Dr. Andy Bannister, RZIM Canada
In Part 1 of “The Causes and Roots of Religious Persecution” we saw the great harms of religious persecution, and identified some of its causes. Today we’ll examine why Sharia presents its own specific set of problems and outline how we ought to respond.
Apostasy and Blasphemy Laws
Why is Sharia law such a problem? Perhaps the two biggest issues are apostasy and blasphemy. Whilst there are various different schools of Islamic law, all treat apostasy and blasphemy as very serious offences, with most interpretations stating that the penalty for either should be death. So, when it comes to freedom of religious belief, there is a huge problem.
In 1998, Lina Joy, a Malay woman, declared she wanted to leave her Muslim faith and become a Christian. However, in Malaysia, your identity card carries your religion. Bravely she applied to have it changed from “Muslim” to “Christian”. The government refused and said she would need an “Apostasy Certificate” from a Sharia Court. The government lawyer said:
If you are born Muslim, you stay Muslim, at least until a Sharia court decides otherwise, which is never.
There was a further problem too. If Lina Joy did go to a Sharia court, she would run the risk of criminal punishment as an apostate — for which the penalty could be death. Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Islamic Understanding said:
If Islam were to grant permission for Muslims to change religion at will, it would imply it has no dignity, no self-esteem. And people may then question its completeness, truthfulness and perfection.
Lina Joy was disowned by her family and fired from her job. She was unable to marry her boyfriend, a Catholic, since under Sharia law, a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim. She and her fiancé were forced into hiding after Muslim extremists threatened to kill them.
In December 2010, the Pew Forum conducted a survey to ascertain what Muslims around the world thought about Sharia-based laws, such as apostasy. In Egypt, 84% approved of the death sentence for apostasy. In Pakistan it was 76%, Jordan 86% and even in Indonesia it was 30%.
Things are as difficult for religious minorities when we turn from apostasy to blasphemy. Embedded in Sharia law is the idea that anyone who insults Muhammad or Islam warrants very severe punishment; we have already seen how Pakistan has woven this into its law code with the 295-C Blasphemy Law. This law is often used to target religious minorities. In June 2009, Asia Bibi, an agricultural worker in a rural village in Pakistan drank some water from her village well. Local Muslims complained, saying Christians were “unclean” and so the water was now polluted. An argument ensued. A few days later, villagers claimed that during the argument, Asia Bibi had insulted Muhammad. A mob turned up at her home, beating her and family, before the police rescued her then promptly charged her with blasphemy. She spent a year in prison before, in November 2010, she was sentenced to death by hanging.
The Basic Problem with Sharia
Unfortunately the apostasy and blasphemy laws, which are a huge hindrance upon religious freedom and a demonstrable cause of religious persecution, are just the tip of the iceberg. Built into Sharia is a particular view of religious minorities that sees them as fundamentally inferior. Whether they are sects, like the Ahmadiyah, or non-Muslim religions, like Christianity, most schools of Sharia law have discrimination woven deeply into them. To understand why, we need to briefly glance at Islamic history. And the best way to do that is through a contemporary lens.
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a controversial lecture at the University of Regensburg in Switzerland, in which he suggested that Islam was spread by the sword. Whilst this caused protest across the Muslim world, one response was very interesting. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, a country with one of the worst human rights records when it comes to religious freedom, spoke on Saudi radio. Muhammad had never chosen war as his first option, Sheikh ‘Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh said, but rather:
[Muhammad] gave three options [to conquered peoples]: either accept Islam, or surrender and pay tax, and they will be allowed to remain in the their land, observing their religion under the protection of Muslims.
The first two options, war or conversion, seem straightforward. But what did the Grand Mufti mean by “surrender and pay tax” and “under protection”? Almost from the very beginning of Islam, the growing Islamic state contained non-Muslim minorities, often Jews and Christians. Their status and position was defined very early on by Sharia law and it was defined, as is much of Sharia law, by looking to the example of Muhammad. In 629CE, Muhammad had led an attack on the Jewish settlement of Khaybar, north-west of Medina. The Jews had surrendered and, in return for being “protected” and spared from future jihad attacks, they were to pay a tax of half their produce. The name given to this pact of surrender was the dhimma and the protected peoples were called dhimmis.
Based on that precedent, a whole institution was developed and the concept of the dhimma was woven into Islamic law. The dhimmi laws set out the economic, social and legal place of Christian and Jewish minorities and in return, they were required to pay tribute (called jizya) and a land tax (kharaj) in perpetuity. In return, their lives would be spared and they would be free to practice their religion.
