The Troubled Conscience of Islam
The butchery and barbarism committed under the banner of Islam—by groups such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab—is finally generating a little soul-searching in the Muslim world. What faithful Muslims will ultimately discover from a spiritual inventory, though, remains to be seen.
Last month, for example, about 300 muftis, theologians, and scholars held a conference in Marrakesh, Morocco to address the problem of violence in Islamic states. The result is the Marrakesh Declaration, a 750-word document calling on Muslim countries to guarantee “full protection for the rights and liberties to all religious groups” and “confront all forms of religious bigotry.”
Participants cited as their inspiration the “Charter of Medina,” believed to have been established by the Prophet Muhammad after he fled Mecca for Medina (current day Saudi Arabia) to escape an assassination plot. Muhammad immediately faced a religiously diverse society, including a significant Jewish population, and designed a kind of social contract to accommodate them. The document promises, among other things, that “Jews who follow the Believers will be helped and will be treated with equality.”
Abdallah bin Bayyah, the 80-year-old United Arab Emirates sheik who led the “call to action” at the conference, views the Medina charter as the basis for citizenship in a modern, pluralistic state. “This document is the foundation for an inclusive multicultural, multi-religious society,” he said, “in which all individuals enjoy the same rights and shoulder the same responsibilities.”
That’s a contestable claim, of course, since Jews would soon be expelled from Medina and non-Muslims would never achieve equal rights and protections under the law. Although the Charter of Medina introduced the idea of the dhimmi, a compact guaranteeing security for non-Muslims, the Qur’an applies the term to groups subjugated by Islamic conquerors. “The price of their preservation,” writes C.E. Bosworth in Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, “is to be reduction to a humiliating status in society as second-class citizens.”
This has been the historical pattern of Islam, not only in its confrontation with the West, but in its expansion throughout the world—a fact ignored in the declaration and denied outright by its framers. “The accusation that Islam oppresses minorities,” Bin Bayyah told the conferees, “has no basis in sacred law or in history.”
The statement would be laughable if the record of human misery in the name of Islam—ancient and modern—were not so voluminous. Just take the latest example: The Islamic State openly justifies the kidnapping, rape, and enslavement of young girls as a custom sanctioned under Sharia law. At least 5,000 Yazidis from Syria and Iraq have reportedly fallen into the hands of the jihadists—with a noticeable lack of outrage among leading imams.
Defenders of Islamic history, including President Barack Obama, are quick to recall the bigotry and violence carried out under the guise of Christianity. It is, in many respects, a dark and tortured history. But this misses the crucial point: Christians in the West did not whitewash the sins of the Christian church, but grieved over the church’s failure to uphold its deepest religious ideals. They engaged in an intensive, centuries-long debate about the nature of the Christian faith and its relationship to political authority.
Only then were religious thinkers ready to envision a pluralistic state that guaranteed equal justice to people of all faiths. Only then could they imagine a society that enshrined, in law and custom, the principle of religious freedom for all its citizens. As John Locke put in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689): “The sum of all we drive at, is that every man enjoy the same rights that are granted to others.”
The crisis in modern Islam is that its leaders steadfastly refuse to confront their violent past. Thus there has been no serious and prolonged debate about why so much of the Islamic world remains hostile to democratic values and universal human rights.
Thanks to political correctness, Muslims are helped in their evasion by well-meaning Westerners, including the American president. In his speech this week to Muslims at a Baltimore mosque, Mr. Obama tried to counter the anti-Islamic venom that has degraded the presidential campaign, and to reassure Muslims that they are a vital part of the American story, a worthy enough goal. “This is a struggle between the peace-loving, overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world and a radical, tiny minority,” the president said. “We can’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem. That betrays our values.”
The real betrayal—a betrayal of reason and conscience—is the suggestion that Islam has nothing to do with the culture of oppression and rage that is enveloping the Muslim world. Some of those who gathered at Marrakesh know better. As their declaration put it: “It is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.”
As the history of religious freedom in the West makes clear, the awakened conscience is a prerequisite to a reformation.
Joseph Loconte, an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and a senior editor at Providence, is the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West.
Photo Credit: Mosque minaret at sunset in Marrakesh, Morocco by yeowatzup via Flickr.