Perhaps the most basic measure of a country’s character is whether people, when given the chance, flood into the country or risk life and limb to escape from it. By this measure, Muslims are flourishing in America. Meanwhile, though Christianity predates Islam by centuries in the Middle East, intensifying persecution has prompted a mass Christian exodus from that region.
The New York Times recently published a piece with the headline, “American Muslims ask, ‘Will we ever belong?’” And Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Ground Zero mosque’s would-be imam, defended the mosque on ABC’s “This Week,” saying, “My major concern with moving it is that the headline in the Muslim world will be, ‘Islam is under attack in America.’”
If America were such an unwelcoming country for Muslims, it stands to reason that the number of American Muslims would be decreasing, not increasing. But the opposite is true. Although the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect data on religion, both the Census and the Department of Homeland Security estimate that tens of thousands of immigrants from Muslim countries pour into the United States every year.
The years of highest immigration from the Middle East, moreover, have occurred since 9/11. Nearly 96,000 people from Muslim countries became legal permanent U.S. residents in 2005, the highest number in any year in the previous twenty years.
Some immigrants from the Middle East are Christians escaping persecution (about which more later). But the vast majority are Muslims. Plausible estimates of the number of Muslims in America vary widely, from 1.3 million to five million. But there is a consensus that Muslim Americans’ share of the population is climbing.
According to a large survey by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the number of people in America who described themselves as Muslims more than doubled between 1990 and 2008, from 527,000 to 1.35 million.
By other measures, too, American Muslims are thriving. According to the ARIS study, 35 percent of American Muslims age 25 years and older have college degrees, a share equal to or higher than that of any other religion except Judaism and “Eastern religions.” And a Cornell University study found that Muslim Americans generally earn more money than Americans of other religions.
The deeper irony in the ongoing debates over religious liberty and freedom of speech in America is that these debates wouldn’t even be allowed to take place across most of the Muslim world.
A December 2009 Pew Forum survey on religious freedom found that 70 percent of the world lives in areas of high restrictions of religion. Many of those affected are Christians living in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East.
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of religion is defined as the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. No matter how it is defined, religious freedom is not a right enjoyed by most of the approximately 12 to 17 million Christians in the Middle East.
Consider Iraq. As America’s “combat mission” concludes there, life has improved for many Iraqis. Yet conditions have deteriorated for Iraq’s Christians, mostly Chaldean Catholics and Protestant Assyrians. They have seen their churches destroyed and their leaders kidnapped, murdered, or both.
Hundreds of Iraqi Christians have been killed because of their faith over the last seven years. They have been forced to pay higher taxes than Muslims and been barred from voting. Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk Emil Nona recently said, “We are seeing another, the umpteenth, attack against Christians. The violence continues without relief.”
The Iraqi constitution, ratified in 2005, institutionalizes discrimination against non-Muslims. It states, “Islam is the official religion of the state and is a foundation source of legislation” and that “No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.”
Conditions have worsened so much that the U.S. Congress recently passed a resolution calling on the Iraqi government to investigate and report on abuses against Iraq’s minority communities, including its Christians.
Though Iraq contains the most graphic example of Christian persecution, it is by no means the only one. Consider some recent examples:
• Last Spring, the Moroccan government abruptly deported more than 100 American and other foreign expat Christians, accusing them of proselytizing, a crime in Muslim Morocco.
• In July, Iranian government agents arrested 15 Christian converts, holding them for a week.
• Also in July, a crackdown on Protestants in Uzbekistan led to the arrest of two Christians who were sentenced to 10 days in prison for religious activities. Police also confiscated Christian books, DVDs and computers.
• In northern Afghanistan in August, ten members of a Christian aid team were murdered after spending three weeks providing medical care to villagers. The group’s members were falsely accused of carrying Bibles.
The essential problem is that many countries with Muslim majorities do not recognize freedom of conscience, either in principle or in practice. Other problems include state-sponsored extremist ideology and education, and corrupt law enforcement that allows crimes against religious minorities to go unpunished.
In April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report on religious freedom. Established by Congress in 1998, the USCIRF is responsible for monitoring and reporting to the president about religious freedom worldwide.
This year the USCIRF designated 13 countries as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs), meaning that these are countries “with systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.” Eight of the CPCs have Islamic governments or Muslim majority populations.
In Egypt, the report noted “a significant upsurge in violence targeting Coptic Orthodox Christians,” who comprise 10 to 15 percent of the population.
In Iran, where the penal code prescribes the death penalty for conversions from Islam, “the government…continues to engage in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.”
In Saudi Arabia “state coercion of religious conformity” translates into outright bans on all religious practice except that of the government, Wahhabi Islam. Saudi Arabia was also highlighted for its state-sponsored extremist ideology and education, including its textbooks, which are replete with intolerant references that disparage minority religions.
The USCIRF report contains 400 pages of similar examples. Not all instances of religious persecution set Muslim governments against Christians, of course. The report details the assault on religious belief by atheistic governments like China, Cuba and North Korea. And there are plenty of examples of Muslim minority sects being denied religious liberty in Muslim countries.
But the report substantiates what many Middle East Christians have been lamenting for years: that an increasingly hostile environment is leading to a mass Christian exodus from the Middle East.
Given the treatment of Middle East Christians, it is not surprising that the Reverend Jean Benjamin Sleiman, Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, told the New York Times in 2009, “I fear the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East.”
Half of Iraq’s 1.4 million Christians have fled in the last decade. In Jordan, Christians have dropped from approximately 30 percent of the population in the 1950s to less than two percent today. Christians’ share of Lebanon’s population has dropped from 60 percent to 25 percent over a generation. And there were millions of Christians in Turkey a century ago; today there are roughly 150,000.
There are, to be sure, many reasons Christians are leaving the region, including a lack of economic opportunity. But the most important factor is the ascendance of political Islam. According to a recent Vatican document, relations between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East are often difficult “principally because Muslims make no distinction between religion and politics, thereby relegating Christians to the precarious position of being considered noncitizens, despite the fact that they were citizens of their countries long before the rise of Islam.”
Conventional wisdom holds that the debate surrounding the Ground Zero Islamic center and mosque punctuates the growing persecution of America’s Muslims since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But a sober look at the state of religious freedom around the world leads to only one conclusion: Religious intolerance is not a problem in the heartland of America, but rather in the heartland of Islam.