Every year, the conquered peoples, the dhimmis, would pay tribute to their Muslim rulers. The jizya tax was, however, to be collected in such a way as to belittle and humiliate the dhimmi. The Persian Sharia expert, Ahmad al-Nasafi (d. 1310CE) put it like this:
[T]hey have to be degraded and belittled by making him [the dhimmi] come in person, walking and not riding. He should hand [the jizya] over while standing and the receiver should be seated down, and he should be shaken violently, agitated and in turmoil. He should be dragged by the throat and told “Perform jizya, you dhimmi!” This is followed by a strong blow to the back of the neck.
As well as the annual jizya payments, Sharia law contained a vast array of dhimma regulations, carefully designed to remind religious minorities of their humiliation and second-class status. Here are just a few examples:
- Dhimmis were forbidden from trying to convert a Muslim.
- Dhimmis were not permitted to hinder a fellow dhimmi from converting to Islam.
- Muslim men could marry a dhimmi woman, but any children were automatically Muslim.
- A Muslim woman could not marry a dhimmi man.
- No new churches or synagogues could be built.
- Damaged dhimmi places of worship could not be repaired.
- Dhimmis could not make any public displays of religion (e.g. no crosses worn, no church bells rung).
- A dhimmi’s testimony was not valid in court against that of a Muslim.
- Dhimmis could not exercise authority over Muslims.
- Dhimmi houses had to be smaller and lower than Muslim houses.
- Dhimmis had to wear distinction clothing so they did not look like Muslims. In ninth-century Andalusia (Muslim Spain), one Muslim judge, Ahmad b. Talib, ordered the dhimmis in his jurisdiction to wear a patch of white cloth on their shoulder. If they were Christians, the patch bore the image of a pig. If they were Jews, it bore the image of a monkey.
The results of all this, what several scholars have termed “dhimmitude”, were disastrous. Across the Muslim world, many dhimmi communities simply disappeared entirely, like the Christians of North West Africa. Others struggled on, slowly declining, or becoming assimilated into the Islamic community. It wasn’t until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that dhimmi laws got slowly rolled back, largely due to pressure from the Great Powers of Europe.
Today, of course, there is no Islamic state that officially uses the dhimma laws. However, the problem hasn’t gone away, rather it’s gone below the surface. It’s fascinating how often religious persecution and restriction today tracks the old dhimma laws. In many Muslim countries, such as Egypt, it’s very hard for Christians to get permits to build churches. In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslim places of worship cannot be built. In many Muslim countries, a non-Muslim man cannot marry a Muslim woman. In most Muslim-majority countries proselytising is forbidden and conversion is punishable by death.
A dhimma regulation says that non-Muslims cannot act as guardians to a Muslim. So if a girl converts to Islam, her parents lose all rights to intervene on her behalf, including the right to authorize her marriage. In Pakistan in 2007 this played itself out. Two Christian girls, Anila and Sabas Younas, aged 10 and 13, were kidnapped whilst travelling to visit an uncle. They were allegedly converted to Islam and quickly married off to Muslims. Their uncle took legal action to restore custody to their parents, but the judge ruled their conversion was legitimate and so they could not be restored “to their family of origin”. He also confirmed the marriages were legitimate. The kidnappers refused to produce the girls in court, so the judge made his findings based on the testimony of the Muslim “guardians” acting on behalf of the girls.
History and Theology Collide
When you draw a line like this, from the impact Sharia has today on religious minorities, back through history, right back to the start of Islam, pieces of the jigsaw begin to connect. History and politics and theology and religion collide.
In their study of contemporary religious persecution, Brian Grim and Roger Finke note the problem that religion is often ignored in studies of social unrest, subsumed under “ethnicity” or “culture”. Many academics, journalists and politicians have bought into what, for simplicity’s sake, one might label the “Marxist view of religion”. Rather than take religion seriously, everything is explained in social or economic terms. The problem is if one does that, one will not understand the seriousness of religious persecution today, nor why it occurs so frequently in Muslim-majority countries, nor understand the roots of Sharia, the prime cause of the problem in those countries. The problem is not Muslims. The problem is not Islam. The problem is any attempt by a state to regulate religion and, for Muslim-majority countries, that temptation is fuelled by Sharia.
The Way Forward
We have come on quite a journey. We’ve heard some harrowing accounts of contemporary religious persecution and seen how religious freedom is under threat in many countries. We have grappled with why Muslim-majority countries regularly fill the top slots in studies of religious persecution and we’ve seen the problem is not Muslims, who are often the victims too, especially minority Muslim sects, rather the problem is Sharia and its historical roots, with the dhimmi laws seeing a deeply discriminatory view of non-Muslim minorities woven into many forms of Sharia.
