Muslim Conference Calls for Protection of Religious Minorities

2:54 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

By Aida Alami

MARRAKESH, Morocco — At a recent conference held by Muslim scholars to confront violence in the Islamic world, a representative of the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq and Syria said his people desperately needed protection from the Islamic State.

“Please help us,” said Hadi Baba Sheikh, the Yazidi representative. “They are killing us and kidnapping our women and children.”

The gathering here of about 300 muftis, theologians and scholars last month responded far more broadly by issuing the Marrakesh Declaration, which calls for Muslim countries to tolerate and protect religious minorities living within their borders — among them Christians, Jews, Hindus and Bahais as well as Yazidis and Sabians.

They cited the Charter of Medina, established by the Prophet Muhammad after he fled to Medina, in what is now Saudi Arabia, from Mecca in the seventh century to escape an assassination plot.

“The Medina Charter established the idea of common citizenship regardless of religious belief,” said Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian religious scholar and a professor of Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia who helped convene the meeting, in a speech. “Enough bloodshed. We are heading to annihilation. It is time for cooperation.”

Since it was issued last Wednesday, the declaration has been welcomed by many, though with some skepticism, and it is only now beginning to gain wider circulation. Some experts said they doubted that the meeting would have lasting impact because it did not include representatives of more extremist movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood. They also said the groups that did attend do not have great sway over young people.

“These efforts are compromised from the get-go because of their association with states that don’t have legitimacy among young, angry, frustrated Muslim youths in the Arab world,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World,” who did not attend the conference. “It’s something that appeals to Western governments, but what’s the follow-up?”

“The targeted audience should be people who are predisposed to radicalism,” he continued. “A young Muslim who is intrigued by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria would be more likely to listen to a Salafi scholar than a traditionalist scholar.”

Yet for the representatives of persecuted religious minorities who attended the meeting or followed the proceedings from afar, the gathering and the document it produced were a hopeful sign that influential Muslim leaders and scholars were grappling with a serious problem.

“I think the declaration is important because it sets a standard for accountability,” said the Rev. Susan Hayward, director of religion and inclusive societies at the United States Institute of Peace and a minister in the United Church of Christ, who attended the conference. “This is a call for action.”

She said those who took part in the conference had the clout to cultivate sustainable peace efforts in their homelands. Muslim participants came from 120 countries, and the conference also drew representatives of many other faiths. It was sponsored by King Mohammed VI of Morocco and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, which is based in the United Arab Emirates.

“Conditions in various parts of the Muslim world have deteriorated dangerously due to the use of violence and armed struggle as a tool for settling conflicts and imposing one’s point of view,” the declaration said.

“This situation has also weakened the authority of legitimate governments and enabled criminal groups to issue edicts attributed to Islam, but which, in fact, alarmingly distort its fundamental principles and goals in ways that have seriously harmed the population as a whole.”

President Obama hailed the conference last Wednesday at a ceremony held in Washington to honor recipients of the Righteous Among the Nations Awards, which honor non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

“We know that there were Muslims — from Albanians to Arabs — who protected Jews from Nazis,” Mr. Obama said. “In Morocco, leaders from Muslim-majority countries around the world just held a summit on protecting religious minorities, including Jews and Christians.”

The conference did not address tensions within Islam itself, or the discrimination and persecution Muslims sometimes face at the hands of other Muslims. It also did not address the concern that many of the participants represented countries with poor human rights records.

Hatem Bazian, a lecturer in Near Eastern studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and editor of The Islamophobia Studies Journal, was doubtful that the declaration would amount to much. He did not attend the conference, but followed it closely via the Internet.

“Overwhelmingly, Muslim populations will be in agreement with this declaration,” he said. But “the overall picture is that civil society discourses have been captured by extremists across the board.”

you can read the story on the New York Times' website

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