Freedom across Religions: Reflections on a Fulbright Year

by Paul L. Heck (January 13, 2009)

Occasion for Insight

I was seated in the parlor of the bishop’s residence in Rabat with four of my students, all Muslims of a highly pious bent who had been studying the history of Christian thought with me as part of their master’s program in the Department of Islamic Studies at Muhammad V University, 2008-2009. Sponsored by Fulbright, this teaching experience gave me an opportunity to work closely with future teachers of religion in Morocco, including supervision of master’s theses. Since these four were all writing on aspects of the Second Vatican Council, I thought a visit to the local bishop might be a nice complement to their studies.

The visit was enriching but also revealed the way in which freedom is a source of inter-religious misunderstanding and suspicion. The bishop took the opportunity to express his frustration at the fact that conversion to Islam is required of members of his flock who marry local women, a situation which he saw as a violation of religious freedom. He noted that faith is a matter of conscience and that such a forced conversion could not possibly produce true faith. The students recognized his point, suggesting he raise the issue with the ministry of religion (he has to no avail), but they also stated that Islam has unchanging rules, including the prohibition of marriage between non-Muslim males and Muslim females. Freedom is one thing, truth another.

The students were curious to know whether the bishop proselytizes. The local press, in order to titillate its readership, occasionally runs alarmist stories about Christian and Shi‘i proselytizing activities in Morocco. (The coverage is way out of proportion to the reality.) On more than one occasion, a picture of the bishop has accompanied the front-page stories. I had notified the students in advance that this is a sensitive point since the bishop is entirely innocent of these implications. I advised them to get at the issue indirectly by asking what the bishop would do if a Moroccan came to the door of his church to request baptism. His response surprised the students who live in a world partly shaped by notions of a Christian enemy seeking to undermine Islam through crusades, colonialism, and conversion. The bishop said that he follows the law of the land, which forbids conversion from Islam. He would politely turn away such a petitioner. However, he added, were he in France, it would be a different story.

They then asked the bishop, who is French, why Muslim girls in France are not free to wear the headscarf in public schools. He replied that participation in athletics is a mandatory part of French schooling and the headscarf gets in the way. All must follow norms of behavior determined by the state. After all, this is what it means to be a citizen. One of the students, a female, said the religious duty to dress modestly has never kept her from participating in sports. Another, who had closely followed our class readings and discussions on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, asked the bishop, “If Catholic teaching has balked at the idea of faith without works, why are you asking Muslims in France to give up the works that their faith requires?”

Muslim and Christian conceptions of freedom are not necessarily at odds. Both traditions have spoken of freedom in a number of different ways. However, a lack of awareness of how one’s inter-religious interlocutor understands freedom can exacerbate historical tensions between Muslims and Christians. In this encounter, the bishop understood freedom as a freedom for belief whereas the students understood it as a freedom for action. For them, freedom of belief poses a threat to the identity and security of a nation rooted in Islam. They have no problem with Moroccans living a variety of lifestyles (within limits) as long as they are all Muslim. In contrast, in France, freedom to act differently in public institutions is a threat to national coherency. The bishop is more comfortable with a plurality of beliefs that exist in the inner forum of personal conscience than he is with the existence of lifestyles inconsistent with national norms set by France’s secular state.

As the year passes in Morocco, I encounter a host of contradictions. A Canadian woman, married to a Moroccan and working as a nurse in Rabat, confides to me that state regulations required her to sign a paper saying she believes in Allah as a condition for marriage. She does believe in Allah, the one God, but she also believes in Jesus Christ, Agent of God’s redemptive will. She said to me that when she signed the paper, she held back in her heart. In her own internal forum, she saw herself saying that she believed that what she signed represented what her husband believes. She would like to wear a cross along with the pendant with the name of Allah that her husband gave her, but it would be too costly to do so. Ironically, while her beliefs are not respected, she is highly respected in her job and in managing her new family’s affairs. Her father-in-law actually put the entirety of his possessions in her name because he trusts her more than his own kin to divide his estate fairly when he dies. He is relying on his infidel daughter-in-law to ensure maintenance of his wife and daughters from his inheritance, which male relatives might have legal grounds to monopolize.

