Academics, Specialists and Activists Gather for ISNA-ACMU Symposium on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Islam

Academics, Specialists and Activists Gather for ISNA-ACMU Symposium on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Islam

Religious freedom in the Muslim world is a pivotal issue and one of “deep concern” for many Muslim Americans. Previously, I reported on the meetings and discussions that Muslim American leaders and scholars engaged in with their Tunisian counterparts to develop “standards and protocols to guarantee equal participation of various religious groups in Muslim-majority countries.”

This past monday ISNA and ACMU held a symposium involving academics, specialists and activists that discussed the rights of religious minorities from a broad array of angles:

On Monday, ISNA joined Georgetown University’s Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) to host a Symposium on Religious Freedom and the Rights of Minorities in Islam in Washington, DC.  ISNA President Imam Mohamed Magid and ACMCU Assistant Director Dr. John Voll welcomed an audience of over 100 representatives of faith organizations, academic institutions, think-tanks, and foreign embassies.

ISNA is currently working together with Muslim leaders worldwide to promote a mechanism for developing Islamic standards and protocols on religious freedom and the role of religious minorities in the Muslim-majority communities.  A full video of the conference will be available next week but you can find highlights below.

Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah of Mauritania kicked off the symposium by providing the audience with background on the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) of the rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority communities.  The word “minorities” does not exist in Islamic thought, Sh. Bin Bayyah said, but rather multiple “religious groups.”  He added, “Islam sees humanity as one unified group,” quoting the Qur’anic verse, “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.”

In the first panel, ISNA Board Member Dr. Jamal Badawi expanded upon the notion of plurality and diversity and connected it to the objectives of shariah, which seek to provide goodness to everyone.  “Shariah is not what Muslims are doing and what they’ve done,” he reminded the audience.

“Allah is perfect, and Muslims are imperfect.”  Georgetown University Professor Dr. Jonathan Brown provided practical examples of the treatment of religious minorities throughout history.  In many examples, he said, “Religious minorities would pay their own taxes and this would ensure their protection.”

This was the precedent established at the time of the Caliph Omar and was repeated numerous times. At the same time, however, he also provided examples where religious minorities have not been afforded this protection as mandated by Islam, and were instead used as scapegoats by certain individuals, highlighting how this was absolutely wrong behavior.

The second panel sought to address these same concepts and realities in a contemporary context.  College of William & Mary Professor Dr. Tamara Sonn shared insights about the ideals of Islamic government, one of which being that in theory, the government should serve as a contract between the ruler and the ruled.  The Qur’an provides guidance on equal rights and other areas, but the specifics are left to human beings to extract and apply.

U.S. Institute of Peace Senior Program Officer Dr. Qamar-ul Huda spoke about the perspective of religious minorities with whom he works in Muslim-majority countries, particularly in the era post-Arab Spring.  “They don’t care about Islamic fiqh and centuries of interpretation,” he said.  “What they care about is what is going on now and how it’s impacting their communities…. They do not want to see themselves minorities.”  He provided examples of how these discussions are taking place in a post-Arab Spring context.

South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool then shared his experiences as a Muslim minority struggling alongside the majority during apartheid.  Even though Muslims make up no more than 3 percent of the South African population, nine of Nelson Mandela’s cabinet ministers were Muslims when he took office in 1994.

“What you demand as a minority,” he said, “you have to give when you’re the majority.  That’s the test of integrity when you fight Islamophobia, and when we speak to our fellow Muslims when they are the majorities….  The rights that you want as a Muslim, you must give to others, even if you detest their lifestyle.”

He added, “Our achievement of our status in South Africa, despite our numbers, was because we understood fundamentally that before the Prophet was a messenger, he was the trustworthy, Al-Ameen.”

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