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ISCA General Secretary Addresses the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva Switzerland

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On Religious Freedom in Islam

In the name of God, Most Gracious and Most Merciful.

As-Salaam Alaykum – which in translation means Peace be upon you. It was the traditional greeting in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) and is still practiced throughout the Islamic world today.

In the Holy Qur’an, which Muslims believe to be the literal words of God, it states:

"We decreed for the children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being unlawfully, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind and whosoever saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind."

The sanctity of human life is the fundamental cornerstone of all religious faiths and beliefs. No religious doctrines condone the taking of innocent lives, nor is violence advocated as the most commendable form of conflict resolution. God states in the Qur’an to "invite all to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching. Argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious." Despite such Divine commands, random acts of violence are still perpetrated in the name of religion, a manipulative tactic not exclusive to the Muslim world. Take for example the Puritan movement in early United States history: The burning alive of men, women and children accused of being agents of the devil was carried out by radical or extremist groups who felt their interpretations of Christianity justified their actions.

Or, even more recent, examples of the bombing of abortion clinics by Christian extremists. They believe it is their religious duty to kill anyone who partakes in the abortion process. Despite the extremists’ rhetorical claims of a God-given authority to engage in such acts of sheer brutality, the rest of the peace-loving Christian community does not condone or support those acts as being in accordance with Christian ideology. No rational individual would believe that such acts were truly legitimate under the doctrines of Christianity. Most importantly, our government does not afford such beliefs as rights of religious freedom and expression.

Well, the same should be true of Islam. Aggressive, violent acts of certain Muslims should not define the religion of the Muslim community at large. Such ideologies should not be afforded the liberties and protection we cherish as religious expression. Such behaviour is not "Islamic" and is not supported by the traditional teachings of Islamic scholars throughout the world. So whether it’s Christians or Muslims or Jews, anyone or any group who advocates violence and terror but cloaks its expression in religious colloquies, should not earn the respect or credence from governments as legitimate forms of religious expression.

In Islam, there currently exists what some describe as a struggle for the soul of Islam. Traditional scholars continue to teach the importance of the Prophetic example of tolerance, peace, justice and good moral character. Other, more recent movements seek to eradicate all notions of intercession and the need for scholarly rulings on current conditions facing the Muslim community. Many of those modern groups think they need to reform Islam, a duty on them to be accomplished through armed conflict and opposition. They believe they must cleanse the world of devils and of the governments who oppress them and try to stop them.

Whatever these groups’ doctrines may be, and they vary greatly from one group to another because they are individually contrived, the proposition is not that there is not a legitimate right for people to practice and express conservative interpretations of their faith, but that religious freedom of such movements should end when those rigid interpretations are forced on the rest of society. Religious freedom and expression in the United States are part of the conceptual framework of individual liberties. It is the right to self-determination and the right to impose a set of religious values on oneself. At the point when individual religious freedoms are forcibly imposed on others, it is religious persecution not religious freedom.

Extremism in Islam, or in any religion, is when you use religion to label intolerance and use religion as a shield to defend a militant dogma that seeks to disturb the peace of a society or overthrow a government. Extremism is not religion when it is a source of political or social upheaval. Many of the militant Islamic movements today have an agenda they seek to accomplish – they are not seeking spiritual enlightenment or progression.

One may ask, why is the struggle for the soul of Islam relevant to the non-Muslim world? Simply put, as conscientious community members who cherish personal liberties and protection from harm, it is critical to stop the spread of militant extremism, wherever it exists, before it destroys civilized society as we now enjoy it.

For example, the turmoil that now pervades the region of Central Asia and the Caucasus, especially republics such as Chechnya is the result largely of the struggle between moderate Islamic leadership and extremists vying for power. Leaders like President Maskhadov of Chechnya are fighting against the influence and financial resources of extremists who offer the people a solution to their suffering in a post-communist flaying economy. He receives no humanitarian or economic aid from the western world with which he could begin redevelopment of industries, that is largely due to the successful kidnapping and violence perpetrated by those extremists who seek to destabilize the regime.

Probably the most significant and important way the non-Muslim world can contribute to the resolution of violence perpetrated falsely in the name of Islam is to educate themselves about what Islam truly represents. They should encourage the NGO community to set up grants and courses in the study of traditional scholarship in Islam. They should establish chairs in major institutions and universities, as well as creating positions for Islamic consultants. We must use bona fide scholars from around the world who have earned advanced degrees in Islamic schools of jurisprudence. These scholars in turn teach government officials and society in general the acceptable interpretations of Islamic law as taught and accepted by the majority of Muslims for hundreds of years. Only by understanding what Islam is can we identify what Islam is not.

Finally, globalization presents the greatest opportunity in human history to bring about a profound spiritual revolution in the face of tyranny and oppression. It is the time when people of all nations, religions and races must unite to promote the cherished human qualities of good moral character, mutual respect, and tolerance – concepts that are rooted in Islamic belief. The voice of traditional Islam calls Muslims to moderation, justice and love – loving and to be loved, living in peace with all other faiths and religions.

Thank You.