Islam and the West

The Limits of Freedom of Religion

by Hana Sadik El-Gallal (Author)
©2014 Thesis 344 Pages


Religious Intolerance is on the rise. Debating religious freedom often means debating «West» versus «Islam». This book challenges crucial stereotypes around this issue. It explores the scope of the right to freedom of religion in the International Treaties and Declarations and investigates why this right creates misunderstandings and misconceptions that often lead to intolerance and discrimination in countries of various political, social, and cultural backgrounds.
Islam and the West attempts to find reasons for the rise of religious intolerance. The author looks at the limitation of the religious symbols law in France and the anti-terrorism measures in the USA; she discusses also Religious minorities and Apostasy in Saudia Arabia and Egypt. Furthermore, she calls for extending the scope, asking questions such as: How do societies deal with different religions and beliefs? How could and do they find ways of reconciling their conflicting demands while protecting human worth? How can universal values be found and established?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Content
  • List of Abbreviations
  • List of Arabic Terms
  • Introduction
  • Outline of the Study
  • Part 1: The Right of Minorities to the Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion
  • 1. The Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion
  • 1.1 International Instruments for the Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief
  • 1.1.1 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • 1.1.2 The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • 1.1.3 The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • 1.1.4 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief 1981
  • 1.2 The Scope of Freedom of Religion or Belief
  • 1.2.1 Defining Religion
  • 1.2.2 The Right to Have a Religion
  • 1.2.3 The Right to Manifest Religion or Belief
  • 1.2.4 Freedom to Change Religion or Belief
  • The Right to Change one’s Religion in the Muslim States
  • The Right to Non-coercion
  • 1.2.5 Non-derogable Right
  • 1.3 Intersection of Freedom of Religion or Belief with Freedom of Expression
  • 1.3.1 Freedom of Expression
  • 1.3.2 The Balance between Freedom of Religion or Belief and Freedom of Expression
  • 2. Religious Minorities
  • 2.1 Defining ‘Minority’
  • 2.2 The Rights of Religious Minorities in the UN System
  • 2.2.1 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • 2.2.2 The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities
  • 2.3 Prohibition of Discrimination against Religious Minorities
  • 2.4 Integration of Religious Minorities
  • 3. Conclusion
  • Part 2: Limits of Muslims’ Freedom of Religion in the West
  • 1. Muslims in France and the United States
  • 1.1 Muslims in France
  • 1.2 Muslims in the United States of America
  • 2. The Western Perception of Islam and Islamophobia
  • What is Islamophobia?
  • 3. Limits on Freedom of Religion of Muslims in the West
  • 3.1 Religious Symbols Controversy in France
  • 3.1.1 The Law on Religious Symbols in France
  • 3.1.2 Religious Symbols and The European Court of Human Rights
  • 3.1.3 Reasons for Banning the Headscarf
  • 3.1.4 Arguments Against Banning the Headscarf
  • Banning the Headscarf for the Protection of Secularity and Neutrality
  • Banning the Headscarf as a Protection of Public Order
  • Protection of Muslim Girls against Coercion
  • Banning the Headscarf as a Stand against Extremism
  • 3.1.5 Conclusion
  • 3.2 The USA Counter Terrorism Measures and their Effect on Muslims
  • 3.2.1 “Religious Profiling” of Muslims in the Context of Countering Terrorism by the USA
  • What is Religious Profiling?
  • 3.2.2 Anti-terror Measures and Religious Profiling
  • Law Enforcement Policies against Muslims
  • Muslim Non-profit Organizations
  • 3.2.3 Preventive Detentions and Religious Discrimination in Prison Settings
  • Detention of Muslims as “Unlawful Combatants”
  • Religious Humiliation against Muslims in Prison Settings
  • 3.3 Religious Vilification against Muslims in the West
  • 3.3.1 Religious Vilification’ against Muslims and Freedom of Expression
  • 3.3.2 The Danish Cartoon Controversy
  • 3.3.3 Balance between Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Religion
  • 4. Conclusion
  • Part 3: Limits of Freedom of Religion or Belief in Muslim (Arab) States
  • 1. Historical Background of the Arab States
  • 1.1 Diversity and Unity of the Arab States
  • 1.2 The Tension between the West and Muslims in Arab States
  • 1.2.1 Supporting the Authoritarian Regimes
  • 1.2.2 Foreign Policies of the United States of America in the Region
  • Afghanistan and its Negative Consequences on Muslims and the World
  • The War on Iraq
  • The Palestinian Crisis
  • 1.3 Religious Demography and Legal Framework in Egypt and Saudi Arabia
  • 2. Freedom of Religion or Belief of Religious Minorities in Islam and the Refutation of the Misconceived Allegations Associated with this Right
  • 2.1 Difference between Islam and Islamic law (Shar’ia)
  • 2.1.1 Primary Sources of Shari’a
  • 2.1.2 Secondary Sources of Shari’a
  • 2.2 Islam and the Welfare of Humanity
  • 2.3 Islam is a Balance between Rights and Duties
  • 2.4 Problem areas with the Right to Freedom of Religion in Saudi Arabia and Egypt
  • 2.4.1 Apostasy: Definition and Parameters
  • Who is targeted?
  • Apostasy in Saudi Arabia and Egypt
  • Islam and Apostasy
  • a. Apostasy and the Ulama
  • b. Apostasy in the Hadith
  • c. Apostasy in the Qur’an
  • 2.4.2 The rights of Religious Minorities in Egypt and Saudi Arabia
  • Religious Discrimination
  • a. Non-Muslim Minorities
  • b. Muslim Minorities
  • Religious Minorities in Islam
  • a. Poll Tax (Jizyah) Imposed on Non-Muslims
  • b. Jihad against Non-Muslims
  • c. The Islamic State
  • 2.4.3 Authoritarian Regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt
  • Human Rights in Authoritarian States
  • Extremism in the Arab World
  • 3. Conclusion
  • Concluding Remarks: Challenges to Freedom of Religion or Belief
  • Superiority of Religion or Belief
  • The Western and Secular Origin of Human Rights
  • Bibliography
  • English Books
  • Arabic Books
  • Articles
  • UN Reports
  • Articles Online
  • International Documents

