Muslims join Christians in call for religious freedom. A worthy but flawed attempt, says Islam expert

More than 250 Muslim and Christian leaders, heads of state and scholars, have signed and released the Marrakesh Declaration, calling for religious freedom for non-Muslims in majority-Muslim countries.

The Declaration is the product of a three-day summit, held in Marrakesh, Morocco, at the end of January, which discussed the rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority communities.

The summit reaffirmed Muhammad’s Charter of Medina, a 7th-century document that gives instructions for governing a religiously pluralistic state (including provisions for freedom of movement, property ownership, mutual solidarity and defence, as well as principles of justice and equality before the law), which celebrates its 1400th anniversary this year.

The summit was sponsored by the Government of Morocco ( a Muslim-majority country) and hosted by King Muhammad VI of Morocco. The declaration was led by United Arab Emirates sheik Abdallah Bin Bayyah, who also leads the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies.

Members noted that the various crises affecting humanity had produced an “inevitable and urgent need for cooperation among all religious groups and that such cooperation must go beyond mutual tolerance and respect, to providing full protection for the rights and liberties to all religious groups in a civilised manner that eschews coercion, bias, and arrogance.”

As well as calling on politicians and scholars to develop a comprehensive concept of citizenship, and educational institutions to conduct a “courageous review” of curricula that instigate aggression and extremism, the Declaration also calls on artists and creatives to “establish a broad movement for the just treatment of religious minorities in Muslim countries and to raise awareness as to their rights.”

Dr Bernie Power, lecturer in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Melbourne School of Theology, says “it is encouraging to see a group of Muslims recognising the danger that faces the Islamic world due to the growth of terrorism, and taking responsibility for their situation.”

While he says it’s a good thing that Muslim leaders are declaring a commitment to justice, equality and human rights, particularly the rights of religious minorities, Dr Power told Eternity that the choice to reaffirm the ‘Charter of Medina’, promulgated in 622AD, is “unfortunate”.

“The choice of the so-called ‘Charter of Medina’ as the template for inter-faith policy is an unfortunate one. With the goal of establishing good relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims it was an abject failure. By 626 AD, every member of the non-Muslim tribes (they were all Jewish) that had signed this treaty was exiled, enslaved or decapitated by Muhammad and his troops. Within four years of the charter’s signing, only Muslims remained in Medina as free people,” said Dr Power.

He says the context of the charter is important. When Muhammad arrived in Medina in 622AD, Islam was in a weak and disorganised state. The two Arab tribes – the Khazrai and Aws – were in conflict with each other and the three main Jewish tribes (Banu Qaynuga, Banu Nadir and Banu Quraiza) were in competition. Muhammad was invited to be the mediator, “and the Charter was seen to be the means of establishing a social and political equilibrium.”

There are several possible versions of the Charter – the earliest one recorded being Muhammad’s, which is now lost. However, Dr Power says the Charter mandated that all the tribes of Medina should be ‘one nation’, with the expectation that the Jews would follow Islam.

“To the Jew who follows us belong help and equality. He shall not be wronged … the peace of the believers is indivisible,” reads a preserved copy of the Charter from 833AD.

Dr Power calls it an “exclusive rather than inclusive document.” He says the Declaration falls short in other ways, too:

The Declaration’s call for “equality before the law”

“The Dhimmi system mandated in Qur’an 9:29 differentiates between Muslims and non-Muslims based on their religious beliefs. They are not treated equally before the law under a Sharia system. The Declaration should look at ways of refuting the dhimmi system,” says Dr Power.

The Declaration’s statement that “related documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are in harmony with the Charter of Medina”.

Dr Power argues that “the UDHR has not been ratified by Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, claiming that it is not in accordance with Sharia law as it allows people to propagate and change their religion.

“In 2000, the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) supported the alternative Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam which promotes a weaker view of human rights, and has been signed by 45 Muslim-majority nations,” he said.

The Declaration’s statement that Muslims “develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups.”

“In most wealthy Muslim nations, it is impossible for a non-Muslim (or non-Arab) to obtain citizenship,” says Dr Power. “This is one reason why the world’s refugees bypass oil-rich nations and head for Western nations where they will be accepted and can eventually gain full citizenship, irrespective of their race or religion. Muslim nations need to face up to these citizenship inequalities.”

The Charter’s statement that: “Whenever you differ about a matter it must be referred to Allah and to Muhammad.”

“This places Muhammad as the supreme lawmaker,” says Dr Power.

“The spirit of the Marrakesh Declaration is to be warmly welcomed, but the models used to suggest a way forward suffer from some fatal flaws.”

But the Declaration is not only addressed to those in leadership positions. In fact, it is clear from the wording that the task of establishing and upholding religious freedom is the job of every citizen:

“[We] call upon the various religious groups bound by the same national fabric to address their mutual state of selective amnesia that blocks memories of centuries of joint and shared living on the same land; we call upon them to rebuild the past by reviving this tradition of conviviality, and restoring our shared trust that has been eroded by extremists using acts of terror and aggression;

“[We] call upon representatives of the various religions, sects and denominations to confront all forms of religious bigotry, vilification, and denigration of what people hold sacred, as well as all speech that promotes hatred and bigotry; AND FINALLY,

“[We] AFFIRM that it is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.”

According to the World Watch List, Islamic extremism is the major persecuting force in 36 of the top 50 countries where Christians experience the most persecution. North Korea tops the list (for the 14th year running), followed by Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria. Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Iran and Libya round out the top ten.