Taufiq Rahim

Political Analyst / Blogger

With the conclusion of the midterm elections in the United States, the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy has started to fade into historical memory. While the story is longer on the front covers of America’s leading newspapers, a fierce debate still simmers about Islam in the West. Many commentators called for greater tolerance of the minority Muslim population in Western countries. At the same time, a popular counter-opinion, echoed as well in a blog post by ubiquitous Republican Newt Gingrich, maintains that there should be no mosque built near Ground Zero (or elsewhere for that matter) before there is a church constructed in Saudi Arabia.

This latter point is a red herring that deserves to be ignored. American religious freedoms as affirmed in its constitution are not beholden to the lack of human rights in a distant land. However, this should not mean that the point should be ignored altogether. Why shouldn’t a church be built in Saudi Arabia? And why is this not of greater concern to the proverbial Muslim world? Historical nostalgia about Islamic tolerance has clouded the view of a climate today that is unfriendly at best and hostile at worst to religious minorities in most Muslim-majority countries.

The advent of Islam was revolutionary in affirming rights for marginalized groups. It was a fundamentally progressive religion that sought to curb if not eliminate abuses and discrimination against women, orphans, minorities, slaves and others. In an oft-cited verse (109:6) the Qur’an commands, “Unto you your religion and unto me my religion.” Another verse (2:62) further embraces those religious groups outside Islam: “Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians and Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds shall have their reward with their Lord.”

Enshrined within the faith from its inception was the concept of Ahl al-Kitaab or people of the book. This meant that Jews and Christians were part and parcel of any Islamic society. Subsequent empires such as the Ummayads, Fatimids, Mughals, and Ottomans incorporated this structure into their governance to safeguard the rights of minorities. The above definition sometimes expanded to include other groups such as Buddhists, Hindus and Zoroastrians. Within the Ottoman Empire, something called the Millet system developed that allowed for religious minorities to have their own courts of personal law. This general culture of tolerance spurred Muslim lands into safe havens for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, particularly from Russian pogroms and the Spanish Inquisition.

It would be mistaken to idealize this past as a utopia. Certainly amidst the coexistence was a clear acknowledgement that Jews and other religious minorities would be second-class citizens. Moreover, in Andalusian Spain, the 11th and 12th centuries experienced intermittent repression of Jews for example. In India, some Mughal emperors such as Aurangzeb forced Hindus to adhere to Islamic law. Yet, by and large, in its historical context, the ingrained ‘tolerance’ in many Muslim societies could be said to be unique and progressive.

Unfortunately, living in a bygone past is not an option. The contemporary reality is that while Islam embedded a progressive tolerance within the faith, this ethic has stagnated. The fear of the non-Muslim and of the wayward Muslim from within has led to a climate of intolerance and even hostility – sometimes deadly – towards religious minorities. There are the extreme cases that emerge in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. However, even in so-called moderate nations like Malaysia, the situation can be bleak; churches were frequent targets of attack in the past two years and courts blocked Christians from using the word ‘Allah’ for God, a common practice for the last 1400 years. Try building a new church in Saudi Arabia or any Gulf country; it is certainly not akin to constructing a new mosque. Try openly proselytizing; in many Muslim countries it is a capital crime to convert out of Islam (Ridda or apostacy).

Beyond the external religions, many Muslim societies are failing in their tolerance of religious minorities within or emanating from Islam. The Bahais are persecuted systematically in Iran. Ahmadis are prohibited from saying salaam alaikum (the traditional Muslim greeting) in Pakistan, as they are viewed as heretics. Worse, they have been specifically targeted by incitement campaigns by both political and religious leaders, which in turn has led to horrific violence against their community. The list of violent attacks, legal impositions, and cases of incitement throughout the Muslim umma towards minorities would be endless to document here.

Fundamentally, the bar for Muslim societies is set far too low. Why should not Muslim-majority countries be judged at the same standard as the United States or other nations in Western Europe? Of course, people like Geert Wilders, the Dutch far-right leader, are extreme. Assuredly, there is discrimination against Muslims in parts of the U.S. Nevertheless, it would hardly compare to the violence, subjugation, and marginalization of many religious minorities in Muslim countries. While there are exceptions to this trend, they should not obfuscate the need for honest introspection within the umma. The question is, who will provoke this introspection, Western governments or Muslims themselves.

Taufiq Rahim is a Visiting Fellow at the Dubai School of Government and blogs regularly on TheGeopolitico.com.