List of Abbreviations

HRC Human Rights Committee
ICCPR the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
UDHR the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the Universal Declaration)
ICESCR the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Religion Declaration the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief
Minority Declaration the 1993 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities
CERD the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
CRC the Convention on the Rights of the Child
CEDAW The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
UNGA United Nations General Assembly
ILO The International Labor Organization
ECHR European Convention on Human Rights
EctHR European Court of Human Rights
ECOSOC Economic and Social Council of the UN
ECRI European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance
EEOC the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (USA)
ISNA, Islamic Society of North America
ICNA Islamic Circle of North America
CAIR Council on American-Islamic Relations
OFAC the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (USA)

← 9 | 10 → ← 10 | 11 →

List of Arabic Terms

Dhimmi Non-Muslim Subject
Fatwa religious decision
Fiqh the science of the Shari’a or jurisprudence
Ijma Consensus
Ijtihad the effort of independent judgment
Imam Leader of a Muslim community
Isnad chain of transmitters of a tradition
Istihsan legal equity
Istislah aim of Mankind in Law, based on the Public interest
Jizyia poll tax
Khalifa Caliph, chief of Muslim state
Madhab School
Maten Text
Mujtahid one who exercises independent reasoning; qualified Scholar
Mutawatir Sunna well known Sunna, Authentic
Qiyas Analogy
Riddah Apostasy
Shari’a Islamic Law, legal system
Sunna rules of conduct deduced from the oral precepts, action and decisions of the Prophet or tradition or model behaviors
Sunna ahad Sunna reported by one or a few people
Ulama the Religious Scholars of Islam

← 11 | 12 → ← 12 | 13 →


The right to freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right. It is a broad and a complex right which can be violated in different ways and at different levels. Despite the existence of various constitutional provisions and relevant laws in national and international legal systems to protect this right, manifestations of intolerance and discrimination, based on religion or belief, persists in countries of various political, social, and cultural systems. In fact, it appears that religious intolerance is on the rise. Moreover, religion has been reasserting itself in the politics of the West and the East over the last few years and the name of religion is being invoked by those pursuing specific political agendas or wishing to maintain power. This has led to increased discrimination of religious minorities that live in these respective societies.

