on issues like freedom of speech and religious liberty in order to accommodate themselves to the West?

(For more on Islamism and the tension that exists among Muslims over the topic of violence, see my posts on a Christian Understanding of Islam Part 1 and Part 2).

Admittedly, Western Christians and public officials face tough decisions regarding how and to what extent public accommodation is made for Islam, as the recent case at Duke University demonstrates. Everyone agrees that Muslims should be free to pray and practice their religion. Indeed, these rights are protected by the Constitution and have been championed by Baptists. However, Duke’s willingness to blur the distinctions in sacred space between religious traditions by allowing (and then reversing their decision) the adhān (Muslim call to prayer) to be announced from a Christian chapel, makes most Christians who do not embrace theological pluralism uneasy. Nonetheless, the discussion here in the US is about how and where to accommodate Muslims, not whether or not they should be allowed to practice their faith.

This raises the question: Should we not expect that the same Muslim leaders in the West who are calling for the public accommodation of Islam (and labeling as Islamophobic those who voice concerns over how and where this is done) be calling for Christianity not just to be accommodated but protected in places like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, and Northern Nigeria?


While we hear Nihad Awad and Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) rightly repudiating the violent actions of some Muslims, such as those in Paris, ISIS, and Boko Haram, oftentimes they follow their repudiations with counterexamples of Islamophobia and violence against Muslims in the West as if these are equivalent. The difference is that those who perpetrate violence against Muslims in the West do so in violation of the law. Unfortunately, we have yet to hear a clear public call by these same leaders for religious liberty in Muslim majority countries where the status of religious minorities and converts out of Islam is much more precarious.

This issue is especially pertinent in countries that afford traditional Islamic law a dominant role in shaping its legislative decisions, but it is also pertinent in the West where some Islamist groups are increasingly calling for the implementation of sharī‘a in their communities. Globally, the question of sharī‘a-compatibility with religious liberty is relevant for two groups in particular: non-Muslim minorities residing in majority Muslim nations and apostates to other religions like Christianity. For the first group, their status in these countries has a long history dating back to the emergence of Islam.

 Non-Muslim Minorities Residing under Islam 


When Muslim armies spread out of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh and eighth centuries and captured lands inhabited predominantly by Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians there developed agreements between the minority Muslim rulers and their majority non-Muslim subjects known collectively as ahl al-dhimma. These agreements provided certain protections in exchange for the payment of a penalty tax (jizya) levied on those who chose not to convert. Other penalties included exclusion from military service as well as the upper echelons of civil service. Moreover, though they were allowed to maintain existing places of worship, they were not allowed to build new ones nor repair old ones without special permission. Additionally, on occasion, their status as dhimmīs entailed systematic humiliation such as wearing special clothing, houses that were required to be more modest than Muslim houses, riding mules instead of horses, and ritual humiliation. Over the period of several centuries, policies of this sort, though imposed sporadically, understandably contributed to the increase in conversions to Islam. Conversion elevated one’s standing in society thereby entitling that person to enjoy wider freedoms than his previous status as a dhimmī.

Theologically, it is possible to trace the development of this perspective on non-Muslims from the qur’ānic notion of Islamic supremacism (cf. Q 3:19, 85, 110; 9:29, 33). Traditionally, this belief went beyond simply asserting Islam’s truth and entailed the Muslim’s right to rule over non-Muslims. For most of Islamic history, this was the Muslim perspective on non-Muslim minorities, and continues to be the view of many Islamists today.

Apostasy from Islam 

Muslim responses to apostasy likewise have a long history dating back to the emergence of Islam. According to Muslim tradition, after the death of Muhammad, several Arab tribes are reported to have revolted against Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr. Some did so for financial reasons (refusing to pay taxes) while others chose to follow a different prophet. Abu Bakr’s campaigns against the apostates became known as ḥurūb al-ridda or “Wars of Apostasy.” Though the Qur’ān seemingly defers judgment of apostates to the hereafter (Q 16:106), scholars from both Sunni and Shiite schools of law have generally been unanimous in prescribing death for apostasy. Their rationale stems from Q 2:217, which states that the works of apostates are worthless “in this world and the hereafter,” as well as the precedents set by the early Muslim community. Indeed, for most of Islamic history a consensus has existed regarding the fate of those who convert out of Islam. Recently, some Muslim scholars, mostly those residing in the West, have sought to offer different interpretations of apostasy rooted in the Qur’ān’s ambiguity on this subject. For now many tradition-minded scholars view these efforts as “innovation” (bid‘a), tantamount to heresy in Islam, which is also an offense punishable by death.

Although organizations like CAIR are quick to apply the label “Islamophobic” to any critical evaluation of Islam or the actions of some Muslims, what groups like CAIR fail to address is the legacy of Islamic supremacism that is incompatible with basic human rights like religious liberty. That legacy continues to exert influence in the political domain of Muslim majority countries where there can be resistance to power-sharing, and in the legal realm where it impacts the treatment of non-Muslims and converts out of Islam.

As Baptists, our commitment to religious liberty for all is rooted in the teaching of Scripture. We believe that all humans are created equal in God’s image. This is an equality that transcends race or religious affiliation (Genesis 1:26–27). But we are also responsible human agents who will give an account for our response to the gospel. Part of ensuring that humans are given the freedom to respond to the gospel is the establishment and protection of a constitutional guarantee of religious liberty for all. Such a guarantee is rooted in the teachings of Jesus himself (Matthew 22:21) and forms the foundation for any society committed to protecting freedom of faith and conscience.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Southern Seminary Magazine (Winter 2015).

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