WASHINGTON (CNS) — The world’s Islamic leaders must hear stories about the persecution of religious minorities in majority Muslim countries so that such incidents are not overlooked as people “bury their own heads in the sand,” said the president of the Islamic Society of North America.
Speaking Sept. 1 at a session during the society’s 50th annual convention, Mohamed Magid said the rights of members of religious minorities must be protected around the world, much like the rights of Muslims are protected in Western nations.
“People from other religions have stood together with us in interfaith movements … to make sure that our rights will be protected,” said Magid, a Sudanese-born Muslim. “But it also behooves us to speak up for the rights of others. Religious minorities in majority Muslim countries are being intimidated and attacked. What can we do?”
Speakers referenced various basic rights — including the rights of religious minorities living in the Muslim community to practice their faith without harassment or fear — guaranteed in the Charter of Medina, written by Muhammad in the early seventh century.
Asma Uddin, an attorney with the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, pointed to the charter, saying Muhammad dealt with the question of religious minorities within the concept of pluralism.
“Looking at the Jewish tribes, he accepted them and granted them the right to make their own decisions. There is no compulsion in religion,” she said.
“Our failure to respect religious rights of others suggests that Muslims lack confidence in their own faith,” Uddin said. “In some countries, if you question your Muslim faith in any way you can find yourself in prison. People are prosecuted for blasphemy.”
Citing the burning of Christian churches in Egypt, Uddin said, “It’s not credible to enjoy religious rights and at the same time deny them to others. We should be meeting with the Coptic Christian community in the United States to see what we can do to help them.”
Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor of Islamic studies at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., agreed, explaining that “a universal recognition of ethical values” is important across cultures.
“The time has come for us to address some of the tough questions around being a community that is accepting of others,” he said. “We still haven’t started this kind of dialogue around questions of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. We need to come out of the shadow, and we have not yet done so.”
He questioned the idea that pluralism is society offers the answers people are seeking.
“The popular sense is that the truth belongs to one community, and pluralism is compromising truth,” he explained. “What we need to say is that truth is God himself. And if God had willed, he would have made us all one community. But he made us different communities, perhaps to put us in a position of competing with one another in doing good.”
Uddin shared examples from her experience working in Indonesia and its court system that international law is usually seen as a Western construct and how there is an automatic dismissal of things from “the godless West, where children are not even allowed to pray in schools.”
“A starting point has to be to begin to change the legal framework,” she said. “When someone kills another because that other is perceived to have broken the Quran, and nothing is done to the murderer, it reinforces within the community that these things can be done with impunity.”
Uddin said American Muslims “have an ambassadorial role to play with regard to these questions in Muslim countries.”
Magid cited an example of the need to expand the public square for dialogue stemming from his work with the Interfaith Council of Fairfax. He described how one group of Muslims objected to allowing members of Ahmadiyya to join the council. Ahmadiyya is a reform movement that grew out of Sunni Islam; most mainstream Muslims do not see its members as Muslim.
“Yes, they can belong,” Magid said he told the objecting Muslims. “There is freedom of religion here. Unity does not mean uniformity.”