What About Muslims and Minorities?

Father Elias Mallon reports on a symposium on Islam and minorities at Georgetown University’s Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

“Why don’t Muslims speak out against violence and intolerance and for pluralism and democracy?” This a question one often hears from non-Muslims. Less frequently, one hears Muslims reply: “We have and we do; why aren’t non-Muslims listening?”

Rarely in the media does one read of Muslim scholars and leaders condemning violence. So the question of the non-Muslims is understandable. When Muslims do take stands for tolerance and pluralism, media coverage is minimal or non-existent. In fact, Muslims are justified in their response.

This was the problem the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and the Islamic Society of North America sought to address on Monday 14 May at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. It was entitled “Symposium on Religious Freedom and the Rights of Minorities in Islam” and it consisted of two panels. The first panel featured three scholars who spoke on the concept and history of Shari’a (Muslim law) and how minorities had variously fared in Muslim societies over the centuries. The second panel addressed the topic of “Contemporary Islamic Perspectives on the Status of Religious Minorities, Particularly Post-Arab Spring.” While the first part of the program was well done and interesting to the specialist, it was the second part that merits wider attention by the general public.

Professor Tamara Sonn of the College of William and Mary spoke of contemporary Arab Muslim thinkers who reflect on the nature of government and the status of citizens in a modern democracy where the majority of citizens are Muslim. Many, if not most, hold the equality of all citizens to be of the utmost importance. Differentiating between the executive and legislative functions of government, these scholars provide an intellectual framework for the full integration of the non-Muslim into the political life of a democracy where the majority of citizens are Muslims.

Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool of South Africa to the United States reflected on the struggle of South African Muslims against apartheid. Less than three percent of the population, Muslims in South Africa learned firsthand what it means to be a minority living with discrimination. Ambassador Rasool said that his experience as a member of a minority brought him to the conviction that, “what you demand as a minority you must give when you are a majority.” Thus, for Muslims to demand freedom of speech, religion, etc., when they are a minority is thoroughly justified. However, that brings with it the obligation to grant and protect those same rights for other minorities in situations where Muslims hold the majority. In a sense, Ambassador Rasool was calling for a human rights-focused, political version of the Golden Rule.

Qamar-ul Huda of the U.S. Institute of Peace recounted the discussions about the benefits and limits of assimilation for Muslims in non-Muslim societies. He noted that in the West, many Muslims have resisted calls to remain isolated and have become active politically in working for the public good. The rights of all citizens are central and crucial to the health of a society. Mr. Huda felt the self-isolation of minority communities was ultimately self-defeating. The dichotomies of “us and them” and of secular and religious are not helpful, he commented. It is important for Muslims in non-Muslim countries to realize the term “secular” is not opposed to “religious.” Indeed, religions often prosper better in societies that are “secular,” although some secular societies admittedly can be aggressively so and hostile to religion.

The symposium clearly showed that Muslims are struggling with how to live in new situations in an increasingly pluralistic world. In a sense, it is similar to the struggles that Catholics experienced in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the experiences of these Catholics that helped bring about Dignitatis Humanae, the declaration on religious freedom promulgated at Vatican II.

Muslim scholars and the average Muslim living in non-Muslim societies are developing new ways of looking at pluralism, democracy and the equality of all citizens in a society. The symposium at Georgetown provided a privileged opportunity to see this process at work.

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