The Future of Religious Minorities in the Muslim World

Imam Mohamed Magid President, Islamic Society of North America HUFFINGTON POST

As an imam and as the president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), I know all too well the many challenges that American Muslims experience on a daily basis. We struggle for inclusion, for acceptance, and many times, just to feel comfortable and safe going to the mosque to pray. The shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and the fire at an Islamic center in Missouri last week have been harsh reminders of the challenges many minority communities face.

However, these challenges pale in comparison to the challenges faced by minority communities in other countries, where religious freedom is far less supported by the government and far less cherished as a societal value. The beautiful thing about America is that in the midst of our struggles, we have found great support and friendship from other religious communities, who believe strongly that an attack on one religion is an attack on all religions. When someone vandalized my own Islamic center in Virginia a few years ago, I was comforted and heartened by the immediate outpouring of support from the nearby Trinity Presbyterian Church. And when my community members in Reston, Va., needed a space to pray closer to home, the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation opened its doors to us. At a national level, 28 religious organizations showed their solidarity, including financially, by joining an interfaith campaign entitled, Shoulder-to-Shoulder: Standing with American Muslims; Upholding American Values.

Each time anti-Muslim sentiment rises up in our communities and on the airwaves, prominent religious leaders rally together to voice their solidarity with American Muslims and their commitment to an America where loving one’s neighbor is the value we are known for around the world.

In many other countries, however, including those where Muslims are the majority, religious minorities have no such institutions and no government protection to ensure their safety, security and religious freedom. They live in a perpetual state of fear and uncertainty, their houses of worship are frequently the victims of arson or vandalism, and hate crimes are all too common. In Nigeria, for example, clashes between Christians and Muslims result in constant bloodshed on both sides. Some Nigerian religious leaders, like Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, have taken a stand to help end these conflicts, but extremist groups continue to twist religion to justify widespread killing and the destruction of sacred spaces and public property.

In many countries, religious minorities are guaranteed equal rights and protection under the law,
but these laws are not enforced. In the U.S., African Americans who routinely get pulled over by
police for “driving while black” understand that our American anti-discrimination laws are not always
implemented as they should be. Yet we can also testify that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of
Civil Rights and Civil Liberties does incredible work day after day to end discrimination in our country.
We saw this in action last week when we learned that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro would finally
be permitted to enter its building and begin holding services there.

As changes develop in the political atmosphere of the Middle East, in particular, more tension arises within religious minority communities. There is a new wave of sentiment surrounding the rise of Islam in the public square, and questions regarding the political implications of an Islamic political party’s rise to power are endless. How will these political parties choose to interpret Islam when developing new government policies? Will they embody the true Islamic understanding of religious accommodation, leaving no room for extremism or abuse?

To be clear, the focus of our concern is not and should not be Islam. Rather, we should have the utmost concern about the danger of misinterpretation of Islam. After all, our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) established a pluralistic society in Medina that granted religious freedom rights to all religious communities.

In these environments, the role of religious leaders, scholars and institutions becomes critical to address these issues. First, we must examine our religious texts and develop a theological framework for the contemporary application of equal rights and mutual respect. Such an exploration leads to the development of documents like Al-Azhar University’s proposed Bill of Rights for the new Egyptian government. As one of the most prominent and well-recognized Islamic institutions in the world, it is only fitting that its Bill of Rights justly calls for “One Home for All Egyptians” and has subsequently been fully endorsed by His Eminence Metropolitan Bakhomious, the Pope of the Coptic Church.

The Islamic Society of North America has been actively engaged in an effort to share the important
work that is being done on the critical issue of religious minorities’ rights throughout the global Muslim
community. We hope to engage prominent Islamic scholars from all over the world, including Sheikh
Ahmed el-Tayyib of Al-Azhar, in a united effort to develop a mechanism for establishing standards and
protocols of religious freedom and minorities’ rights. To further this goal, I myself have traveled around
the world, from Mauritania to Morocco to Jordan, where I have garnered overwhelming support for
our initiative. As Muslims living as a minority in America, we understand the importance of religious
freedom, and feel strongly that Muslims all over the world have a moral and spiritual obligation to lead
this effort.

Second, religious leaders must be responsible educators for their community, serving only as positive
forces for the common good. When a Friday sermon becomes the only source of religious knowledge
for many people each week, an imam’s words must be chosen very carefully. He must be sure to be
clear in calling his community toward what is good and in expelling any divisive or hateful ideas they
might hear throughout the week. Religious leaders must also work to educate the broader public about
the importance of religious freedom, both at home and abroad. The voices of good will must always be
louder than those of hate.

Lastly, religious leaders and institutions must partner with civil society groups to better address issues
of religious freedom. Human rights groups, for example, often do not engage with religious institutions
because they are secular in nature. Similarly, religious institutions often do not engage with human
rights groups because they do not feel that their role is to work with civil society. As a result, both
lack the resources to accomplish this important work. Both are committed to preserving dignity and
freedom for all people, and should work together to serve that common purpose.

As American Muslims, we continue to work together with people of all faiths to build a better tomorrow. Just this past Thursday, I joined other religious leaders from Shoulder-to-Shoulder for a press conference call to mourn the tragic incidents in Oak Creek, Wis., and Joplin, Mo., and to call for further interfaith dialogue and reconciliation. And earlier in the week, I returned from a trip to Cairo with Fr. Moises Bogdady, Senior Priest and Hegomen at the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, to voice our support for Egypt’s great strides toward the free exercise of religion. There we met with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayyib of Al-Azhar and His Eminence Metropolitan Bakhomious of the Coptic Church.

His Eminence expressed his appreciation for our delegation and the importance of the work that ISNA is doing worldwide. He also expressed his solidarity with the American Muslim community and I shared my deep concern for religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries across the world. We were joined by Ambassador Rashad Hussain, U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, who also shared our concern for religious minorities abroad and hoped that the American Muslim community’s positive experiences could serve as examples for others.

Much more work is needed to make this world safe for all people of faith, and it is my hope and prayer that religious leaders worldwide can take the lead in getting it done.

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