Would a true Islamic state respect universal human rights? Pakistani-British Anglican Bishop Michael Nazi-Ali would like to believe so – but history has cautioned him otherwise. His presentation “Freedom and a Culture of Intolerance: Will Religious Minorities Survive in the Middle East?” at the Washington, D.C. Heritage Foundation grimly determined that there is precious little evidence of tolerance in the global Islamic faith.
To begin his foray into the exploration of Islamic prejudice, Nazir-Ali explained how much a recent visit to northern Iraq opened his eyes to the pervasiveness of religious intolerance. The “radically disordered society” of Iraq is home to political parties that represent only the sectarian interests of the country’s ethnic and religious groups. In the bishop’s opinion, to continue on as a unitary state, Iraq must seek the “confederal future” of its Shiite and Sunni Arab and Kurdish regions.
Interestingly, the only Iraqi entity Nazir-Ali could name that was at all well organized was the nearly independent Kurdish Regional Government, which has continually expressed a commitment to secular governance. The KRG has even embraced many Christians and other refugees fleeing the Islamic State’s fearsome jihad in western Iraq, even though such expats could upset the KRG’s ethnic balance. Nazir-Ali even advocated direct aid to the KRG’s Peshmerga militia, one of the few effective units in the fight against ISIS – although he admitted that the group is definitely out-gunned.
Nazir-Ali said that he was encouraged to see how much hope generous aid from Christians worldwide gave to the KRG refugees. Despite the overcrowding in the furnished containers that often house these expats, he said that the people’s morale is still high – better than any he has seen in other refugee camps around the world. But the conditions could certainly be better, and he begged for additional assistance in the form of education for the young people and micro-enterprise for the adults. “Indefinite idleness cannot be good for people,” he pointed out. Some of the Christian refugees he interviewed – particularly those who had lost their homes to their Muslim neighbors in Mosul – said that they desired above all to leave the country. Yet others desperately wish to return to their Iraq homes – provided that a transitional international force can protect them.
Iraq exemplified for Nazir-Ali the grim fact that the Middle East is not a fairytale land with heroes and villains, angels and monsters. Instead, its people are put in the impossible position of having to face several different types of monsters and literally pick their poison. “And sometimes it is better to leave a monster alone,” he said, postulating that the Islamic State is worse even than Bashir Assad’s Syrian dictatorship – one that had provided a tradeoff between personal freedom and political suppression directed against the Muslim Brotherhood. His prediction was that stabilizing Syria – where ISIS grew out of “unnecessary disorder” – will require negotiations with the feared Assad.
But the conflict with Islam is not confined to the Middle East. Nazir-Ali quoted Pakistani-British Muslim Member of Parliament Rehman Chishti’s estimate that 80 percent of global religious minority persecution takes place in Muslim-majority locales. Some in Islam’s modern revival look to the faith’s seventh-century founding with not just nostalgia, “but for a political program with a backward-looking attitude,” the bishop said. This orthodox adherence to the Islamic law demands “great suspicion of any diversity, including non-recognition of certain kinds of Muslims” such as the Iraqi Shiites and Sufis, whose shrines the Islamic State destroys along with churches. Yet Christianity remains the prime target for Islamic militancy because as he put it, “Christianity and Islam are now the two great missionary faiths of our day.”
Despite Western claims, Nazir-Ali argued that there was never actually an Arab Spring. The wave of demonstrations and protests the rest of the world calls the Arab Spring was merely the Islamists’ “seeing a tumultuous moment that they could seize” and attempting to establish a democratic tyranny of the majority in places like Egypt.
Islamic intolerance extends to Nazir-Ali’s native Pakistan, where a blasphemy law formed a “dead hand on free speech, and complemented a teaching of hate in the textbooks.” Despite the leverage given by British-Pakistan aid, British diplomats have agreed to discuss these matters in private, with only Pakistani officials.
It is also seen in neighboring Afghanistan, where Western billions that were spent over the course of several years to create a stable society did not prevent a 2006 apostasy death sentence for Christian convert Abdul Rahman (who was later given asylum by Italy). “We have tried our best,” a progressive Afghan told Nazir-Ali, while noting the 2004 Afghan constitution’s reference to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “But no can trump the sharia,” he added, with another constitutional reference.
Nazir-Ali questioned the oft-touted hypothesis that Islam was caused by social and economic factors and pointed out that well-educated, oil-rich Gulf State citizens as well as the uneducated and unemployed find allure in Islamic militancy. Muslims could begin their political journeys with organizations like the MB or the South Asian Tablighi Jamaat, whose past professions of nonviolence he surprisingly accepted, but could then (in what the bishop called a “phenomenon of mutation”) easily move on to something much more violent.
Considering such ideologies and with a nod to his United Kingdom home, Nazir-Ali stressed that the British “must get beyond the multicultural discourse. The British people no longer [know] who they are.” Unable to assimilate Muslims and other immigrants, the British historically turned to governmental social programs that did not encourage a view of a common citizenship and segregated communities that extremists infiltrated over time.
Nazir-Ali brought his presentation to a close by verbally questioning why Islam’s historic heartland lacks religious tolerance, since documents such as the liberation edict of ancient Persian Emperor Cyrus or the Roman Empire’s 313 Edict of Milan point to the concept as previously fairly common in the region. He said that Muslims often tell him that they want an Islamic state, but Nazir-Ali responds by asking, “Will it be like the first Islamic state?”
The Constitution of Medina under Islam’s founding prophet Muhammad claimed an equality between Jews and Muslims. Yet Nazir-Ali conceded that this “constitution” is actually little more than a tribal alliance that eventually ended in the destruction of Medina’s Jewish community in conflict with the Muslims. So that one glimmer of hope for Jewish/Muslim coexistence still remains but a flicker in Islam’s past.