The Price of Freedom Denied analyzes religious freedom worldwide. It combines rich cross-national data, elegant statistical tests, and in-depth analysis of several crucial cases. Brian Grim and Roger Finke convincingly show that higher levels of regulation of religion by states and social groups lead to higher levels of religious persecution. In other words, they point to legal and social restrictions as causes of, rather than ways of avoiding, religious conflict and persecution. This well-written book develops a typology of governmental and social restrictions and explains each of the six types by analyzing Japan, Brazil, Nigeria, China, India and Iran.
I have some reservations about the general aspects of the book. For example, its data do not specify whether "violent religious persecution" in a given country is committed by state agents or social actors. Nevertheless, this review will focus on issues about Islam, due to the scope of Middle East Policy and because the book frequently emphasizes that religious freedom is violated in most Muslim-majority countries.
The fact that the authors repeatedly stress religious persecution in Muslim-majority countries and devote a specific chapter to them (while other chapters examine global issues or cross-regional cases) creates the sense that states in Muslim-majority countries are exceptionally repressive and their societies uniquely intolerant. Yet this contradicts what the data actually tell us: "Sixty-two percent of Muslim-majority countries have a moderate to high level of persecution (where more than two hundred people have been persecuted), compared with only 28 percent of Christian-majority countries and 60 percent of other countries" (pp. 169 and 170). Thus, rather than a Muslim-majority vs. the rest difference, in fact, there is a Christian-majority vs. the rest distinction: on average, Christian-majority countries are more successful than others in avoiding religious persecution (p. 21). Therefore, singling out Muslim-majority countries through the longest chapter of the book does not fit the empirical data.
The two general theses of the book are based on rational-choice theory: (1) "[T]o the extent that a religious group achieves a monopoly and holds access to the temporal power and privileges of the state, the ever-present temptation is to persecute religious competitors openly"; and (2) "[T]o the extent that religious freedoms are granted to all religions, the state will have less authority and incentive to persecute religion" (p. 70). Yet for Muslim-majority countries, some sections of the book set aside these convincing and universally applicable explanations and try to explain the impact of Islam on religious persecution through theological and historical debates, which sound essentialist. This also contradicts the authors' persuasive criticism of Samuel Huntington's overemphasis on civilizational boundaries and differences.
The authors argue that Islam resembles Judaism and differs from Christianity because "The Prophet Muhammed...plays a role more akin to the law-giving and military roles played by Moses and Joshua of the Hebrew scriptures than to the preaching and atoning roles of the Apostle Paul and Jesus Christ of the New Testament" (p. 163). They do not cite any source while making this dubious generalization, perhaps because they had already quoted Philip K. Hitti's 1970 book on the same issue (p. 31). Even if we accept these contested historical and theological claims to be true, they do not explain variation over time. They do not help us understand the political role of Christianity throughout the medieval period and even its aftermath, including the Crusades, the Inquisition and the persecution of Muslims in the Balkans and the Caucasus, when Muslim-majority states such as Moorish Spain (Andulus) and the Ottoman Empire were more tolerant toward religious diversity. Catholicism, for example, experienced a recent transformation regarding religious freedom, symbolized by the differences between the Syllabus of Errors in 1864 and the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65.
The authors argue that a historical and theological continuity, rather than recent sociopolitical transformations, explains why many Muslim-majority countries now experience substantial violation of religious freedoms: "Based on data taken from Bates's 1945 global study of religious liberty, we know that any recent surge in Islamic fundamentalism is not the complete answer" (p. 181). They note that Bates's study was prepared by a committee "appointed by several Christian organizations" (p. 172). Referring to this study, the authors stress that Muslim-majority countries had more limitations on religious freedom than Christian-majority and other-majority countries "even though Muslim-majority countries were under European colonial rule in the 1940s" (p. 172; emphasis added). Were Muslim societies supposed to become more tolerant under European colonial rule?
