Mention of religion and the Middle East is without question a toxic combination in the minds of most people. This is largely to do with how the media have presented the region although, it has to be said, it holds a degree of accuracy for those bereaved, tortured and rendered stateless.
Given this state of affairs, it is all the more urgent to welcome any initiative that aims to counter the shrill voices that lead religions to hate one another. There have been many such initiatives, especially since 9/11, including some from the MENA region itself. These have included the Alexandria Declaration and A Common Word.
The Marrakesh Declaration is the latest to hit the news. It represents the views of more than 100 Islamic scholars from across the Islamic world on the treatment of religious minorities in predominantly Islamic societies. So what sort of response should Christians make to this? Firstly, it must be acknowledged that anything that recognises that dominant religions must relate to minorities in ways that are generous and respectful are to be welcomed and applauded. In the current climate when it seems the media only reports the persecution of Christians and Yazidis living in areas controlled by so-called Islamic State, we all have a duty to publicise initiatives that reflect a very different Islamic point of view.
However, such initiatives and declarations need to be the beginning of a conversation, not just between Muslims but between Muslims and other faiths. Let me make a few observations on the Marrakesh Declaration from a Christian perspective, which are offered out of a mind that holds Islam in great respect and esteem and from someone who has many Muslim friends.
The first comment to make is the use of the term “minority”. In Britain we rarely use the term “Muslim minority”. Instead we talk of British Muslims or the Muslim community, and this is surely right. “Minority” implies a status that is temporary, transient, lacking permanence or having a subservient status. Christians from the Middle East with whom I speak say with one voice that they resist the term “minority” as they regard themselves as intrinsic to Arab history and culture. So my first question to the authors of the Marrakesh Declaration is, do the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East have, in your understanding, a permanence and an inseparable part of Middle Eastern society?
The second comment concerns the extent to which the Medinan narrative is the most helpful. Medina is synonymous with the early conflict between Jews and Muslims. Later Muslim polemic against the Jews is rooted in the Medinan experience and thus makes it a problematic starting point for coexistence. As I see it, the Medinan experience is where the concept of dhimmitude is rooted: where religious minorities (People of the Book) were offered protection and a degree of freedom in return for the payment of the jizya taxation. Whilst this was a peaceful settlement up to a point, Jews and Christians were subjugated minorities who did not share the same freedoms as their Muslim neighbours. How can other religions, particularly Christians and Jews, read themselves in this paradigm in a way other than as a minority that must negotiate a presence within a more dominant religious and political narrative? To put the question differently, is dhimmitude the only paradigm for non-Muslim faiths within an Islamic society?
Consequentially there are the inevitable questions as to whether there can be equality between different religions in matters of the public square whilst still maintaining an overall narrative that is specific to one faith? In Europe we have struggled with this question – is secularism the only means of guaranteeing religious freedom and equality between the religions? Many have argued for this point of view whilst others have suggested that a Christian society can ensure genuine religious freedom for all, whilst retaining a concept of a “Christian country”. For our Muslim sisters and brothers in the Middle East this must surely be an apposite question: how can Islam be the genuine custodian of religious freedom and equality?
What disappoints me about the Marrakesh Declaration is the absence of any specific application: how do these scholars see these particular values applying in contexts such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, let alone Iraq and Syria? Given the growing Christian population of some of the Gulf States (via migrant workers) how can their religious freedoms be enhanced and protected? Can Christians ever attain equality before the law in every respect and can there ever be parity in terms of a person’s right to change their religion if they wish without the threat of a death sentence?
What is clear is that the traditional ways that religions (including Christianity and Islam) have of relating to the religious other are difficult to sustain in the contemporary context, and new paradigms will need to be developed if genuine co-existence is to flourish.