Proselytization vs. Religious Freedom
IS PROSELYTIZATION, with its dubious history, an essential right within the broader realm of religious freedom?
“I think it is,” said Thomas F. Farr, a scholar from the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, at a Witherspoon Institute seminar on Islam and Religious Freedom at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Many countries, such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Hindu-majority India and predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka, have witnessed bloodshed over proselytization and resultant conversions. Farr agreed that it is not just a “clean, clear, sweet-reason application of persuasion.”
“The history of proselytization is, to put it mildly, a checkered one,” said Farr (pictured at right), who worked with the United States Office of the International Religious Freedom in the 1990s. “Proselytization over the centuries has been rapacious or deceptive or violent or otherwise an attack on human dignity rather than a furthering of human dignity.”
Even today, he added, there’s a perception in the Muslim world that “those who blaspheme are agents of the United States and what is going on there is an attempt to move Islam out of the way so that Christianity can take its place.”
They think one of the most forward-leaning agencies of that effort is proselytization carried out by Christian missionaries who are using Muslims to blaspheme the Prophet, or do it themselves, he added.
It’s not just about perceptions, Farr went on. There were some genuine issues that need to be dealt with. There are real differences between religions, “some of them unbridgeable,” he said. The point of view of both Islam and Christianity, for instance, is that all paths do not lead to the same God, unlike religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. While the Christian message implies, if not explicitly, that Mohammed is not a prophet, Islam suggests that Jesus is not divine, he pointed out.
But Christianity has a constituent core that requires its adherents to present their truth claims to others as a religious obligation.
“You've got to grapple with this,” said Farr, who is Catholic. “One way to grapple is to kill the proselytizers, or to outlaw them, or otherwise cordon them off and all those who cooperate with them. Unfortunately, that is one of the historical ways – not only in Muslim lands but also in Christian lands.”
How do you deal with the conundrum? Should you ban Muslims from presenting their claims in a Christian land and vice versa?
“Definitely not,” said Farr, a Visiting Associate Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.