Why is all this important? Well not least, because religious rights don’t exist in a vacuum but are connected to other fundamental human rights. The right to freedom of belief is connected to the right to freedom of expression. The right to freedom of worship is connected to the right to freedom of assembly. Where religious rights are being suppressed, you can be sure that other fundamental human rights are too. Freedom of religion and religious persecution are litmus tests for other human rights abuses.
What can we do? Most importantly, we can recognise the problem. We can start talking about religious freedom and persecution. Forums like this are a start. We need to bring the issue out into the open. As we do that, we need to be honest about some of the difficult subjects we’ve touched on tonight. That’s not easy and doing so — especially when it comes to the issue of Islam and Sharia law — is a difficult path to walk. We must find a way to do that without demonizing all Muslims, but without ignoring the voices of the persecuted.
Rinaldy Damanik, was a Christian pastor arrested in Indonesia in 2002 for speaking up for the rights of Christians who were being persecuted by the radical Laskar Jihad Islamist group. Falsely accused and sentenced in a trial the international community called a travesty, Damanik wrote this in his cell:
Although truth is difficult and very expensive, we don’t have any choice. The alterative is to say goodbye to the truth … The truth lover is strong willed and his sharp mouth is able to speak out in the face of untruth and the falsehood of his surroundings. His heart cannot be still or quiet. His heart is always full of the fight against injustice.
There’s a responsibility on each one of us. Whether we’re journalists, or politicians, or academics, whether we have a faith or we have none, to talk about this issue and bring it into the open. As Jesus Christ, who I serve and follow, said: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest their deeds should be exposed” (John 3:20). We need to expose and talk about this issue. The victims demand it. Their blood cries out.
Doug Bandow, ‘The Right Not to be a Muslim’, National Review Online, 8 June 2007, http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/221155/right-not-be-muslim/doug-bandow.
- ‘Malaysia rejects Christian appeal’, BBC News Online, 30 May 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6703155.stm (accessed 19 March 2011).
- See ‘Muslim Publics Divided on Hamas and Hezbollah’, Pew Research Center, 2 Dec 2010, http://pewglobal.org/2010/12/02/muslims-around-the-world-divided-on-hamas-and-hezbollah/ (accessed 19 March 2011).
- Rob Crilly and Aoun Sahi, ‘Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan “for blasphemy”’, The Telegraph, 9 Nov 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8120142/Christian-woman-sentenced-to-death-in-Pakistan-for-blasph emy.html (accessed 19 March 2011). See also Declan Walsh, ‘Salmaan Taseer, Aasia Bibi and Pakistan’s struggle with extremism’, The Guardian, 8 Jan 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/08/salmaan-taseer-blasphemy-pakistan-bibi (accessed 19 March 2011).
- Pope Benedict XVI, ‘Faith, Reason and the University — Memories and Reflections’, University of Regensburg, 12 Sept 2006, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_ 20060912_ university-regensburg_en.html (accessed 19 March 2011).
- P.K. Abdul Ghafour, ‘Learn About Islam, Mufti Tells Benedict’, Arab News, 18 Sept 2006, http://archive.arabnews.c om/?page=1§ion=0&article=86719 (accessed 19 March 2011).
- The story is told in A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2001) 510-519.
- Madarik al-Tanzil, commentary on Qur’an 9:29. Available online at www.altafsir.com. Cited in Durie, The Third Choice, 135-136.
- Ibid., 141-147.
- Based upon Qur’an 5:60.
- See e.g. Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam (London: Associated University Presses, 1996).
- Qaiser Felix, ‘Punjab: underage Christian sisters kidnapped and forced to marry Muslims’, Asia News.It, 14 July 2008, http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Punjab:-underage-Christian-sisters-kidnapped-and-forced-to-marry-Muslims-12750.html and Qaiser Felix, ‘Kidnapped Christian girls, judge ratifies marriage and conversion’, Asia News.It, 16 July 2008, http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Punjab:-underage-Christian-sisters-kidnapped-and-forced-to-marry-Muslims-12771.html (both accessed 19 March 2011).
- Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, ‘Religious Persecution in Cross-National Context: Clashing Civilizations or Regulated Religious Economies?’, American Sociological Review 72.4 (2007) 633.
- It is ironic that the so called “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens swing entirely the other direction and say that religion is the only cause of most social ills. See e.g. David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (London: Yale University Press, 2009) for a critique.
- See also Marshall, ‘The Range of Religious Freedom in 2008’, 28 for a critique of the suggestion that religious rights are a luxury only to be worried about once “basic needs” such as food and shelter have been obtained.
- Mona Saroinsong and Ian Freestone, ‘Working for Peace Despite Persecution’, Christian Conference of Asia, http://cca.org.hk/resources/archive/assembly/12ga/theme/booklet/03a-stories.htm.