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Upholding the rights of religious minorities in Islamic societies

The recent bombing in Lahore targetting the city’s Christian minority has once again shone a spotlight on the treatment of minorities in the Muslim World.

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The recent bombing in Lahore targetting the city’s Christian minority has once again shone a spotlight on the treatment of minorities in the Muslim World.

Despite the long history of tolerance and respect for other religious faiths in the Muslim world, such large scale violence against non-Muslims and Muslim minority sects is again raising questions on the rights of non-Muslims within these societies.

This conundrum will persist, so long as mainstream Muslim leaders fail to acknowledge that there is a need to update historical Islamic treatises for today’s context.

THE MARRAKESH DECLARATION

At a conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, in January, Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals from over 120 countries reaffirmed principles of tolerance and religious freedom from an Islamic perspective. Against the backdrop of rising sectarianism and religiously motivated violence, the conference, calling for the protection of religious minorities, sent across an unequivocal message: persecution of other faiths is un-Islamic.

Sponsored by King Mohammed VI of Morocco and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, the Marrakesh Conference was convened by Shaykh Abdallah Bayyah, a prominent Mauritanian scholar. He spearheaded previous initiatives like the 2004 Amman Message, which sought to clarify the nature of true Islam. Calling for unity within the ummah (Muslim community) the Amman Message officially recognised the validity of the eight legal schools of Sunni, Shia and Ibadi Islam, proscribed apostasy for Muslims and denounced the illegitimate issuing of fatwa to promote violence. He also called for the appropriate contextualisation of the 14th century Muslim scholar Ibn Taymmiyah’s medieval fatwa on jihad, a classic text used by militants to wage war on non-Muslims.

Such affirmations are not enough. The main problem is they overlook historicity, or historical authenticity, and contextual analysis, much the way fringe groups like ISIS use their interpretation of the Quran and the Sunna to justify violence and oppression.

The legal framework of the Marrakesh Declaration is rooted in the Medina Charter, through which Prophet Muhammad established an agreement with the non-Muslim tribes of Medina, particularly Jewish and Christian. The Charter is considered the earliest constitution to address religious pluralism and uphold unity and cooperation instead of violence and intolerance.

As the earliest instance of accommodation of religious difference in the Islamic tradition, the Medina Charter offers a legitimate framework to reaffirm the principles of tolerance and unity. Yet it is rooted in a particular time in history and we should not give in to the temptation of reading modern values such as multiculturalism and religious freedom into a 7th century political document.

The history of Islam during the Medinan period established protection for the monotheistic peoples of the Book through the Islamic concept of dhimmi (protected people). However, only Muslims were considered to be full members of the political community while the dhimmis were not seen as equal citizens. Beyond politics, dhimmis enjoyed equal economic and social rights. They were also allowed to be governed by their own sets of religious laws. The Charter of Medina was a highly progressive treatise for its time.

During the Ottoman period, the policy towards minorities, the millet system, was as much an instrument for the expansion of the Ottoman empire as it was a requirement of Islam. The millet system offered protection to minorities based on a bond of submission to the Ottoman political authority. Under the Ottoman Empire, religious minorities were free to practise their religion and enjoyed equal rights in most areas. The Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church together with the Grand Rabbi of the Jewish communities were privileged and their institutions were autonomous under the Ottoman millet structure. The peaceful co-existence offered by the millet system was an anti-thesis to the attitudes towards minorities in pre-modern Europe where differences in religious affiliations led to century long wars.

This earlier understanding of the concept of dhimmi as communities that must be protected by the Muslim political authority is now understood as relegating religious minorities to the status of second class citizens, in contrast to today’s more egalitarian global discourse on minority rights.

CONTEXTUALISING THE CHARTER OF MEDINA

The Marrakesh Declaration draws on the Charter of Medina to reaffirm the principles of tolerance and coexistence. Nonetheless, a model developed on this selective example feeds into the nostalgia of reviving the glorious traditions of the past.

To avoid this, today’s concept of religious freedom needs to take into account the particular historical circumstances of the Medina Charter as well as the changes brought by modernity and the international political system. Caught between traditional models of coexistence, like the Ottoman millet system, and global narratives such as the liberal agenda of minority rights, the plight of minorities is much more than an ethical issue. The principles of equality, tolerance and freedom are enforced within national, regional and international political structures. The recognition and application of these principles are ultimately dependent on the relationship of minorities to the state and political authority.

Against this unequal treatment of minorities, Abdullahi An-Na’im, a renowned Sudanese Islamic scholar who writes extensively on Islamic jurisprudence and international law, argues for the synthesis of human rights and the Islamic doctrine in order to create a universal, inclusive form of citizenship.

He argues for the transition from dhimmihood to formal citizenship based on equality and non-discrimination. Highlighting the importance of historicity and contextual accommodation, An Na’im reminds us of the Tanzimat reforms and especially the Ottoman decree of 1856, which prohibited reference to dhimma and affirmed legal equality of all non-Muslim subjects of the Sultan.

The lesson here is that, while we may be inspired by the past, we need to understand the plight of minorities today through a synthesis of religious values and the international language of human rights.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Iulia Lumina is a Research Analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Related topics addressed in this analysis will be discussed at the upcoming RSIS conference on ‘Islam in the Contemporary World’, which will be held on April 28.

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