In the 13th century, when the Mongols conquered Baghdad, their ruler Hulagu Khan gathered the religious scholars in the city and asked them: According to spiritual law, which option is preferable: a disbelieving, but just, ruler, or a Muslim ruler who is unjust? After some reflection, the scholars chose a disbelieving, but just, ruler.
This focus on righteousness in Islamic thought as the privileging factor seems to be lost on today’s extremist actors. Instead, militants vie for power and control, and seek to obliterate peaceful—or righteous—believers of both their own and other faiths. As a result, religious minorities in Muslim countries are increasingly under strain.
But some prominent Muslims are trying to fix that. At a convention led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian professor of Islamic studies at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, more than 200 Muslim spiritual leaders, along with guests of other faiths, gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco in January. Their goal was to discuss the protection of these minorities.
The backdrop to the discussions was the Medina Charter, drafted by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) 1,400 years ago, as a blueprint for peace and cooperation among diverse religious groups. The conference, conveners felt, was called to action by what has now become a frequently recurring tragedy of death and destruction by Muslim extremists.
And well they might. Last month, on Easter Sunday, many of the Christian families of Lahore in Pakistan were celebrating their holiday with a picnic in Gulshan Iqbal Park. It was a crisp, sunny day and the kids were eager to enjoy the rides and frolic in the playground.
But their mirth was interrupted in the most tragic of ways. A bomb blast tore through the park, killing scores of women and children. The Pakistani Taliban had intentionally targeted Christians, who make up only 2 percent of the country’s population.
This wasn’t the first time—and most likely won’t be the last—that religious minorities in Pakistan have come under attack. Last October, a suicide bomber attacked a Shiite procession in southern Pakistan, killing dozens and wounding many others. That attack followed a string of others targeting the country’s Shiite community. The nation’s Ahmadi community is also under attack, with some saying that persecution is very nearly condoned by the law.
While Pakistan may be especially egregious in its religious freedom violations, it is certainly not alone among Muslim-majority countries when it comes to curtailing (with force, if necessary) peaceful religious expression. Egypt and Indonesia, among others, have blasphemy laws on the books; and small sects, such as the Ahmadis in Indonesia and Quranists in Egypt, face persecution in their countries.
But the Marrakesh conference is a strong sign of change to come. The Marrakesh Declaration—issued at the conclusion of the summit—states that the Medina Charter lays out a framework for the protection of religious minorities in Muslim-controlled states, and those principles must be applied today. “…The Charter of Medina[‘s] …provisions contained a number of the principles of constitutional contractual citizenship, such as freedom of movement, property ownership, mutual solidarity and defense, as well as principles of justice and equality before the law,” according to the declaration. It goes on to say that “The objectives of the Charter of Medina provide a suitable framework for national constitutions in countries with Muslim majorities; and the United Nations Charter and related documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are in harmony with the Charter of Medina, including consideration for public order.” It does however, fail to take on the task of protecting those of no faith, an increasing number of whom reside and live in Muslim nations.
In the face of recurring violence against minorities in Muslim-majority states, the declaration seems to be facing an impossible task. Even the conference convener, bin Bayyah, mused out loud that “We are heading towards annihilation.” So it is not surprising that many have responded to the declaration with, at best, skepticism and, at worst, cynicism.
Shadi Hamid of the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution told the New York Times that the declaration is useless because it fails to target “people who are predisposed to radicalism. A young Muslim who is intrigued by [Daesh] would be more likely to listen to a Salafi scholar than a traditionalist scholar.”
Beyond criticism of methodology, Muslim and non-Muslim groups, concerned about religious liberty, are demanding concrete action. They worry the declaration follows in the steps of other feel-good but ineffectual initiatives, such as the 2007 “A Common Word” statement that called for interfaith engagement. That document was signed by 138 Muslim scholars and endorsed by dozens more. Its on-the-ground impact? Not much.
Many wonder whether the Marrakesh Declaration is headed in the same direction. While the answer remains to be seen, I have reason to be optimistic. Yes, the task is seemingly insurmountable. And even the wording of the Marrakesh Declaration raises red flags. It is quick to reference public order as a reason to sidestep religious freedom.
Unfortunately, my extensive academic and advocacy work has shown me that time and again, the public order exception is used to justify over broad restrictions on human rights.
Then there’s the U.N.’s call for “representatives of the various religions, sects and denominations to confront all forms of religious bigotry, vilification, [sic] and denigration [sic] of what people hold sacred, as well as all speeches that promote hatred and bigotry.” While it sounds good, I can’t help but be reminded of the highly problematic, proposed
“Defamation of Religions Resolution” that held sway at the United Nations for years. The resolution, proposed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, encouraged states to clamp down (with force, if necessary) on any and all speech that could be seen as an infraction towards a governing power.
Despite the red flags, however, there’s plenty to be excited about. Bin Bayyah acknowledges that the Marrakesh Declaration is a mere “starting point.” After all, one must start somewhere, and in Muslim-majority countries, Islam is the best place to start. As Bin Bayyah explains to Newsweek Middle East, “The Marrakesh Declaration can be a fertile ground upon which to build greater awareness of human rights. The declaration itself is a theoretical underpinning, but the actual application of these ideas is the work of religious figures, politicians and civil society.”
The emphasis moving forward is squarely on implementation. The Marrakesh Declaration goes further than former statements of good will to lay out concrete concepts, with particular focus on developing a jurisprudence of “citizenship” that accounts for diverse beliefs and practices. And most fundamentally of all, it proceeds with the goal of giving credibility to Muslim religious liberty activists who work tirelessly to defend the fundamental human rights of persecuted religious minorities—only to be leveled with accusations of being un-Islamic.
My work in Egypt revealed a similar misunderstanding. There, political and religious leaders defined religious freedom as freedom from religion. In my conversations with them, they expressed concerns that broad religious freedom protections would lead to a moral vacuum in society. In particular, they worried that it would open the door to unfettered sexual freedom and degradation of family values. They did not see that it is religious freedom that allows religious groups to share their moral values openly in society.
Indeed, these concerns tend to overlook key points. On the purely legal front, the Indonesian Constitutional Court’s failure to respect international law ignored the fact that it had, years ago, signed onto the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which obligated it to respect religious liberty.
More immediately, the Indonesian Court failed to notice the country’s cadre of young lawyers who are advocating against the blasphemy law. These lawyers are practicing Muslims and are appreciative of God’s place in Indonesian society.
And that’s where the Marrakesh Declaration really matters. It makes clear that advocating for the protection of religious minorities is fully in line with Islam and is in fact encouraged by its basic tenets. The Quran says, “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion.” And the Medina Charter provides specific guidelines on the broad scope of protections Muslim states must give to religious minorities. Unlike the concerns of both the Indonesian Court and the Egyptian leaders I spoke with, religious liberty does not move one away from faith. Instead, it brings one closer to it. And the Marrakesh Declaration understands that.
Consider, for example, places like the U.S. where the free exercise of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution. Believers of all faiths, Muslims included, have found fertile ground to live out their faith through worship, dress, and community service. Particularly now with the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment, it is precisely the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom that have ensured that Muslims can worship in peace, build and expand mosques and Islamic schools, wear Islamic clothing, publish and disseminate religious literature, and create authentic American Muslim art and culture.
Indeed, contrary to common concerns, broad religious liberty rights lead to the flourishing, not diminishment, of faith. With the Marrakesh Declaration now available to Muslim religious freedom activists such as myself, we can forge ahead with our work, finally equipped with public, scholarly affirmation that we are serving our faith.