The authors successfully reveal the regional diversity among Muslim-majority countries: "88 percent of the Muslim-majority countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (7 of 8) have no or low levels of persecution compared with only 18 percent of Muslim-majority countries in Asia/Eurasia (2 of 11) and 38 percent in the Near East/North Africa (6 of 16)" (p. 178). On the same page, they add, "Muslim-majority countries in Sub-Saharan Africa also have lower average levels of religious persecution when compared with the other countries in the region," including Christian-majority countries. The fact that Sudan (and possibly Somalia, with no available data) are the only two Muslim-majority countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with high levels of religious persecution demands a political, not theological, explanation; these two are cases of exceptional political violence and anarchy.
Yet the authors refer to Sharia law as a source of religious persecution. Again, they quote Hitti: "Of the roughly six thousand verses [in the Quran], some two thousand are strictly legislative" (p. 31). Scholars who discuss this issue generally put the ratio between 1 percent and 5 percent. Anyone who has read even a translation of the Quran would agree that to define 33 percent of its verses as "strictly legislative" is a misrepresentation. The authors also argue that "Christian scriptures and theological tradition recognize the role of government authorities in regulating civil society....In contrast, Muslims look to Sharia as a way to safeguard society from corruption, social ills, and even colonial and foreign encroachments" (p. 31). Would colonized and occupied people have a state to look to? The authors also note, "Whereas the courts in predominantly Christian countries are typically subsumed within the larger state structure, the Sharia courts in predominantly Muslim countries frequently hold substantial independence from the state and are heavily swayed by religious leaders" (p. 201, fn. 69). Thus they implicitly argue that state authority is needed to protect religious minorities, whereas such an authority is inherently weak in Muslim-majority societies because of Muslims' loyalty to Sharia law instead of the state. This is a suspicious overgeneralization that requires a much more detailed sociological, political and historical analysis. The weakness of state authority in Muslim societies may have various causes, such as the recent experiences of de-colonization and independence, ethnic conflicts and authoritarianism.
The authors' claims about Sharia are not fully supported by the index of religious persecution that they present. They do not explain why the scores of religious persecution (0-10; lowest to highest) are high in Muslim-majority countries that have staunchly secular states — Uzbekistan (9), Azerbaijan (5.6), Turkmenistan (5), Tunisia (5.6) and Kyrgyzstan (4.6) — and those in which Sharia has a limited impact — Iraq (9.6), Algeria (9), Indonesia (8.6), Bangladesh (7), Egypt (8), Lebanon (4.6), Syria (4.6) and Malaysia (4.6). It also needs to be explained why several countries where Sharia law is either dominant — Oman (1) and Mauritania (1.4) — or effective — Kuwait (2) and Jordan (3.6) — have lower scores of religious persecution. Beyond the issue of Sharia, the book makes some other questionable generalizations about Islam, such as the following: "Although the grand imam of the Al-Askar [sic] mosque in Cairo is considered the foremost Sunni scholar, his position is one of tradition rather than hierarchical lineage" (p. 191). Even traditionally, there is no such hierarchy among Sunni scholars. Moreover, the grand imam of Al-Azhar has been a political appointee since 1961.
Despite the problems in its theological and historical discussions, the book provides important data about contemporary conditions of religious freedom. It is indeed puzzling why Muslim-majority countries, which were historically more tolerant of religious diversity than Europeans, are now much less tolerant than Christian-majority countries in terms of both state policies and societal attitudes. Political liberalization may be a key factor in this difference; the ratio of democracies is much higher among Christian-majority states than among their Muslim-majority counterparts. A complementary factor would be economic and human development. Among the top 30 countries ranked by the UNDP's 2010 Human Development Index, 25 are Christian-majority and none is Muslim-majority. Although the authors note some theological differences among Muslims and Christians, their statistical analysis reveals that "the longevity of democracy and overall economic strength are negatively associated with government restriction" on religious freedom (p. 218).
The Price of Freedom Denied inspires this and some other intriguing research questions, in addition to providing a valuable index of religious freedom. It emphasizes that state policies restricting religious freedoms are not inhibiting, but increasing, religious conflict. It also points out the problems of placing all the blame on state authorities; societal intolerance is another major reason for religious persecution.