Growing up in Pakistan, I was surrounded by Islam to such an extent that I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to actually choose it for myself: It was something I was expected to follow instead of something I chose to adopt.
Islam permeated all aspects of my life. Because almost everyone in Pakistan is Muslim, things such as fasting and dressing modestly in public are seen as social norms that one must respect, regardless of faith.
I went to a supposedly secular school, but we recited Quranic verses every day for morning prayer. All female students had to cover their heads during the recitation. Although wearing the hijab during the morning assembly for a short period did not seem like a big deal to most students, I felt like it violated my right to choose whether I wanted to follow Islam.
In the United States, it is unconstitutional for a school to force students to offer prayers or read scripture, because doing so violates the First Amendment. I felt that my school had no right to impose religion on students. Occasionally, I would refuse to cover my head while the Quran was being recited, only to be reprimanded by a teacher and then grudgingly put my scarf over my head. My freedom to choose was taken away.
From the morning azan, or call to prayer, that woke me up at dawn to the azan for Isha, or nighttime prayer, my day began and ended with religion — but that wasn’t a choice I made.
In the Bay Area, I feel like I can breathe. I have the freedom to follow whatever beliefs I want. And while I’m free to turn away from certain teachings, others have the freedom to practice theirs. Freedom of religion is extremely important, but so is freedom from religion.
People often talk about the rights to follow one’s faith; to wear religious clothing, such as the hijab or the veil; and to carry out religious practices, such as fasting. But in many religious communities, people don’t have the right to turn away from the dominant religion. Many Muslim countries treat religious minorities horribly: Minorities are persecuted, accused of blasphemy, denied the right to practice a different faith or simply forbidden from living their lives in a way that disobeys Islam, even if they don’t personally follow the religion.
Most Pakistanis are Sunni Muslim, and Sunni Islam is considered the acceptable faith in Pakistan. Muslims from different sects are often targeted — Shia Muslims are murdered, while Ahmadi Muslims, who believe in a prophet after the Prophet Muhammad, aren’t allowed to identify as Muslim at all. Treatment of non-Muslims is even worse, with Hindus and Christians being demonized and attacked. Most ex-Muslims have to hide the fact that they have left Islam because the consequences could be severe otherwise. They are denied their right to leave religion.
Some European countries, such as Belgium and France, have tried to stop Muslim women from wearing the hijab, which is discriminatory and denies people their freedom of religion. But in some Muslim countries, extremists assault and kill women for refusing to cover up. Once, when I was 11 and wearing skinny jeans in public, a bearded guy spit on me for not being dressed modestly enough.
Muslims can’t expect the rest of the world to protect their religious freedom when they are not doing enough to stop the oppression of religious minorities in Muslim countries. There are still countries where you can get killed for worshipping a different god or following slightly different teachings within the same religion.
Those in power are the ones who determine how religious freedom — or lack thereof — is exercised. Muslims in Western countries are often denied their personal freedoms because they are not the ones in power. But in Muslim-majority countries, especially ones that follow Sharia law, people are free to treat religious minorities the way they want to. Moderate Muslims need to intervene and ensure that non-Muslims are also granted equal rights and humane treatment.
The Quran states, “There is no compulsion in religion”. Religion should be a personal choice, and no one should force others to follow a certain religion or carry out specific practices. People can peacefully advocate their religion, but the freedom to adopt religion and choose one’s own path remains an individual right.
Even the United States doesn’t guarantee religious freedom. Some groups, such as Muslims, are oppressed, marginalized and can’t freely practice their faith. On the other hand, some religious communities within the United States, such as public schools in Texas, teach only creationism in school or try to force their dogmatic and one-sided views on other people. Even in the United States, religion is used as a way to hinder other people’s freedoms — trying to prevent gay marriage and policing women’s bodies, for example. It’s all right to have beliefs of your own, but no one has the right to force them upon others.
It’s important to have the freedom to follow your faith and live your life in accordance with whatever religious book you follow, but it’s equally important to have the freedoms to question religious ideology, to leave it and to gain freedom from it.
Shanzeh Khurram writes the Friday blog on feminism and religion. You can contact her at [email protected].