Marrakesh, Morocco, hosted a conference that made an Islamic declaration on religious liberty

February 17, 2016

Islamic Declaration Offers Slim Religious Freedom Hope

Observers maintained great expectation for the Marrakesh Declaration, which declared that the Charter of Medina “is an embodiment of the fundamental values of the Quran and prominent Islamic values” and “the constitution of a multi-racial and multi-faith society.” Unfortunately, this Islamic declaration published on January 27 regarding the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities raises more questions than answers in a self-proclaimed attempt to anchor religious freedom in Islamic doctrine.

Islamic sources like the Britain-based think tank Minhaj ul-Quran (led by a not-so-moderate Pakistani cleric, Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri) laud the Charter of Medina, written on the Arabian Peninsula in 622 AD. They claimed that through the charter, Islam’s founder Muhammad and his original followers created the “first written constitution of democracy in human history, all later constitutions was founded upon it.” Yet Minhaj ul-Quran’s English charter translation online offers little more than a tribal alliance between the early Muslim community and Medina’s various Jewish tribes.

Much of the Charter of Medina regulates blood money payments, and was even less edifying than many of the articles in what later became known as the Magna Carta, the short-term English civil war settlement from 1215.  The Marrakesh Declaration celebrates the independent Jewish and Muslim communal management of religious affairs, but the charter stated that if “guilty of oppression or the violators of treaties,” the Jewish tribes would lose their religious freedom.  Other questionable provisions state that a Muslim “believer shall not… help an unbeliever against a believer” and that when Medina’s community “differs about anything, the dispute shall be referred to Almighty Allah and to the Prophet Muhammad.”

Nonetheless, Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a principal organizer for the conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, invoked the charter in his opening address on January 25.  The Islamic declaration’s Executive Summary states that the “United Nations Charter and related documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are in harmony with the Charter of Medina.”

“Peace is the epitome of Islam,” the Islamic declaration stated. It quoted Quran 2:208, “Enter into Islam whole-heartedly,” as if “Islam” in Arabic meant “peace,” as Bin Bayyah argued in his address, and not more accurately “submission.”  Unbeknownst to many, Moroccan King Mohammed VI‘s declared in his written address to the conference that “Muslims are naturally inclined to accept diversity.”

Counterfactually, Bin Bayyah’s address similarly praised host-nation Morocco as a “land that has known the most exalted forms of conviviality among various races, tongues, and religions.” Yet Moroccan law prohibits criticizing or converting from Islam, the State Department noted in 2014. Converts to Christianity face harassment and imprisonment, often called a “second baptism.” One French Protestant living in Morocco for more than 30 years observed during the conference that Moroccan law prohibits a Christian like her from inheriting from her Muslim husband and bequeathing to her Muslim children.  Although sometimes described as “perhaps Israel’s closest friend in the Arab world,” Morocco’s Jewish population has declined from 265,000 in 1948 to 2,500 in 2012.

The Islamic declaration’s executive summary additionally notes that cited United Nations documents include “consideration for public order,” a worrying caveat considering someone like Bin Bayyah. “It may well be that one religious group promoting some new religion is considered a threat to public order,” stated his translated remarks during a 2014 American panel presentation.  This terrorism-linked sheikh who has appealed for military support for the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip, states on his website that “it is undoubtedly prohibited and an enormous sin to rule with man-made laws.”

The Islamic declaration’s less liberal elements include an appeal to religious leaders to “reject all forms of mockery of religions, and the desecration of things sacred.” The Islamic declaration’s French translation even charges the “international community to promulgate laws criminalizing” these actions, reflecting Bin Bayyah’s previously expressed views (see here and here).  Yet he accepts mockery about what Islam would determine for him to be “irreligious or improper practices or about things attributed to the religion while they are not of it.”

