Article Feb 4, 2016

Will religious minorities find true support among Muslim leaders?

"We believe it is possible to heal this illness from the pharmacy of the sacred law of Islam." These words, spoken by Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, were, for me, the most memorable of the entire Marrakesh Declaration conference last week. In context, the "illness" Shaykh Bin Bayyah spoke of is the treatment of religious minorities in majority-Muslim societies.

On January 25-26, 2016, several hundred Muslim muftis, imams, shaykhs, scholars, legal experts, politicians and diplomats gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco, for the purpose of drafting and issuing a declaration defining the rights of non-Muslims living in majority-Muslim countries. The conference was hosted by the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies under the patronage of King Mohammed VI of Morocco. The gathering included religious leaders and government officials from nearly every country with a significant Muslim population, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia to Iran to to the United States to Pakistan to Chechnya to Russia to Bangladesh. The geographical and theological diversity was remarkable.

I had the honor of attending the conference as a part of a small delegation of non-Muslim religious leaders that included Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Yezidis, Sabians and others. We were invited to observe the proceedings and provide commentary on the draft and final declaration that was issued by the conference.

The conference itself, however, was a dialogue within the Muslim community about the treatment of minority religious communities. In a fundamental way, we were not the audience for the conference: Muslim speakers were speaking to a Muslim audience about the demands of Islamic law for the treatment of minorities.

The gathering was a truly historic event—no one I spoke to at the conference was aware of another such gathering to address this issue, perhaps even in the history of Islam. The fact that a declaration was agreed upon at all, given the diversity of the leaders present, is a significant achievement.

Treatment for religious minorities under Islamic law

Shaykh Bin Bayyah laid out the theological framework and foundation for the conference. This foundation was based on the Charter of Medina, which according to Islamic tradition was a peace treaty drafted by the Prophet Muhammad to establish peace among the religiously diverse tribes living and around Medina.

From the history of the Charter of Medina and Islamic law, Shaykh Bin Bayyah articulated 10 foundational values of Islam for "dealing with others." These 10 values are: kindness, honor, cooperation, reconciliation, human fraternity, wisdom, commonwealth, justice, mercy and peace. Shaykh Bin Bayyah’s presentation grounded these principles in human dignity and equality.

It is worth noting that the history of the Charter of Medina is a bloody one and isn’t exactly an example of peaceful coexistence and tranquility. Historians differ on whether the contract can be construed as a social contract or as a unilateral proclamation by Muhammad. Nevertheless, the Charter of Medina did provide a framework for a religiously diverse community to live side by side in relative equality.

In any event, there was broad consensus, at least in principle, among the scholars at the conference that these 10 values were indeed deeply rooted in Islamic law and tradition and that this Islamic tradition demands equal treatment of religious minorities.

The Marrakesh Declaration

The document that emerged from several days of marathon drafting sessions and negotiating on specific wordings is available online in English translation. Sections are included below, but the document is worth reading and considering in full.

The Declaration centers on the idea of "constitutional contractual citizenship" and articulates a number of fundamental rights including freedom of movement, property ownership, mutual solidarity and defense, and "principles of justice and equality before the law." The Declaration also affirms the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stating that Islamic law is consistent with these declarations.

The Declaration also issues seven calls to action. The legacy of this effort will depend entirely on the extent to which these calls to action are implemented, not just in one place, but in every country that signed on to the Declaration. The calls to action are as follows:

Call upon Muslim scholars and intellectuals around the world to develop a jurisprudence of the concept of "citizenship" which is inclusive of diverse groups. Such jurisprudence shall be rooted in Islamic tradition and principles and mindful of global changes.

Urge Muslim educational institutions and authorities to conduct a courageous review of educational curricula that addresses honestly and effectively any material that instigates aggression and extremism, leads to war and chaos, and results in the destruction of our shared societies;

Call upon politicians and decision makers to take the political and legal steps necessary to establish a constitutional contractual relationship among its citizens, and to support all formulations and initiatives that aim to fortify relations and understanding among the various religious groups in the Muslim World;

Call upon the educated, artistic and creative members of our societies, as well as organizations of civil society, to establish a broad movement for the just treatment of religious minorities in Muslim countries and to raise awareness as to their rights, and to work together to ensure the success of these efforts.

Call upon the various religious groups bound by the same national fabric to address their mutual state of selective amnesia that blocks memories of centuries of joint and shared living on the same land; we call upon them to rebuild the past by reviving this tradition of conviviality, and restoring our shared trust that has been eroded by extremists using acts of terror and aggression;

Call upon representatives of the various religions, sects and denominations to confront all forms of religious bigotry, vilification and denigration of what people hold sacred, as well as all speech that promotes hatred and bigotry;

Affirm that it is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.

What will the Marrakesh Declaration mean?

Will the Marrakesh Declaration be remembered as a flash in the pan or a significant turning point in the Middle East? Only time will tell. The Declaration itself is an important achievement and milestone, but the heavy lifting has barely begun. A declaration after all, is just talk. Would we celebrate the Federalist Papers without the U.S. Constitution?

The organizers of the conference are serious and committed to prioritizing this issue. Whether the countries represented by the other 300 attendees at the conference will also make these issues a priority in their own countries remains to be seen.

To the extent that the first step toward solving a problem is recognizing that there is one, the conference was a good half step. The Declaration itself is a powerful statement. But the speeches delivered by many of the delegates stopped short of acknowledgment of the seriousness of the issue today. An Iranian representative, for instance, held up Iran's experience of pluralism with Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, failing to acknowledge that until two weeks ago, a Christian pastor had been imprisoned for four years or that the Baha’is suffer brutal oppression even today in Iran. A Saudi representative focused on the treatment of Muslims in non-Muslim countries, despite the fact that the West has freely allowed the construction of hundreds of Salafi mosques, yet there is not a single church in Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, Shaykh Bin Bayyah expressed the situation religious minorities find themselves today in terms of a "disease" or an "illness." I am hopeful that his assessment was heard and will be recognized in the years to come.

The response from the international community has been mixed. Some are hopeful that the conference will lead to real action. Others have argued that history gives us little reason to have hope that the declaration will lead anywhere.

What I will say is that after attending this conference, I am hopeful, even optimistic. It was a powerful thing to experience the solidarity of hundreds of Muslim leaders that are not happy about the way my community has been treated in the Middle East. The organizers of the conference hosted a serious, sincere effort to grapple with some of the most serious issues facing Islam today. There was a genuine spirit of collaboration and a willingness to work together to make the lives of religious minorities better. My prayers are with these men and women as they work within their own community for a solution. The Christian community in the region needs one desperately.