Between Suicide Bombings and Religious Freedom in Islamic History

A young man entered a shi’i mosque in sunni-majority Kuwait last week and set off a bomb that killed him and 27 other people, injuring over 200. The small Gulf country entered mourning for the men who died in that attack. The bombing reminded many Kuwaitis that in their country, sectarian difference is not and has not been a cause for violence before, and neither should it be now. On Twitter, Sunnis and Shi’a denounced the bombing, repeating calls for unity along with prayers for those who died and their families.

The terrorist group Da’esh took responsibility for the attack, having called for violence against Christians and Shi’is during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. The terrorist group clearly does not recognize the concept of religious freedom for anyone whose religious beliefs depart from theirs in any way, even though individuals who joined the group came from communities that do not support violence against people of other faiths. Despite the disjunction between the goals of terrorist groups and the majority of Muslims, sectarian violence (violence between one Muslim sect and another; the Sunna and the Shi’a) has erupted in Iraq and Syria, and often seems to be on the verge of spreading to other parts of the Middle East.

While some groups have tried (and sometimes succeeded) in kindling animosity toward Muslims of different sects and non-Muslims, coexistence has been the norm in Muslim countries. Even in Saudi Arabia, where a blogger was sentenced to hundreds of lashes for posts the government considered blasphemous, people may profess different beliefs without fear of violence or reprisal (as long as they do not publicly criticize Islam or the Saudi government). In Muslim countries, Sunnis, Shi’is, Christians, Jews and people from other faiths have lived side by side, openly practicing their religions, for centuries. With terrorists becoming more and more powerful in the Middle East, however, religious freedom has been threatened in places where it thrived before.

But the reality is not that terrorists reject religious freedom and the rest of the Muslims accept it in the fullest sense. There are and have been different levels of acceptance, tolerance, coexistence, respect, and protection for religious minorities throughout history, in the Middle East as elsewhere. The summer issue of Perspectives on History features a roundtable on religious freedom in the modern Muslim world, and the articles show how complex religious freedom can be as a concept and as a condition of life.

Nancy Khalek points out how polarized discussions about religious freedom have been. Omar Cheta, Abdullah Al-Arian, Meir Litvak, and Shah Mahmoud Hanifi all give us case studies of instances in the histories of Egypt, Iran, and Afghanistan when religious freedom was part of a debate that engaged whole societies, as well as their religious and political leaders.

Every week people all over the world can watch a broadcast of the Friday prayer and sermon at Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Anyone who views this broadcast can see the great diversity of worshipers, be it in their dress, skin color, or the way they pray. From the earliest days of Islam, such diversity existed. Our forum on religious freedom in Islamic history delineates the varieties and complexities of religious coexistence.

On June 26, the day when the suicide bombing shook Kuwait, two other terrorist attacks were executed, in Tunisia and France, bringing our attention yet again to extremist acts which continue to threaten life and liberty in different parts of the Middle East. But we must remember that the rule and norm is not these aberrations and extreme cases, and that there is more to the story of religious freedom than what Da’esh presents.

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