Religious intolerance stems mainly from a lack of respect for the beliefs of others and is often associated with domination, exercised by a majority’s beliefs, over minorities with different beliefs. Such an attitude leads first to discrimination, then to persecution and sometimes even to the most extreme forms of persecution: the physical elimination of persons. Prejudice, feelings of inferiority and the need to find a scapegoat for social or economic ills are also mentioned among the causes for religious intolerance.

Religions or beliefs originally express tolerant, altruistic, humanistic ideals, but intolerance stems when they are professed in a rigidly dogmatic manner, which divides peoples between believers of the faith and non-believers. Such an exclusivist approach generates prejudice and helps create negative stereotypes. Manifestations of intolerance are not limited to certain regions or religions and they should not be regarded as inherent to a particular social or political system. Thus, both dogmatic theism, as well as dogmatic atheism, can lead to manifestations of intolerance. Today, in many parts of the world, persons belonging to ← 13 | 14 → minority religious groups continue to suffer from the worst forms of inequality in all spheres of life.

Of rising concern is the rise of intolerance of Islam in Western society, as well as increased intolerance, in Islamic states, of their religious minority groups. What coverage there is on Islam and Muslims in the West tends to focus predominantly on negative representations, such as conflict and violence in the Middle East and issues relating to terrorism and extremism. Violations of Muslim individual’s rights based on counter-terrorism measures adopted in the post 9/11-context have had and continue to show adverse effects on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or beliefs worldwide, sometimes just because they are Muslims. Muslims have been harassed, arrested or deported all over the world. Moreover, the anti-terrorism measures adopted by some states deter Muslims from the enjoyment of virtually all their human rights, be they civil, cultural, economic, political or social. The application of ‘terrorist’ definitions is being used to outlaw peaceful Muslim religious entities or sometimes to blacklist the entire community and religion, subjecting them to systematic suspicion. Governments, instead of focusing their efforts on the origins of terrorism and on the need to ensure protection and promotion of human rights without bias or selectivity, have aided in increasing and spreading Islamophobia.1 This attitude is creating an estranged and alienated minority in the West and equating Islam with terrorism is denying the truth that Islamic extremists despite the volume of their voices, make up only a tiny, fringe percent of the Muslim population. Moreover, discriminatory intellectual and media comments have shifted the international debates on religious freedom today to debates on the West versus Islam.2 In reality, however, the disputes that “divide peoples and nations are not primarily about values ← 14 | 15 → or civilizations, they are about interests, territory, power, and about the impact of competition for power within particular states on the international system.”3

Islam has increasingly become labeled as a violent religion responsible for terrorism in the world and human rights violations. This stereotyping and prejudice towards a religion that is considered, as Smith notes, “a vital force in the contemporary world,”4 and where, as Belt points out, “some 1.3 billion human beings – one person in five – heed Islam’s call in the modern world, embracing (it) at a rate that makes it the fasted growing on Earth, with 80 percent of believers now outside the Arab world,”5 is bound to have repercussions in the global community. Islam today is the “most misunderstood religion on earth.”6 The events of September 11, 2001 seem to have only added to the incomplete or distorted information many Americans and Europeans have about this religion.7 Thus, a clear and strong political message which rejects the identification of terrorism and extremism with Islam is essential. The Islamic world cannot be held accountable because of the abhorrent acts by a handful of extremists. Prejudices against and misrepresentations of Muslims should be challenged by highlighting the contributions of Muslims to society. Political parties, the media and the honest academia have an important role to play in this field. Like other minorities, such as Sikhs or Jews, Muslims should also be protected by specific laws against discrimination. Law enforcement agencies should be trained to identify, investigate and prosecute various forms of hate crimes against Muslims. In some countries, legal protection from discrimination includes race and ethnicity but not religion. ← 15 | 16 → This may create gaps in the legal framework. Finally, the alienation and exclusion of Muslim communities should be addressed by clear and consistent integration strategies and action plans which facilitate inclusion and participation of these communities in public life. “Integration policy for the Muslims” could easily be replaced by “integration policy with the Muslims.”8

