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Christians Under Siege: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism in the Muslim World

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Note: This post was co-authored by Sheila B. Lalwani.

Conflicts and killings from Africa to Southeast Asia have brought into sharp relief the significant threat to religious minorities in some Muslim societies. While constitutionally entitled in many countries to equality of citizenship and religious freedom, religious minorities in the Muslim world increasingly fear the erosion of their rights -- and with good reason. Interreligious and inter-communal tensions have flared up not only in Egypt and Malaysia but also in Sudan, Nigeria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. Conflicts have varied from acts of discrimination, to forms of violence escalating to murder, to the destruction of villages and mosques.

Majorities of Muslims and Christians embrace religious diversity. However, a significant minority of hard-line conservative, fundamentalist, and militant Muslims -- like their counterparts in Christianity and Judaism -- are not pluralistic, but rather strongly exclusivist in their attitudes toward other faiths and even fellow believers with whom they disagree. As recent events in Egypt and Pakistan illustrated, these myopic religious worldviews can turn ugly.

The Coptic Christian community in Egypt is an ancient faith group whose presence in Egypt predates the coming of Islam. Relations between Copts and Muslims in society had generally been good. However, in recent decades, extremists have targeted Copts and the government. While the government has addressed their status as a security issue, it has failed to respond to the desire of Egypt's Christian Copts for full equality of citizenship: equal treatment with regard to building their churches; appointment into top positions, and non-discriminatory policies.

In the past year, extremists have again targeted Coptic Christians. In the town of Nag Hamadi in southern Egypt, seven people were killed when gunmen sprayed automatic fire into a crowd of churchgoers after a Coptic New Year's eve midnight mass on Jan. 7, 2010. Officials believed the attack was in retaliation for the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man. But in December 2010, Egyptians were shocked when Muslim militants slaughtered 25 and injured another 100 Coptic Christian worshipers in Alexandria on New Year's Eve.

The magnitude of the atrocity triggered an unprecedented public outcry. Egyptian government officials, Muslim religious leaders, the media, and civil society moved quickly to condemn the attacks. Islamic leaders and groups from the Muslim Brotherhood to Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Sheik of al-Azhar (Egypt's highest religious authority) and the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, along with the Coptic Pope Shenouda III, all came out with strong condemnatory statements and calls for Egyptian unity. Across the country Egyptians rallied to the defense of the Coptic community, its freedoms and its security. Thousands of Muslims turned out at Coptic Christmas eve mass services on Jan 6, 2011 around the country for candle light vigils and to serve as human shields and protect Coptic churches as they celebrated their Christmas. In Pakistan the assassination of a major politician who opposed its blasphemy law and its aftermath signaled any even more critical and worrisome threat.

A Christian woman, Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of four was sentenced to death on charges of insulting Islam, in a case stemming from a village dispute. This case is not an isolated incident; allegations of blasphemy against the Prophet or desecration of the Quran have often been used against Christians in local disputes.

Asia Bibi, believed to be the first woman sentenced to death under Pakistan's blasphemy law, strongly denied the charges and requested a presidential pardon. In November 2010 the Lahore High Court in Pakistan barred President Asif Ali Zardari from issuing a pardon. The issue resurrected calls in Pakistan and internationally for the recall of the blasphemy law. The violent reactions of militant religious leaders and mosque preachers triggered the assassination of Salmaan Taseer -- the governor of Punjab and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law -- by one of his bodyguards who shot him 27 times on 4 January 2011. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, admitted that he was influenced by the fiery sermons of militant preachers who had denounced Taseer. According to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, an internationally recognized expert on Sout Asian politics:

Taseer's death has unleashed the mad dogs of hell, inspiring the minority of fanatics to go to any lengths to destroy the democratic, secular and moderate Islamic Republic of Pakistan. We Pakistanis are at the edge of a precipice and as a consequence the stability of the entire region is at risk. Not a single registered mullah in the city of Lahore with its 13 million people was willing to read Taseer's funeral prayers, because they were too scared to do so. Five hundred lawyers have signed up to defend Taseer's killer Mumtaz Qadri, but Taseer's wife cannot find a single criminal lawyer to prosecute him. It is hard to see which judge is even likely to pursue the case to its obvious conclusion.

Shockingly, the assassin has been greeted as a celebrity and hero. The extent of extremist influence, its power to turn out large street demonstrations and to intimidate liberal reformers could be seen in mass street rallies like that in Karachi where more than 40,000 people took to the streets in his support. At the same time, a notable number of more mainstream as well as militant religious leaders were quick to come out against repeal of the blasphemy law and the government has been quick to retreat, declaring it would never amend the law. The deafening silence of marginalized liberals and reformers, who fear to speak out, and political parties has been testimony of the extent to which extremists have been able to threaten and intimidate, target, issue death threats and kill. This is nothing new. Two of Pakistan's prominent reformist Islamic scholars and popular television preachers, Dr. Tahir al-Qadri and Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, have been forced in recent years to flee the country and live in exile in Canada and Malaysia.

Muhammad Tahir al-Qadri authored a 600 page fatwa, an exhaustive study of what the Quran and Islamic sources have to say about the use of violence, terrorism, suicide bombing. Qadri categorically and unequivocally rejects all acts of illegitimate violence, terrorism and every act of suicide bombing against all human beings, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. He also distances himself from all, whether fellow prominent religious leaders or Muslim youth, who have the potential to be radicalized, who would seek to justify and excuse suicide bombing and terrorism for any reason.

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, who fled to Malaysia last year after police foiled a plot to bomb his Lahore home has publicly opposed the blasphemy laws since the assassination of Salmaan Taseer. Like al-Qadri's condemnation of terrorism and suicide bombings, Ghamidi attacks the blasphemy law on religious grounds, maintaining it has no foundation in either the Qur'an or the Hadith -- the sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

Religious tolerance and equality of citizenship remain fragile both in secular Muslim countries and in self-styled Islamic states. Mainstream Muslim religious and political leaders and the media need to not only condemn religious extremism and terrorism, as many have done nationally and internationally, but also speak out against those mainstream religious leaders and others who continue to advocate religious exclusivist theologies or doctrines and their implementation in law and society.

Critical is the implementation of reforms in religious thought, in law, and in society to ensure equality of citizenship. Both Muslim and Christian religious leaders will need to work more closely on religious and curricula reforms for madrasas, seminaries, schools, and universities and utilize mass media, the internet, and other avenues of popular culture. Failure to do so will not only feeds the growth of religious extremism but also contributes to the mentality of sectors of mainstream society, the estimated 500 to 800 lawyers, who offered to represent the self-confessed killer, and the physicians, teachers, police and others who have also publicly supported him.

The plight of Christians and other minorities in some Muslim countries in the face of a significant and dangerous minority of religious extremists and the failures of political and religious leaders threatens both the safety and security of religious minorities and the very fabric of Muslim societies.

Prof. John L. Esposito, author of The Future of Islam, is University Professor of Religion & International Affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Sheila B. Lalwani is a Research Fellow at the Center.

Around the Web

Some Christians in Pakistan convert fear into safety - thestar.com

After Taseer Assassination: Some Muslims Refuse to Mourn - TIME

BBC News - Pakistan city tense after 'blaspheming' Christians shot

Pope: Pakistan, others must protect Christians - USATODAY.com

Deadly Bombing Sparks Fury, Protests Among Christians in Egypt ...

Egypt's Muslims support Coptic Christians on religious holiday - CNN

Egypt government bears brunt of Coptic Christian anger - CSMonitor.com

Shooting May Spark New Christian Riots In Egypt : NPR