At an Arab League summit in Tunisia May 22-23, 2004, Arab heads of state voted to lead their countries toward democracy and human rights. The “Tunis Declaration” is the league’s first pledge to promote Western-style social and political reforms among its 22 member states, which include some of the most repressive governments in the world.
No issue in the Arab world could be more divisive. The Americans and British are promoting democracy in the region. Cooperating with them could lead to economic development and greater prosperity. But that taps into Arab anger over the Palestinian and Iraq situations and immediately puts an Arab leader in the crosshairs of a militant Islam that sees the West as “the Great Satan.”
While an Arab League spokesman hailed their declaration as historic, human rights activists doubted Arab leaders would follow through on their promises. The document includes no plan for concrete action or mechanism for requiring Arab states to cooperate.
The Tunis plan hedges its promises by noting that progress toward democracy and human rights will depend on the cultural and religious values of each Arab state – all of which are predominantly Muslim.
Which raises the question: Can democracy and human rights flourish in a Muslim society?
If so, there are few examples to prove it. Most Arab governments are dictatorships whose citizens know nothing of either democracy or human rights. The few that do allow some measure of democratic freedom and human rights keep a tight rein on Muslim teachers. The countries in which Islamic authorities exercise political power – like the Taliban did in Afghanistan – are notorious violators of fundamental human rights.
Are Arab political leaders actually willing to fight civil wars with militant Islam to gain the prize of democratic freedoms and capitalist prosperity? Have America and Britain, by overthrowing tyrannical regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, antagonized a Muslim world that could have been persuaded to embrace our values?
Some experts believe Muslim societies can support governments that respect human rights.
Egyptian democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim of the Ibn Khaldun Center says Islam’s founder, Muhammad, endorsed religious freedom and political equality in a treaty he signed with the Jewish, Christian and pagan tribes around Medina, the region of Arabia to which he fled after he was forced out of Mecca in A.D. 622. He also argues that Islam’s holy book, the Quran, repeatedly emphasizes the importance of shura (consultation), the value of diversity and the need for peaceful coexistence between different religious traditions.
Ali A. Mazrui, director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University in Binghamton, N.Y., says that Islamic Arabian society modeled pluralism and minority rights before Islamic theocracy emerged. He points out that four modern Muslim-majority states – Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey – all have had women as heads of state – an inconceivable situation under Taliban or al-Qaeda rule.
The Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society, however, argues that Islam is inherently hostile to pluralistic democracy and the rights of minorities. The Quran, for example, not only allows Muslims to own slaves, but also allows masters to use their female slaves sexually, even if the slaves are married.
Islam’s Shari’a law is neither impartial nor fair, the ISIS points out. For example, a Muslim may enter the home of a non-Muslim and rob him with impunity. Because Islamic law forbids non-Muslim testimony against a Muslim, the non-Muslim has no legal recourse.
Islam’s oppression of non-Muslims is well known. Of Islam’s 17 “great sins,” unbelief is considered more heinous than murder, theft or adultery. Unbelievers do not have a right to live, according to the Quran. While Muslims are quite willing to accept converts to Islam, Muslims who want to follow another faith are judged as apostates deserving of death.
In some Muslim societies, the crime of “blasphemy” is used by governments to silence opposition or by individuals to settle personal scores. Neighbors who covet a non-Muslim’s property can seize it by accusing him of blasphemy. A court in Pakistan has even ruled that by the act of worship Christians commit blasphemy, since Islam regards Jesus as a prophet, not as God in the flesh.
Islam’s history regarding human rights is a virtually unbroken chain of minority oppression. Since Muhammad’s conquests in the 600s, Christians, Jews and other minorities have been overtaxed and forced into slave labor. Muslims have been free to ransack non-Muslim places of worship. Non-Muslims have had to accept being shouldered aside on the street, been forced to wear patches with the images of apes or pigs, even been forbidden to wear matching shoes. A Muslim man has only to kidnap and rape a non-Muslim girl to possess her as his wife.
One of the thorniest problems in bringing democracy and human rights to Muslim Arab countries is that Islam knows nothing about a free church in a free state, with neither one controlling the other. From its very beginning under Muhammad, Islam has fused religion and government so that one is indistinguishable from the other, to the detriment of freedom.
In fact, Islam’s very name reveals the religion’s domineering nature. In the wake of 9/11, the news media emphasized that Islam means “peace,” but it also means “submission.” Islam teaches that Muslims are at peace because they are submissive to Allah; non-Muslims are at peace to the extent they are submissive to his earthly authorities. The Quran says Muslims are obligated to use any means necessary to accomplish the submission of non-Muslim “infidels” – including killing those who refuse to submit.
None of this leaves one with much optimism about the prospects for freedom and human rights flourishing in the Arab world, or the Muslim world in general, for that matter.
The Tunis Declaration may be nothing more than a new-millennium incarnation of the Cairo Declaration of 1990. Intended to assure the free world of Islam’s support of human rights, it was carefully couched in language that subordinated every issue to Shari’a law – meaning, for all practical purposes, no human rights. That may be the real meaning of the Tunis notation that progress toward democracy and human rights will depend on the cultural and religious values of each Arab state.
Perhaps secular Arabs and moderate Muslims can chart a course toward democracy and human rights, but they will have to reason their way past certain passages of the Quran and prominent elements of Islamic tradition. They also will have to eradicate extreme Islam from their societies.
Of course, the vast majority of Muslims – Arab or otherwise – want nothing to do with the terrorists who use Islam as an excuse for politically motivated murder. But even moderate Islam divides the world into the “house of peace” (the Muslim realm) and “the house of war” (the non-Muslim world). It teaches that non-Muslim lands rightfully belong to Islam and that a state of war exists until the day Islam reigns supreme.
That is the war Osama bin Laden declared against the United States in 1998. Whether we like it or not, everyone who values human rights – anyone who loves freedom – is at war with the extremist Muslims who pursue world domination with single-minded fanaticism. No one will have any peace until he converts to their brand of Islam – or until the zealots are defeated.
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