Indeed, today it is important to emphasize harmony and solidarity among the West and Muslim societies by coalescing around common, universal and democratic values. Without this positive climate with respect to Islam and the Muslims, intolerance and discrimination will threaten Muslims in general and the Muslim communities living in the West, in particular. Therefore, one must be careful that the exclusion of Islam and Muslims from the West does not become the new political-intellectual identity of the West. If this happens, it will accentuate unity over diversity at the expense of religious freedoms and religious minorities. Since societies can neither suppress diversity nor dispense with unity, they need to find ways of reconciling their apparently conflicting demands. Deep and extensive cultural diversity is a fact of modern life and every modern multicultural society needs to find ways of accommodating diverse demands without losing its cohesiveness and unity. In a time of religious tension, it is the moment to advocate the ethics and morals of justice, equality and religious liberties which are protected by the human rights standards. These principles are also the moral message of Islam.

Moreover, what is happening in the West should not be a justification for those in Arab states to stop fighting for religious freedoms and other human rights, on the premises that such values are ‘Western’ by nature. Actually, as Muslims face an increase in discrimination and intolerance because of their religion, it should help them realize the importance of supporting these international standards which protect other ← 16 | 17 → minorities who are suffering the same violation of their religious freedoms. It is also time for Muslims to realize that the reconciliation between traditional values and the alternative positive values resulting from the evolution of modern societies do not contradict with Islamic teaching which focuses mostly on the welfare of humanity.

The aim of this thesis is to remind the reader that it is in the greater interest of mankind to put an immediate end to religious persecution and manifestations of religious prejudices and discriminations. Discussion and analysis of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion can only take place in an atmosphere of freedom and equality in dignity and rights of all human beings and this can be done only by respecting the principle of tolerance.

Outline of the Study

This study sets out a framework, founded upon international and regional legal instruments, relating to religious discrimination, racism and intolerance, in order to accentuate the role of the international standards in creating harmony between states, communities, and individuals regarding religious freedoms. The study reviews the different ways to promote respect of freedom of religion, especially, the protection of religious minorities at various levels through the evaluation and implementation of these international instruments, while at the same time, stressing the positive contributions of religious and cultural diversity to the world.

This thesis is divided into four parts:

The first part sets out the right of freedom of religion or belief under international human rights standards. It outlines the right to freedom of religion or belief by focusing on the definition of religion and what the term ‘religion’ actually encompasses; examining the main provisions protecting freedom of religion or belief, the scope of this right, which includes the freedom to have and change religion or belief and the right to manifest a religion or belief. Since vulnerable religious minorities are the ones who faces discrimination and intolerance while ← 17 | 18 → manifesting their religion, it is important to define ‘minority’ in general, the different provisions that protect them, and the role of the state to protect religious freedoms, especially of religious minorities in pluralistic societies, from discrimination and intolerance.

Part two and three address the issue of freedom of religion or belief in practice. It looks at how different states are protecting this right; how the religious freedoms of religious minorities are protected, and in which ways are they violated.

Part two examines the limits on freedom of religion or belief in the West. It will concentrate particularly on limits on religious freedoms of Muslims in France and the United States of America. France has been chosen as a study case because it has a large Muslim Minority. Approximately half of the more than three million Muslims in France have French citizenship, while two to four percent are of French extraction. Islam has long been a presence in France-the Mosque of Paris was built in the 1920s and was financed in part by public funds. The USA is chosen as a study case for its important role as a super power in the Muslim world after 9/11, especially in a time that is dominated by the War in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan and the War on Terror.

The primary focus will be on the limitation of the religious symbols law on Muslim in France and the effect of the anti-terrorism measures in the USA on the right of freedom of religion and other human rights, particularly as it applies to Muslims. All along, the section will point to the incitement of hatred against Muslims through some western media (example the Danish cartoons) and focusing on the obligation of the states to protect minorities including religious minorities.