Marrakesh conference attendees like the Iranian Shiite cleric Ayatollah Seyyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Damad have hardly encouraged for religious freedom. “You are free to choose any religion in your heart, because religion is a very, very private matter for everybody, but conversion means something else,” he stated at a 2010 Rome synod for Middle Eastern Catholic bishops.  To be “no longer a member of your original faith group is an act of unacceptable ‘propaganda.'”

“Iran is the best example for all Muslim countries in terms of respect for rights and minorities, which are the same as those given to Muslims,” he absurdly stated to the media.

Lebanese Archbishop Raboula Antoine Beylouni contradicted Damad’s assertion of Christian-Muslim relations being “founded upon friendship, respect and mutual understanding.” Beylouni’s written submission to the synod stated that the Quran “commands the imposition of religion through force, with the sword. The history of invasions bears witness to this.” The text condemned various Islamic doctrines infringing human rights and mutual understanding.

Muhammad Taqi Usmani, a Pakistani Supreme Court justice since 1982 and globally influential Islamic jurist, similarly raised concerns at Marrakesh. He was a key figure in introducing Pakistan’s sharia laws on blasphemy and corporal punishments in the 1980s. He also called for jihad against American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.  His countryman, Pakistani Religious Affairs Minister Sardar Yousaf, led dozens of Pakistani lawmakers chanting “death to blasphemers” outside Pakistan’s parliament on January 15, 2015, following the January 7 Paris Charlie Hebdo massacre.  Yet in his Marrakesh address, he said that “similar to modern democracies, Islam recognizes fundamental rights of religious minorities.”

Past and present muftis also attended the Marrakesh conference, such as Bosnia’s Mustafa Ceric, a man who called for sharia in the Bosnian constitution and opposed making religion a non-graded subject in Bosnian schools. Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Muhammad Ahmad Hussein (pictured here in Marrakesh) has used Islamic canons to celebrate a genocidal jihad seeking Israel’s destruction. Marrakesh speaker Talgat Tadzhuddin, Russia’s Supreme Mufti, called for jihad against the United States after its invasion of Iraq in 2003 and warned of violent Muslim protests against a proposed Moscow gay pride parade in 2006.

“If they come out on to the streets anyway they should be flogged. Any normal person would do that,” he said while offering a Quranic mandate for killing homosexuals.

Similarly, before traveling to Marrakesh the Canadian imam Iqbal Nadvi led Islamic institutions that hosted a British supporter of the Taliban and terrorism against Israel as well as preachers calling for killing homosexuals. Conference attendee and Syrian imam Muhammad al Yaqoubi also has made numerous extremist statements supporting jihad violence against Israel and American troops in Iraq.  During the Danish cartoon crisis in 2005, he condemned “wrong and false ideals like ‘freedom of religion’ or ‘freedom of expression.'”

Prominent interreligious figures from the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna, Austria, also attended the Marrakesh conference.  However well-meaning these individuals might be, a broad spectrum of Austrians has advocated that Austria cease sponsoring the Saudi-funded KAICIID after it refused to condemn the Saudi flogging of human rights activist Raif Badawi. The KAICIID delegation could have profited at Marrakesh from meeting Sherman Jackson, an American professor and Muslim convert.  Jackson said in article in 2009 that the traditional Islamic death penalty for apostasy is a “burning debate among modern Muslims.”

Other prominent public figures attended the Marrakesh conference besides the KAICIID delegation. This included President Barack Obama’s former National Security Council senior director, Quintan WiktorowiczArsalan Suleman and Knox Thames, respectively the State Department’s envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and adviser for Middle East religious minorities, also attended with Susan Hayward from the United States Institute of Peace. Travis Wussow, international justice and religious freedom director at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, joined noted religious freedom scholar Brian Grim.

Wiktorowicz, a leading developer of a “crackpot theory” to use “good Islamists” against “bad” ones and engage “moderate Al Qaeda,” exhibited little critical thinking regarding conference speakers like Hamza Yusuf.  An American Islamic convert and scholar with his own radical past, Yusuf told the conference that “Jews were honored in Islam.” Instead of refuting this propaganda, Wiktorowicz tweeted that Yusuf was “as always his brilliant self.”

