Many (but not all) of those who have a problem with the claim that “Islam does not respect freedom of religion” really have a problem with the idea that God does not respect freedom of religion. That is really the core of their problem. The idea that there is only one religion acceptable to God is inherently repulsive to them. How could God not respect people’s freedom of conscience? How could a merciful God not respect people’s freedom of choice?
This is also why we see some (not all) Muslims who adopt a value like religious freedom ultimately leave Islam because of that value. Why? Well, why should tolerance for religious belief end at death? If we demand, as a matter of principle, ethics, and justice, that worldly rulers tolerate every and all beliefs equally, then why wouldn’t we demand that of God as well?
But then we learn that, no, the reality is that it does matter what a person believes. It matters to God as He has informed us, not only in the last revelation, but also in all previous revelations as well!
To maintain a principle like religious freedom for dunya but salvific exclusivity for the akhira is, to say the least, a major tension, if not an outright contradiction. Muslims today, as they are living under the hegemonic influence of liberal secularism, increasingly have opted to abandon salvific exclusivity and to maintain that beliefs neither matter in dunya nor in akhira. “All religions are essentially the same,” “All religions are paths to God,” “All religions lead to good,” etc.
It might appear that respecting the value of religious freedom is merely a political and pragmatic issue that Muslims can disagree about. In reality, political ideals have severe consequences for the iman of the average Muslim. This is how philosophical liberalism — from which the value of religious freedom originates — is able to subtly but significantly distort Muslim belief and misguide otherwise faithful believers. May Allah protect us all.