Is there a problem with proselytism overseas by U.S. religious groups? Isn’t sharing one’s faith part of religious freedom? When does it cross the line into manipulation and coercion?
I believe systematic and institutionalized endeavors to proselytize on a global stage is warfare by other means. I am not opposed to conversion per se. If someone finds meaning in a particular message and seeks to embrace it, congratulations. If one feels an urge to share one’s beliefs and what it means with others, then again that is welcome. But if one starts a campaign to “recruit” people through an organized crusade, then it is, I believe, contrary to the very idea of spiritualism as understood by most faiths, and is an act of aggression.
Faith is not a commodity that lends itself to a global consumer marketing campaign. To treat it as such is demeaning to faith itself. Marketing it using brochures and not compassion, arguments and not service, providing material incentives and not spiritual comfort, is abhorrent.
Islam and Christianity have reputations for proselytizing. But often the rapid growth of Islam is assumed to be as a result of Christianity like attempts at systematic proselytizing. This is far from the truth. There are no lifelong missionaries in Muslim societies. Mosques do not have budgets or fund raisers for missionary work. Islam is today the fastest growing religion in America and Europe and that is not because of some major missionary campaign, but indeed in spite of all the demonization of Islam in the media as a false religion, as a religion of violence and as a value system intolerant towards women.
Many Western commentators interpret the extremism of al-Qaeda and other groups as indicative of the Islamic mandate to convert people to Islam. I personally have difficulty understanding this claim. How does one convince others of the virtue of one’s ways through murder and slaughter?
On the other hand, many Islamic and third world countries associate Christian missionaries with crusades, colonization and imperialism. If you see a Christian missionary, run! Western armies are not far behind, or they are already there. Even the U.S., the champion of secularism and freedom of religion, has had so much trouble disassociating itself and its foreign policy from proselytizing. U.S. armies in occupied Iraq have been used to protect Christian missionaries distributing Bibles along with food to starving Iraqis and associating Christian symbols with military ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Efforts to safeguard freedom of religion, such as the now controversial U.S. Commission of on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has been shown as biased towards Christianity. It has over the years shown more concern for opening opportunities for evangelism in the Muslim World than protecting the religious freedoms of Muslim Women in France.
In India too there is a large constituency for banning conversions because they see it as a cultural invasion of India, by Islam and Christianity. Clearly proselytizing has no place in the global village.
Islamic sources, regardless of how some Muslims may act or interpret them, are overwhelmingly against active proselytization. The Quran states very clearly that there is no compulsion in religion. There is no need for compulsion, since the truth is elf evident (Quran 2:256). In several other places, the Quran states very clearly that the role of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) is to only deliver the message from God. He does not have the right to exercise power over those who receive his message (Quran 88;21-22), it is God, not people, who will exercise accountability upon the creation (Quran 88;26]. The job of a Muslim is to deliver the message, not to manage, not to act as an advocate nor to seek to act as a guardian of others (Quran 10:18, 3:29, 18:29).
I like Jefferson’s idea that the best way to communicate what one’s values and beliefs are is by living them. If Muslims want to bring the message of Truth to others, then rather than launching global campaigns to proselytize, they should live their faiths and let its grace work. The same applies to others. Be good so we know your values are good.
To be concise proselytization is neither good religion nor good politics. Religion’s objective is to build a spiritual link between the creation and the creator, not to serve as an identity marker engaged in a battle for market share of souls.