Can there be dialogue with Islam without religious freedom?

Supporters of a Pakistani religious group rally in Lahore to condemn the release of a Christian woman Asia Bibi who had been sentenced to death. The banner reads " Death is a punishment for blasphemy in Shariah".

I have just read William Oddie’s blog on Pakistan, its blasphemy laws and the appalling injustice done to Asia Bibi, who has now been released. The case he highlights is very disturbing and makes me raise the question: is violence intrinsic to Islam? Or is it really – as its defenders say – a peaceable religion, regrettably distorted by Islamist terrorists such as Anwar al-Awiaki, who believes jihad is an obligation for every Muslim?

This same question was posed by Pope Benedict in his famous (or should I say ‘notorious’?) Regensburg Address in 2006. I know he has been widely criticised for raising the subject at all, but personally I think he was right to do so. Referring to a dialogue in 1391 by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus to an educated Persian, the Pope said, “The Emperor touches on the theme of a holy war. He addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable on the central question concerning the relationship between religion and violence…”

Note that it is the ‘brusqueness’ that is unacceptable, not the question itself. The Christian Emperor’s point (and Pope Benedict’s) is that to spread one’s faith through violence (‘the sword’ preached by Mohammed) is incompatible with the nature of God. The Pope went on to say, “The truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos (the word). Christian worship is worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason.”
Commenting on the Regensburg Address in the Sunday Telegraph at the time of the papal visit, Mona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic Studies at Glasgow University, wrote, “Benedict…quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who had strongly criticised Islam and its propensity for violence. Tragically, many Muslims around the world did react violently, demanding an apology and fuelling the growing frustration within Western society that Muslims tolerate free speech only as long as it doesn’t offend them’.

Moderate and sensible though her article was, nowhere in it did the Professor actually repudiate the idea that violence, holy war or jihad might be intrinsic to Islam. I recently read “Son of Hamas” by the Palestinian, Mosab Hassan Yousef. He makes it clear that in his view the Koran explicitly endorses jihad. He writes that Islam is like a ladder; at the bottom are largely secular Muslims who pay lip service to their faith; halfway up are the ‘moderates’, sincere believers who want to lead peaceful lives; the “highest rung” is jihad, towards which the moderates are always being pulled. Yousef grieves that the “beautiful side of Islam” is in conflict with “the cruel side that required its followers to conquer and enslave the earth.”

Back to Pakistan, its blasphemy laws and the death sentence imposed on a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, for defending her faith under pressure. As the distinguished historian, Michael Burleigh, wrote in an article published at the same time as Professor Siddiqui’s, “Anyone looking at the raging, bearded faces we regularly see in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Luton and Walthamstow can surely agree…that parts of Islam have a major problem with the synthesis of religion and reason which has become normative in the West. There cannot be a ‘dialogue’ with Islam until there is meaningful reciprocity of such religious freedoms as the right to open places of worship or to convert without fear of death.”