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Freedom of Religion and Speech Tn 2
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As a Muslim, I Defend Freedom of Religion and of Speech. So What Happened at Hamline University?

While I was sitting at my desk at the University of Minnesota, shielded from the cold weather outside, I received an email about the Islamophobia controversy at Hamline University, a respected liberal arts institution in Minneapolis. It had gone viral nationwide. Islam is as diverse as every other world religion, and the differences within Islam are as great as those between different world religions themselves. It is just that most Americans never hear about any other Islam than the violent anti-human-rights one they see in the media. I grew up — born, raised, and educated — in what is perhaps the most authentic Muslim country in the world, Yemen. For two decades, I studied in ‎traditional Arabic and Islamic schools, memorized the Quran at a young age (exceeding 600 pages) and mastered its intricate rules, and was indoctrinated in a ‎conservative — fundamentalist, to be precise — strand of Islam. Although my profile might suggest ‎that I would defend conservative Islamic values, I am ‎actually persuaded by the liberal and enlightened strand within the ‎tradition of Islam.‎ I was thrilled to receive a college scholarship to study at the University of Miami in Florida, and I then continued as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and now the University of Minnesota. My field has been religion, particularly the study of Islam, and it has been an exciting, enriching education over the past seven years. But in this time I have unfortunately noticed a disturbing development in much of academic and professional culture — an unhealthy attitude that encourages silence over sensitive ‎topics regarding Islam. Everyone has now heard about the recent dramatic example at Hamline University. A Hamline art instructor showed Islamic images of the Prophet — announced well in advance out of respect for any observant conservative Muslim students who might not wish to attend that day — and her contract was terminated amid a ‎controversy that her actions constituted Islamophobia, which spurred a national debate on the intersection ‎between academic freedom and religious rights. I emphasize, the Hamline incident is only the most recent and publicized of continuous such examples where the liberal voice in Islam is often ‎silenced by a bizarre combination of liberal Westerners and conservative Muslims under the charge of Islamophobia. ‎As a liberal Muslim, for example, I ‎am not offended by an instructor showing an image of our Prophet ‎Mohammed, because liberal Islam has never had a taboo about pictures of the Prophet. These beautiful images were commissioned by pious Muslim royalty of our tradition centuries ago. Only conservative Islam takes such offense. The art instructor was doing what a classic liberal education should do — and what I came to America for — showing the history and differences in traditions and cultures without prejudice, exercising care that students whose beliefs might be offended were free to skip material that might offend but not denying other students the entire course of instruction, and letting students make up their minds after having a broader and informed perspective. Why should this excellent, caring instructor be let go? Many Americans are surprised to learn that many Muslims believe in freedom of religion and speech as part of our faith. Most seem to view Islam as a monolithic anti-human-rights religion, the one they see and hear about continually in the news. The conservative fundamentalist strain of Islam dominates the news because of its regular violence, both official and by private mobs, against human rights in Muslim and non-Muslim countries. But these conservative believers are not the only branch of Islam. There is a liberal branch that finds some of their arguments wrong and misguided. Our problem as liberal Muslims is that we have had difficulty making ourselves heard. The fabulous oil riches of the fundamentalist branch are used to drown us out worldwide. We liberal Muslims need to find a way to tell America, indeed the world, that centuries before the West developed human rights in the 18th century, there has been a liberal branch of Islam that goes right back to the Prophet himself, and continues to this day, that holds there shall be no coercion in matters of religion. It is in the Quran. If you doubt this liberal branch of Islam is alive and well, look up the Marrakesh Declaration of 2016. This was a conference of liberal Muslim scholars, imams, and political leaders from all over the world, attended by observers from many other religions. Its landmark report restated the liberal Islamic belief in the rights of minority religions and unbelievers in Muslim countries to believe as their faith or conscience guided them. It condemned the restrictions and violence against them by many Muslim states and private “thought police” as a perversion of true Islam. Sadly, this truly significant document received little coverage in the Western press. It did not make the news because it was not violent. I have noted that many Americans — including many American Muslims — are simply ignorant about the complex traditions of Islam. As a ‎liberal Muslim, I defend freedom of religion and speech. And I substantiate ‎my position not from the Enlightenment era of the West but ‎from within the entire Islamic tradition itself, which I have studied in traditional Yemeni schools and in Western academia at the universities of Miami, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Ignorance is best countered with knowledge, ‎and that is an Islamic principle. So as a Muslim, I urge all liberal Muslims to make clear our allegiance to human rights as part of our faith. For example, whenever we can do so without being awkward or preachy or defensive, we should find an opportunity to let our friends — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — know we believe in freedom of religion and of speech. And I likewise urge all Americans who support human rights to help us make our voices heard.

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