The address of Lebanese-American law professor Azizah al-Hibri, an Islam apologist known to Juicy Ecumenism readers for signing onto a manifesto in The Washington Post on December 21, likewise enamored Hayward. She tweeted that “Al Hibri mentions Prophet’s (pbuh) letter to Christian monks at St Catherine’s outlining protection, rights of Christians,” not recognizing evidence for this letter’s forgery.

Other Marrakesh conferences attendees are also known to Juicy Ecumenism readers for their past uncritical stances towards Islam, including American evangelicals Bob Roberts and Rick Love.  Roberts unconvincingly stated concerning religious freedom that there are “many laws in effect in some Muslim majority nations that already do address these issues, but because of uneducated imams and extremists they are ignored.”  Washington, DC’s retired archbishop, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, praised the Marrakesh Declaration as a “truly a great document, one that will influence our times and our history.”

More critical observers like South African Islamic studies Professor Farid Esack, interviewed before the conference, remain skeptical. “Religious minorities lead horrendous lives of marginalization and persecution,” he stated concerning Muslim-majority countries, an assessment confirmed by a conference text from Baghdad Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako.  This is an “issue of huge embarrassment for Muslim governments,” Esack stated, contrary to the Islamic declaration solely blaming “virulent criminal organizations, which have no scholarly or political legitimacy.”

“But the embarrassment factor isn’t sufficient enough to address the problem,” he stated.

Accordingly, the “Declaration is pure propaganda with no sense and is a waste of time,” speculated Palestinian-Swiss Islamic law scholar Sami Aldeeb in light of widespread Muslim theocratic practices. As indicated by Bin Bayyah’s address discussing “freedom of religion by asserting the rights of each group,” a Moroccan-born commentator noted that the Islamic declaration ignored the “thorny question” of whether Muslim individuals can convert.  Bin Bayyeh also proposed for Islam’s modern religious minorities a “new contract with old roots that will respect their private lives,” suggesting that religious freedom may not extend into the public realm.

Rather than inalienable religious freedom rights, Bin Bayyeh’s reference to “contract” also recalls Islam’s historic humiliating dhimmi pact for non-Muslim minorities, as American scholar Joseph Loconte has noted.  Forerunners to the Marrakesh Declaration have had little effect, noted Catholic writer John Allen, and “experts wonder if the Medina Charter is actually capable of supporting 21st-century concepts of religious freedom.” Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes stated the conference’s manifest Islamists seek to repress “religious minorities as the Shari’a [law] requires, perhaps tweaking the rules slightly to make them less obnoxious to a modern sensibility.”  Even those attracted to the “virulent criminal organizations” condemned by the Islamic declaration consider its supporting “status quo scholars and governments… illegitimate and not credible,” Brookings Institution expert Shadi Hamid stated.

One native Egyptian Copt was “not optimistic” about the Islamic declaration, because the Charter of Medina “did not actually help religious minorities, particularly Jews” who ultimately “were seized, expelled from their homes and often massacred.”  The Islamic declaration’s French text indirectly indicates this with reference to “communities living initially on good terms.” Perhaps this explains why, as the pre-Marrakesh conference Concept Paper noted, the Charter of Medina “has not garnered much study.”

Critical examination of the Marrakesh Declaration forms a sobering antidote to the genuine, high hopes of Grim’s Religious Freedom & Business Foundation colleague Chris Seiple, hindered from flying to Marrakesh by snow in Washington, DC.  Grim’s fellow Baptist and renowned religious freedom advocate wrote on Facebook that “Christians and Muslims are never going to agree on the nature of Jesus, but we do agree that we are similarly called to Mercy.” If only all of the Muslim leaders gathered at Marrakesh were similarly inclined.


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