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"When it comes to the conversation about religious polarization, I can say that the type of conversations that we’ve had because of IHS are not happening anywhere else.” 

Asma Uddin
Asma UddinFrom a young age, Asma Uddin has cultivated an important connection with religion. As a seventh grader, she would carry around a copy of Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God”; a habit she cites as the first hint that religion would fill an outsized role in her life.

Before Uddin was born, her father would lead the 30 days of prayer during Ramadan as one of the only Muslims in his Miami community who had memorized the Quran. Stories like this deepened and reinforced her commitment to ensuring that religious freedoms are guaranteed for all.

Now a religious liberty lawyer and fellow at the Aspen Institute, Uddin writes about the political and religious fissures that have widened between Muslims and Christians and what this means for the future of a tolerant and pluralistic society.

In 2020 she participated in her first IHS manuscript workshop for her book “The Politics of Vulnerability,” which illustrates how an expanding sense of vulnerability among certain groups is driving much of the illiberal animosity toward Muslims and others perceived as “outsiders.” She discussed these themes of her book in a past Ideas in Progress podcast episode.


The Politics of VulnerabilityAs Uddin writes in the book’s introduction, “the very nature of human rights, including the right to religious freedom, requires that if you protect it only for some, you cease to protect it for anyone.” Religious liberty can only exist in an environment where people are free to practice their religion, even when others might disagree. This precept is what has inspired Uddin to defend religious liberty cases and spread religious freedom as a legal concept. 

After her first research workshop, Uddin helped lead a papers workshop with Andrew Lewis, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati and scholar on religious liberty. The papers workshop expanded on themes from her book sought new areas of research by bringing together stakeholders with different perspectives.

The purpose was to explore the origins of religious polarization and discover ways to build coalitions and depolarize the religious divide. Uddin values the “many interesting insights” shared by workshop participants including philosophers, social psychologists, political scientists, religious leaders, and journalists.

Each convening, she says, is an opportunity to bridge gaps that are often ignored and left to fester. She observes that “throughout my work, I strive to center the human at the core of the story because we have to understand how humans function and what is motivating a particular legal case.” The interdisciplinary nature of the programs has proven fruitful as each voice adds a new contribution to a conversation that is just beginning to take root.

“It’s nice to have partners like IHS who really get what I’m trying to do and create spaces that are pretty unique. When it comes to the conversation about religious polarization, I can say that the type of conversations that we’ve had because of IHS are not happening anywhere else.” 

– Asma Uddin

For example, the input from expert stakeholders during the manuscript workshop pushed Uddin to explore the source of some groups’ skewed perceptions of religious discrimination. She explains that these diverging perceptions of religious persecution are due in part to information bubbles that insulate one group from the other.

The workshop inspired Uddin to look beyond the numbers and offer an explanation that takes account of the human condition. “These issues do not have to necessarily be politically motivated,” she adds. “Sometimes it’s a function of your informational environment.” The cultural factors in conjunction with the legal and political explanations helped Uddin identify some of the fears behind the religious intolerance between Christian and Muslim communities.

In an upcoming IHS symposium, Uddin will sit down with other panelists, including Andrew Lewis, to discuss the future of religious liberty in diverse communities. Discussants will explore, challenge, and attempt to diagnose the cultural currents that feed into the growing anxieties people harbor toward certain religions.

“This symposium is a chance to assemble experts who speak different disciplinary languages, and to build a new understanding of religious liberty from multiple angles,” she says. The only way to depolarize our climate, she concludes, is to support the kinds of conversations that welcome different points of view and find ways to incorporate them into a broader understanding of the world.

She says that bringing people together through conversation is a way to practice toleration and empathy, which are great tools for shedding fears of vulnerability and building trust among different groups. “Religious liberty for all,” she emphasizes, is more than just a slogan: It is an actionable course for people devoted to mutual toleration in a diverse world.

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