The third part describes limits on the right to freedom of religion or belief as it is practiced in the Arab countries. Countries of focus will be Egypt and Saudi Arabia.9 It will focus on the several challenges to freedom of religion or belief in the Arab region. These challenges are the restrictions on the right to change religion or belief, especially the accusation of apostasy and religious freedoms of minority groups. This ← 18 | 19 → study will assume that the causes of the existing inconsistencies are rooted, not in Islam as a religion, but rather in domestic politics, constitutional inadequacies and the manipulation of Islam by both the government and militant groups. In fact, this study will establish that equality and justice and respect of all human beings are very crucial tenets of Islam by exploring the religion itself as well as its Shar’ia (Islamic jurisprudence).10

In each case study, issues discussed will be selected on the basis of the degree of interest they generate internationally. In France, the concentration will be on discrimination against Muslims but especially on the issue of headscarves. France, in 2004, proposed a law banning Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols in state schools which created a debate on whether this law violates the rights to freedom of religion and expression. In the US, discrimination against Muslims through anti-terrorism measures will be the focus. The global war on terror declared in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks has emboldened the US government and other governments around the world to institute sweeping new counter-terrorism measures which have affected fundamental human rights and individual liberties, as well as the impacts on certain communities, predominantly Muslim, that have come under suspicion in a context of anxieties and fears over ‘Islamic fascism’ which resulted in the rise of Islamophobia. In the Arab Muslim states, discrimination against non-Muslim minorities will be studied as most reports conclude that Arab governments restrict freedom of religion and that there is a further deterioration of the poor status of respect for religious freedom. Another thorny issue in the Arab states is the case of apostasy. In some Arab countries, any attempts to change one’s religion are met with the charge of apostasy; which under some interpretations of religious law is punishable by death. Many consider that to stress the com ← 19 | 20 → patibility of Islam with freedom of religion or belief by quoting the Qur’anic verse: “There shall be no compulsion in religion” is a feeble attempt by apologists to disguise the Islamic attitude to apostasy. However, this study stresses that such an opinion is a result of misunderstandings and misconceptions concerning Islam, especially the difference between Islam the religion and its interpretations.

Finally, the concluding remarks will sum up the main challenges to the right to freedom of religion or belief and the vulnerable situation of religious minorities. Thus, in the final part, the reasons for religious intolerance and violence will be contemplated and the importance of the governments’ role to ensure an inclusive, plural society characterized by mutual respect and shared democratic values will be stressed.

In this study, two issues have to be taken into account: first, when dealing with specific issues in a particular country, the situation in other countries in the region, in addition to the case study, will be also taken into account and second, dividing the world into the West and Islam, as if they are uniform units is due to the dominance of this division. For practical reasons as well as for simplicity and to avoid being repetitive, the Arab states will be lumped together as will the Western states. Moreover, because the right to freedom of religion is so broad and complex, only certain specific issues will be discussed. It is virtually impossible to include all cases and all categories within the scope of this thesis. Also, it will be difficult to account for all incidents or governmental measures in the chosen states that are incompatible with the international standards. Thus, only specific incidents will be examined. This study will be set against the context of recent changes, in how ‘religious diversity’, ‘politicization of human rights and religion’, ‘extremism’, and mainly the ‘war on terror’, have led to new challenges to freedom of religion or belief both in the Western and Islamic world.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
Intolerance discrimination human worth
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 344 pp.

Biographical notes

Hana Sadik El-Gallal (Author)

Hana S. El-Gallal is a professor at Benghazi University, Libya, where she teaches International Law and where she is the head of the Cultural Committee in the Faculty of Law. She is Member of the Libyan National Council of Human Rights and the Founder and President of the Libyan Centre for Development and Human Rights (a NGO). She studied Law in Mohamed Cinq University in Morocco and Benghazi University. She obtained her PhD in Law from Bern University, Switzerland.


Title: Islam and the West
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344 pages