By Saif Ahmad Khan
Edited by Liz Maria Kurkiakose, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
The Islamic countries or Muslim majority nations as I prefer to call them have had an essentially dubious record in terms of protecting their religious minorities. It is true that even in the West as also in other parts of the world which are ruled by secular, democratic regimes, the condition of minorities is indeed pitiable. For example in the United States, religious minorities have hardly found a place in the Congress; with only a handful number of American Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims going on to become legislators.
There has also been numerous incidents of hate crimes against the minorities in the United States following 9/11. For example, last year a Sikh Gurdwara in USA became the centre point of mindless violence unleashed by an armed white supremacist killer. India, being the largest democracy in the world, has seen frequent communal carnages directed against the minorities as exhibited during the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 in Delhi, ethnic cleaning of Hindu Pandits in Kashmir starting 1990s and the 2002 genocide against Muslims in Gujarat. This shows that the persecution of religious minorities is a global phenomenon and not relegated to a particular geographical area or a set of countries with a specific ruling system.
One of the fundamental reasons behind the upsurge of democracy in the post-colonial era has been the need for egalitarianism. Irrespective of the fact whether a country is ruled by democratic principles or it happens to be a monarchy, all nations have to realize the need for protecting their minorities since the days of slavery are well behind us. The Muslim majority countries, whether they happen to secular democracies or monarchies ruled by means of the Sharia law also has a huge role to play in safeguarding the religious minorities. Hence, the question arises: What do minorities in the Muslim majority countries require?
Let us begin with Saudi Arabia which happens to be the cradle of the Islamic civilization. In conservative theocracies like KSA, minorities should have the right to proselytize and spread the message of their faith. If a Muslim can convert a Non Muslim to Islam then why can’t Non Muslims convert Muslims to their faith if they are willing to change their religion by conviction? Apostasy laws which dictate death for Muslims who convert to some other faith need to be done away with. Secondly, the religious minorities should be given the right to build their places of worship. How can we expect the religious minorities to take part in weekly congregations and intra-community meetings if we bar them from building their churches and synagogues? Thirdly, we need to realize that this is the era of pluralism and multi-culturalism. Hence, no geographical area can be described in religious terms as “Islamic land”. You cannot prevent a set of people belonging to a different religious denomination from going to a certain place just because you consider those places to be holy and exclusively made for your pilgrimage purposes. Non Muslims should have the right to enter, visit and dwell in Mecca and Medina. The mere presence of Non-Muslims at such places does no harm the religion of Islam or the community of Muslims.
Another problem with regard to religious minorities in the Muslim majority countries pertains to the non-recognition of their faith as a religion. People of Bahai faith face this problem in countries like Egypt and Iran. It is the responsibility of the state to recognize all religions and not label them as “Zionist conspiracies.” The ramifications of such non-recognition are severe as it rides religious communities of minority rights and adequate representation in the parliament and other public offices. It also fuels arbitrary conversions. For example, in Egypt, during the National Identity Card controversy under Mubarak’s reign, the government had enlisted only three religions i.e. Islam, Christianity and Judaism. To procure an identity card, the people of the Bahai community had to fill in information about their religion incorrectly as incomplete forms would get rejected.
There is also a dire need to safeguard the existing religious monuments of minorities in Muslim majority countries since barbaric Islamist terror outfits like ISIS are on the lookout for torching churches as they did recently in Iraq. In the past, the Taliban had also brought down a renowned Buddhist statue in Afghanistan. Wild allegations should also not be levied on minorities. When the Muslim brotherhood had seized power in Egypt, there was a tremendous rise in anti-Christian sentiment. Some accused them of treason and asked the Coptic Christians to not undertake their pilgrimage to Jerusalem since it signified normalization of ties with Israel. Others said that Christian women dress up scantily and go to Tahrir Square to get raped. These are disgraceful comments and no religious minority’s patriotism should ever be questioned by trying to pit their country against their religion. They also need to be safeguarded from threats of being made to pay the ‘jizya’ or poll tax to avail of religious autonomy. ISIS, which has gained control of large regions in Iraq, has given the minorities in Iraq three options: They should either convert to Islam, pay the jizya or be prepared for death.
Pakistan also happens to be one the most unsafe places in the world for religious minorities. The state founded by Jinnah needs to plunge into quick action to put a stop on the falling number of Hindus in their nation who are migrating rapidly to India. The Hindus, who during the Partition, were in substantial numbers in Pakistan, have now reduced to insignificant proportions. Hindu women are frequently abducted in Pakistan and subjected to forced conversion. Similarly, Christians are victimized using blasphemy laws. The lionization of anti-Hindu emperors like Mahmud of Ghazni in the History textbooks who vandalized Hindu temples, raped women and forcibly converted Hindus to Islam needs to be stopped. Bangladesh also has a lot to do since the Hindu share of population in their nation has seen a tremendous decline.
The minority Muslims within the Muslim community ought to be protected. Persecution of Ahmadiyas and Shias is unjust and no country in the world should tolerate that. Nobody should accuse anyone of having their allegiance towards Iran just because they are Shias. Similarly, we must recognize Ahmadiyas as Muslims. If someone claims to be a Muslim, be it Shia, Sunni, Sufi, Ahmaddiya or anything else, then who are we to object? Adequate security needs to be extended to these groups so that we wouldn’t have to witness Sufi shrines or Shia processions being bombed. Historical places of importance belonging to these sects should also be taken care of. These are the broad challenges which lie before Muslim majority countries with regard to their minority rights. Minorities in such nations would feel greatly strengthened and secure if the same are met at the earliest.