Moroccans do recognize and appreciate freedom when they see it.  The local press features occasional articles describing the experience of the political prisoners at Tazmamart during the reign of King Hassan II. Although locked in solitary confinement, these prisoners found freedom in the sound of the daily call to prayer announcing the greatness of God over human tyranny. There are also occasional articles that describe the conditions of Moroccans working in the Gulf where they do not enjoy freedom to contract their labor as they wish but are treated as indentured servants and prostitutes. The conclusion journalists draw is that Moroccans are better treated in Europe than they are by their fellow Muslims in the Gulf.

However, in a discussion with a Moroccan journalist, I raise the question of religious freedom in Morocco. My point is not so much that Moroccans should be free to convert but rather that freedom is essential to one’s own religious growth. In that sense, it impacts possibilities for human development. After all, I add, the great scholars of Moroccan Islam have long recognized the ambiguous religious status of a person whose faith is based on the authority of others. There are even examples of jurists refusing to marry Muslims unable to demonstrate a basic understanding of Islam without simply parroting the teachings of scholarly authorities. But for this journalist, calls for religious freedom reflect the West’s anxieties about the increasing number of Muslims in their midst. For her, the problem is not religious freedom, but Europe’s fear of Islam’s rapid growth. There wouldn’t be calls for religious freedom, she claims, if Christianity were ascendant.

2. Different Conceptions of Freedom

Back in the classroom, I decide to take up the question of freedom more fully during the second semester. The first semester, we had discussed the First Amendment as a religious construct (in part the result of the religious experience of Baptists), challenging the idea of religious freedom as a secular construct. Now, we would go deeper. I translate the trial of Anne Hutchinson and selections from the writings of Jonathan Edwards, Amos Adams, Elisha Williams, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. I summarize for them different views of freedom during the Reformation (e.g. between Luther and Erasmus) and present them with passages on freedom from Saint Paul, Thomas Aquinas, the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, various documents from the Second Vatican Council, and the encyclicals of John Paul II. We read and discuss these texts closely alongside texts from Islam that speak of freedom as self-transcendence, self-governance, and self-responsibility, selected from works of past Muslim intellectuals such as Qushayri, Ibn Khaldun, ‘Allal Fasi, Muhammad ‘Abduh, and others.

The students are not comfortable with the history of freedom in the US. They appreciate the struggle for political independence from the British Crown and compare it to their forefathers’ struggle for freedom from France and Spain. (Some Moroccans carried American flags during the Green March to liberate the Western Sahara from Spain.) But they do not like the idea that the claim for self-rule followed upon intellectual developments that would award religious and moral authority to individuals: to choose grace rather than being chosen for it by God; and to know moral truths on the basis of one’s own interior affections (or moral sense) as opposed to clear teachings passed down through the centuries. Were individuals to determine religious and moral truths for themselves? This, they argue, might have been useful for the political goals of America at a time of revolution, but they condemn it as a recipe for chaos in society especially in today’s post-Darwinian age. They are not naïve. American interests do seek to promote the virtues of the First Amendment with the best of intentions, but my students have their reservations. You want us to accept religious freedom, they say, but your own history shows it to be the first step towards the abandonment of truth. Today, religious freedom, tomorrow you’ll ask us to accept abortion and gay marriage as the constitutional rights of individual citizens.

They find more resonance with Catholic discourse on freedom, much to their discomfort, since Catholicism (equated with former colonial powers that occupied Morocco: Portugal, Spain, and France) is in their minds symbol of tyranny par excellence. They are intrigued at the way the Second Vatican Council created space for religious freedom without sacrificing the idea of religious truth, by affirming the dignity of the human conscience even when in error. They appreciate freedom of conscience, discussed by John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, as a mechanism for individuals to know rather than determine truth. And so the discussion goes on over the course of a semester. All of us sharpen our sense of the conception of freedom that speaks most deeply to us, of the varied conceptions at play across both Christian and Muslim traditions, and areas of overlap and synergy between the two. One of the students, Rashid, is now planning to pursue a doctorate on the concept of freedom in Islam.