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Abstract:
Passing mention of political persecutions.

Islam: The Straight Path

by John L. Esposito

pages 192-194
New York: Oxford University Press, 1988
page 192

Non-Muslim Minorities

The revivalist mood and orientation of resurgent Islam has also affected the status and rights of non-Muslims. In recent years, tensions and clashes between Muslim and non-Muslim communities have increased: the Copts in Egypt, Bahai and Jews in Iran, Chinese in Malaysia, and Christians in the Sudan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. The creation of more Islamically oriented societies, especially the introduction of Islamic laws, has resulted in varying degrees of tension, conflict, violence, and killing in the name of religion. For militant Muslims, Christian minorities are often seen as those who cooperated with colonial powers, benefited from their protection, and were the fruit of Christian missions. The Bahai of Iran and the Ahmadiyya of Pakistan, on the other hand, are regarded as apostates or heretics who rejected and broke away from Islam. Minorities who have enjoyed relative equality and freedom in


page 193

modern nation-states now fear that Islamization will mean a reversion to the tolerated, "protected" (dhimmi) status of religious minorities under traditional Islamic law. Non-Muslims belonged to a second class of citizens who constituted their own community. In exchange for their allegiance to the state and payment of a poll tax, they were free to practice their faith and be governed by their religious leaders and laws in private life in such areas as worship, education, and family law. However advanced such laws may have been relative to their times, today minorities regard such treatment as little more than second-class citizenship. Moreover, protected status was extended only to those communities regarded as "People of the Book," not to apostates or heretics. Recent examples from Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and the Sudan merely reinforce their fears. In Egypt, there have been attempts to make apostasy (and hence a Muslim's renunciation of Islam by conversion to Christianity) subject to the death penalty. Moreover, clashes between militant Muslims and militant Christians in Egypt in the late 1970s and the 1980s have resulted in stonings, church bombings, disruption of Christian services, and death. In Iran, the ulama in the l950s mounted an unsuccessful campaign to persuade the government to pass legislation to suppress the Bahai, whom they regarded as apostates from Islam, and dismiss them from public office. In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, the Bahai religion has been declared illegal, many have been imprisoned and executed, and their property has been seized. The Iranian government's insistence that the Bahai have been punished for political reasons has done little to silence its critics. In Pakistan and the Sudan, the imposition of Islamic law has resulted in the subjection of non-Muslims to the ban on alcohol and the suppression of sects that proclaim themselves Muslims. In Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya have been declared a non-Muslim minority, and in the Sudan, Mahmud Taha, leader of the Republican Brothers, was executed for apostasy.

Non-Muslim minorities face another potential restriction on their rights. If states become more Islamically oriented, will this prevent non-Muslims from holding key government positions? With the exception of the head of state or prime minister, in most Muslim states citizens, regardless of their faith, may hold any office. This Western, liberal, secular approach is increasingly contested by those who argue that non-Muslims should not hold key government, military, judicial, or legislative positions responsible for formulating and implementing the Islamic ideology of the state, since non-Muslims could not be fully


page 194

committed to that ideology. Thus, while the constitutions of many modern Muslim states grant equality of citizenship and opportunity, the contemporary resurgence has resurrected pressures to reassert legally the often widespread traditional attitude toward non-Muslims, which has remained unchanged in Islamic law and is operative in the minds and outlook of many Muslims. This is reflected in the communalism evident in social life, if not in the workplace, the continued presence of communal villages or neighborhoods, and the tendency of most religious leaders and organizations, despite constitutional reforms, to teach and preach a restricted role for non-Muslims. As with the question of women's status, the tendency to legislate change from above, without adequately addressing traditional ideals and values that remain a part of faith and religious history, creates a dichotomy between modern practices and traditional ideals that must be resolved. The unresolved contradictions between the two are like a smoldering fire, barely visible until a strong change in the direction of the wind causes it to ignite and erupt.
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