09/20/2012 06:28 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

Why Muslim Countries Rise to the Bait: Lack of Religious Freedom

Large fires can begin with a tiny spark. So the anti-America violence in 20 countries was set off by a crude propaganda video (The Innocence of Muslims) put out by a right-wing fringe element in the U.S.

The propagandists interpret such reactions as a confirmation of their darkest warnings about the violence and intolerance of Islamic societies. We do not need to expend any effort in figuring out what motivates such hate mongers. They merely repeat a pattern of anti-immigrant hysteria that played out previously in relation to other religious (and ethnic) groups, including Catholics and Jews. Why so many people in Islamic countries are rising to their bait is much more intriguing.

After all, why would so many people around the world perceive the cinematic ramblings of a crank as the official position and policy of the U.S. government and the unanimous view of all Americans?

Lack of religious freedom

Clearly, there is a problem with reality testing in some Islamic countries that may not be a majority issue but affects a militant minority. This phenomenon can be explained in terms of a lack of religious freedom. Because criticism of Mohammed is not allowed, any gesture of disrespect for the Prophet, or for Islam (e.g., Quran burning) stimulates extreme anger that is directed at the U.S. and other leading Western countries and often skillfully nurtured and directed by terrorist organizations.

The resulting violence is indiscriminate and most victims are innocent Muslims -- or Western Christians who, like the late Ambassador Christopher Stevens, had nothing but altruistic motives towards their hosts.

If there were more religious freedom in Islamic countries, there would be greater tolerance of other religious points of view and correspondingly less anger at foreign criticism. After all, there are no riots in the West prompted by insults to Christianity.

The freedom to practice one's religion is a basic liberty without which other freedoms are virtually meaningless. This freedom was denied under the Soviet administration and in other Communist countries around the world. Formal religion was effectively crushed in these countries and never recovered.

In my own research, I have found that religion remains much weaker in formerly Communist countries as measured by the proportion of people who see religion as important in their daily lives. This is compelling evidence that religious freedom was denied in these countries.

Freedom from religion

Freedom of religion implies freedom from religion. In Islamic countries, one finds the opposite problem of enforced religion. Whereas non-Muslims are second class citizens under legal traditions deriving from the Ottoman Empire, Sharia law treats rejection of Islamic faith (or "apostasy") as a capital offense and bans criticism of Islam.

As a result, religion is apparently much stronger in Muslim countries than it is in similar countries where other religions are practiced. This over-religiosity is measurable. Interestingly, Islamic countries boost religion to approximately the same extent as Communist regimes weakened it.

This means that the strength of religious oppression in Muslim countries is equivalent to that of Communism. Instead of being forced to give up their religion, Muslims are forced to remain loyal to it. The strong effect of Islamic faith on religiosity remains even after controlling for all other major factors affecting country differences in religion from economic development and income inequality to education and health.

In the heyday of the Soviet Union, a great deal was made of Communist denial of religious freedom. Muslim denial of religious liberty is just as oppressive. Yet, it is rarely challenged by Western political leaders, much less by the United Nations and other groups dedicated to promoting human rights. Of course, human rights groups do speak out on narrower issues such as female education, female suffrage and honor killings.

We are shocked when religious oppression in Islamic countries comes back to bite us in the form of anti-American mobs stirred up by extremists and terrorists. Perhaps we should be more proactive at promoting religious liberty in Muslim countries.

If we were, the criticism of religion could come from inside these societies -- perhaps even from feminists who feel oppressed by Sharia law. That means it would not be coming just from the West and only from our most extreme right-wing cranks.