Tarek Barakat

Blogger and commentator

By definition, all “religious” societies and most religions are intolerant to all other minorities. It’s that superiority complex inherent in any religion, in those little clause(s) which tells followers that he or she is better than another person because of certain beliefs. Of course, the level of intolerance in a particular society depends on that society’s own religiousness. Unfortunately, many contemporary Muslim nations are on the extreme end of this spectrum and have helped to tarnish Islam’s image more than other equally or more intolerant religions.

The difficulties in answering the question on how do Islamic states deal with their religious minorities lies in its subjectivity, due to its dependence on one’s definition of an Islamic State. If we are to take countries that are part of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an organization with 57 states, then the spectrum of intolerance so to speak is quite wide. With several nations defined as democratic and protective of their minorities’ rights. Coincidentally these countries happen to also be some of the most populated Muslim nations in the world and non-Arab (Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey). While others implementing a fundamentalist form of Sharia’ law deprive minorities from simplest of religious rights such as freedom to pray or build places of worship.

While I hate to cluster so many countries into a sweeping statement; generally speaking, I personally feel that an uneven number of nations constituting the ‘Umma’ are lagging behind world average in religious tolerance. This says less about their interpretation of Islam as a religion and more about the non-progressiveness of nations that happen to be Muslim. Civilizations of western Christian and Far Eastern religions have developed their societies in a progressive manner for the well-being of their society without restricting individual religious rights by separating Church from State. This has helped create  a more tolerant society, albeit less religious one (to the disappointment of some), that undoubtedly assisted in economic and social development of these nations through intellectual diversity and most importantly, democracy. I am not trying to say that Islam as a religion is inherently more intolerant than others. On the contrary, Islam in my humble opinion presents slight more flexibility because it offers salvation to the followers of the two other Abrahamic religions while most religions believe only they hold the path to salvation.

That said, Islam constitutes a challenge because it is more specific than other religions, with clear laws that define how one should live their lives on a daily basis while other religions are more philosophical and generalistic in their teaching. Also Islam’s Ulama have much to answer to on very fundamental dilemmas stemming from contradictions in Islamic text and/or interpretations, such as clarifying the violence towards infidels in Islamic holy text, the place of women in society, the fatwas which spew hate and bigotry towards other sects and religions and the failure to shut them down effectively, etc. It is one thing to say God will punish non-believers in the afterlife and another for Muslims to take it upon themselves to do it on God’s behalf. How can one in the 21st century accept women inheriting half of what their brothers are receiving? It’s this lack of theological evolution in Islam that I believe is where many Muslim societies have clearly taken steps backwards in nation building and placed them at bottom of religious tolerance lists. Saudi Arabia along with a few other Arabian Gulf nations and Afghanistan are prime examples of what is damaging Islam’s international image in today’s world. Countries where corrupt political systems have created failed societies while claiming it to be based on the law of God (i.e. Sharia).

As in Europe’s medieval period, religious men are hired by the government to publicly support the regimes in power in Friday sermons in countries across the Middle East and other non-democratic countries including sectarian ones. While at the same time regimes, some of which are actually supporting the fundamentalist discourse, are legitimizing their rule to the west by scaring them with the alternative, fundamentalist Islamic governments. Conflict of interest anyone? One should be careful though, not to
merely blame all these problems on Wahabi financing. The collapse of Islamic progressiveness is not a new phenomenon that just developed in the past few decades. Instead it can be traced back to the economic fall of the so called ‘Muslim Golden Age’ (10th-13th century). The reasons of which are linked to several factors such as invasions by the Moguls, erosion of large-scale agriculture and irrigation systems, oppressive rule of the Ottomans, political instabilities and the rise of intolerance that grows with all economic downturns. But this raises other important questions; why have Muslim nations continued to stagnate further into their own version of the Dark Ages and how, if it’s even possible, can they get out of it without losing their religion? How much of this intolerance can be blamed on the undemocratic regimes of these nations and how much of it can be blamed on Islam itself. As bonafide non- believer I am no fan of any religion but I put the majority of blame on non-religious tribal traditions that have woven themselves into religious doctrine, lack of economic and democratic development and corruption as major factors.

There isn’t one simple solution to the intolerance problem of some Islamic nations and exceptions to the rules will always exist. Yet it is clear that democracy along with separation of Mosque from State are absolutely vital since either alone is not enough. Turkey is more religious since the army finally allowed Islamic parties to come to power and yet it is also more tolerant by finally opening its border with Armenia, becoming a leader in humanitarian aid, allowing Kurdish to be taught in schools etc. Whereas less than 10 years ago it was staunchly secular but highly intolerant even to its own Muslim majority. Pakistan while going through several stints under military authoritarian rule are generally democratic and yet lag miserably when compared to their genetic sister India due to tribal and conservative religious traditions that are hindering social diversity and economic development. Why do Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey fair much better than their secular Arabic counter parts? Simple, the formers elect their leaders.

My key message is that overcoming these challenges is not only vital to promoting religious tolerance but also improving the economic and social wellbeing in these nations.