Guest commentary by Michael Parker
I flew in to Casablanca, Morocco, and then took a two-and-a-half-hour trip in a minivan to the beautiful city of Marrakesh. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill took a side trip to Marrakesh just to watch the sun set on the surrounding Atlas Mountains. Churchill lingered to paint the scene, the only painting he completed during the war. I went to this lovely city, together with about 250 Muslim scholars and leaders and about 50 representatives from other religious traditions from over 120 countries, to attend a conference that I hoped would promote human rights for minority groups in Muslim lands.
Formally titled “Religious Minorities in Muslim Lands: Its Legal Framework and a Call to Action,” the conference met Jan. 25-27 at the Savoy le Grand Hotel and was organized by the Kingdom of Morocco in conjunction with the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, based in Abu Dhabi. Conference leaders produced the “Marrakesh Declaration,” an affirmation of human rights, which declares that the Charter of Medina, issued by the prophet Mohammad in the seventh century, ought to be used today as the basis to assert equal rights for minority groups in Muslim countries.
The charter, conference speakers explained, was a type of constitution that contains principles of “contractual citizenship.” The declaration specifically calls upon Muslim scholars, intellectuals, educational institutions, authorities, artists and religious groups to promote these principles and to oppose the hatred and bigotry of extremists that lead to violence.
A speech given by Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayah, president of the Forum for Promoting Peace and co-moderator of Religions for Peace, set forth the intellectual framework for the conference. The religion of Islam, he argued, is rooted in peace but currently has a disease due to radicalism and unrelenting violence that is justified by perpetrators using verses from Islam’s sacred texts.
Bayah averred that the role of interpreting these texts belongs exclusively to Islamic scholars. The Marrakesh Declaration, therefore, would call upon Muslim scholars to interpret properly the Qur’an, Hadith and Islamic tradition to refute extremists who advocate violence in the name of their religion.
There was, it seemed to me, a large measure of unreality in the conference in that speakers failed to deal forthrightly with controversial issues. The concept of jihad, for example, was presented solely as a defensive strategy, and the “sword passages” of the Qur’an, which have been widely used throughout the history of Islam to justify violence, were ignored. Moreover, representatives from countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia seemed to blandly assert their countries’ commitment to human rights, but I felt they stopped short of acknowledging their problematic records in this area.
One scholar contended that under the Millet system of the Ottoman Empire human rights of minorities were respected. He did not mention that for centuries, many agree that the dhimmi system oppressed Christians in Muslim lands with humiliating disabilities that were intended to pressure them to convert to Islam. These disabilities included high taxes, special clothes and restrictions on building churches – regulations that resemble the treatment many Christians accorded to Jews in Europe during the same period.
I found that there was, in fact, no frank and public dissent heard during the conference. I had anticipated this, knowing that Muslims rarely openly criticize the human rights records of Muslims in other countries as this is considered poor etiquette. I was pleased to observe, however, that dissent could be heard in private conversations and at times even in public – though in the latter it took subtle and indirect forms. Several speakers, for example, observed that the problem was not the lack of theories of human rights but their implementation. One put it simply, “Our deeds should match our words.”
Since the major aim of the conference was to undermine the violent ideology of groups such as ISIS, I considered that perhaps it was enough that hundreds of Muslim leaders and thinkers had met for three days to affirm that “citizenship,” not religious affiliation, should be the basis of minority rights in Muslim lands. Still, I was disappointed that the speakers were unwilling to address candidly the problem of human rights for minorities in their midst.
Though laudable in many respects, I feel confident that no fair-minded conferee could conclude that the Marrakesh Declaration will become a landmark document. It is more likely that it will be used by moderate Muslims solely for rhetorical purposes. In effect, I think it will allow them to claim Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance and to distance themselves from extremists while, at the same time, ignoring the often state-sanctioned inequality of minority groups and the sacred texts and traditions of Islam that have traditionally been used to support oppression and violence toward non-Muslims.
I enjoyed visiting the city of Marrakesh for its broad boulevards, cream-colored buildings and picturesque souks. Churchill rightly called it the “Paris of the Sahara.” I only regret that this beautiful venue could not have been used to promote a more honest treatment of the problem, one that Bayah rightly depicted as a “disease,” a malady that is sickening the very soul of one of the world’s great religions
MICHAEL PARKER is the director of graduate studies and professor of church history at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt.