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John L. Esposito

John L. Esposito

Posted: January 9, 2010 11:44 AM

Recent attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt and firebomb attacks on churches in Malaysia have raised major concerns about deteriorating rights and security for religious minorities in Muslim countries. In the twenty-first century, Muslims are strongly challenged to move beyond older notions of "tolerance" or "co-existence" to a higher level of religious pluralism based on mutual understanding and respect. Regrettably, a significant number of Muslims, like very conservative and fundamentalist Christians and Jews, are not pluralistic but rather strongly exclusivist in their attitudes towards other faiths and even co-believers with whom they disagree.

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 Christmas midnight mass on January 7th. Officials believe the attack was in retaliation for the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man. Clashes between Muslims and Christians are not uncommon in southern Egypt or, in recent years, in Cairo.

In Malaysia, where Muslims make up 60% of the population, eight churches have been attacked with firebombs and bands of militants threatened further actions. Malaysia has long been cited as an example and model of a progressive multiracial and multi-religion Muslim country. However, its peaceful coexistence has been strained by interreligious tensions and conflicts between the Malay majority and the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who are mostly Christians, Buddhists and Hindus.

In recent years, Malay militants have insisted that Christians stop using "Allah, the Malay term for God, despite the fact that this has been an accepted practice in Malaysia as it is in Indonesia and the Middle East. Malaysia's Home Ministry prohibited Catholics from using the word in their Malay-language publications since 2007. Customs officials seized 15,000 Bibles from Indonesia because they used the word "Allah" as a translation for God. However, Malaysia's High Court overturned a government ban, ruling that the word Allah is not exclusive to Muslims and that others, including Catholics, who had been prohibited by the Home Ministry from using the word in the Malay-language edition of the Catholic monthly, the Herald, can now use the term.

Incensed by the decision, militants attacked several churches and have pledged to prevent Christians from using the word "Allah." In the aftermath of the attacks, the Malaysian High Court in response to a government appeals granted a stay order on Jan. 7; the government appealed to the higher Court of Appeal to overturn the ruling.

Religious minorities in the Muslim world, constitutionally entitled in many countries to equality of citizenship and religious freedom, increasingly fear the erosion of those rights -- and with good reason. Interreligious and inter-communal tensions and conflicts 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, and the destruction of villages, churches and mosques.

A key Islamic debate today over pluralism and tolerance involves use of past doctrine to address current realities. Many want to reinstate the "protected" (dhimmi) status in which Christians and Jews could practice their faith and be guided by their religious leaders in exchange for payment of a tax. Although in the past this was progressive compared to Christian practice, in today's modern nation state, it amounts to second class citizenship. Other Muslims insist that non-Muslims be afforded full citizenship rights, maintaining that pluralism is the essence of Islam, rather than a purely Western invention or ideology. They emphasize that the Quran envisions a pluralistic world, mutual understanding and religious tolerance for Jews and Christians,"People of the Book," who have also received a revelation and a scripture from God (the Torah for Jews and the Gospels for Christians), a recognition that in later centuries was extended to other faiths.

A reformist vanguard facing resistance from many conservative religious leaders and movements, fundamentalist and extremist factions, they turn to Quranic texts that reveal a pluralistic vision such as: "To everyone we have appointed a way and a course to follow'' (5.48), and ''For each there is a direction toward which he turns; vie therefore with one another in the performance of good works. Wherever you may be, God shall bring you all together [on the Day of Judgment]. Surely God has power over all things." (2.148) These verses support religious diversity in the human community and reflect support for pluralism, not exclusivism.

Religious tolerance and equality of citizenship remain fragile both in secular Muslim countries like Egypt and Turkey or self-styled Islamic states and republics in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Iran -- states which too often limit the rights of non-Muslims, tolerate religious intolerance of other faiths or of other Muslims with different Islamic interpretations. Substantive change can only come with strong leadership from government and religious leaders and government legislation; seminary and university curriculum in religious, particularly comparative religion courses, to counter religious exclusivism by instilling more pluralistic and tolerant visions and values in the next generation of imams, priests, scholars and the general public.

Finally, religious discrimination, conflict and violence cut across all the world's religions affecting Muslim minorities in the Philippines, Thailand, Greece, Croatia, Serbia, India, and Jews and Muslims in Europe and America where Islamophobia and ant-Semitism are on the increase. To more effectively address critical issues of religious freedom, a more ad hoc, rapid response mechanism must be initiated. Modern technology and communications can be used as a more powerful tool for major religious leaders and organizations of all faiths. They need more initiatives to join together, condemning all forms of discrimination, intolerance and oppression against ethnic and religious minorities. Together they can speak out whenever and wherever abuses occur, whether it be their own religion or government or someone else's that is the oppressor or the victim.