Religious minorities in the Muslim world today, constitutionally entitled in many countries to equality of citizenship and religious freedom, increasingly fear the erosion of those rights -- and with good reason. Inter-religious and inter-communal tensions and conflicts from Nigeria and Egypt and Sudan, to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia have raised major concerns about deteriorating rights and security for religious minorities in Muslim countries. Conflicts have varied, from acts of discrimination, to forms of violence escalating to murder, and the destruction of villages, churches and mosques.
In the 21st 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 many ultra conservative and fundamentalist Christians, Jews and Hindus are not pluralistic but rather strongly exclusivist in their attitudes toward other faiths and even co-believers with whom they disagree.
Reform will not, however, result from exaggerated claims and alarmist and incendiary language such as that of Ayan Hirsi Ali in in a recent a Newsweek cover story, reprinted in The Daily Beast.
Hirsi Ali warns of a "global war" and "rising genocide," "a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities" and thus "the fate of Christianity -- and ultimately of all religious minorities -- in the Islamic world is at stake."
Hirsi Ali's account, for surely it is not an analysis, mixes facts with fiction, distorting the nature and magnitude of the problem. It fails to distinguish between the acts of a dangerous and deadly minority of religious extremists or fanatics and mainstream society. The relevant data is readily available. Nigeria is not a "majority-Muslim" country of 160 million people with a 40 percent Christian minority" as she claims (and as do militant Islamists). Experts have long described the population as roughly equal and a recent Pew Forum study reports that Christians hold a slight majority with 50.8 percent of the population.
Boko Haram, is indeed a group of religious fanatics who have terrorized and slaughtered Christians and burned down their churches, but they remain an extremist minority and do not represent the majority of Nigerians who reject their actions and anti-Western rhetoric. Gallup data finds that a majority of Nigerians (60 percent) "reject the anti-Western rhetoric" of Boko Haram.
Curiously, Hirsi Ali chooses not to mention that in the Jos Central plateau area both Christian and Muslim militias have attacked each other and destroyed mosques and churches.
Another example of failing to provide the full facts and context is the Maspero massacre. Coptic Christians have a real set of grievances that have to be addressed: attacks on churches, resulting in church destruction and death and injuries, the failure of police to respond to attacks, and a history of discrimination when it comes to building new churches and in employment.
Hirsi Ali rightly attributes the genesis for the assault against Christians to the Egyptian security forces. Although some militant Egyptian Muslims did in fact join the violence against Christians, she overlooks the fact that increasingly Christians have been joined by many Muslim Egyptians in calling for this discrimination and backlash to be addressed. Thus, she fails to mention the many Muslims marched in solidarity with the Christians against the security forces and were also injured as a Reuters article dated Oct. 14, 2011 reported: "At least 2,000 people rallied in Cairo on Friday in a show of unity between Muslims and Christians and to express anger at the ruling military council after 25 people died when a protest by Coptic Christians led to clashes with the army."
She also fails to recognize the continuing state violence in Egypt against activists and protestors regardless of their faith.
Thousands of Muslims turned up in droves outside churches around the country for the Coptic Christmas Eve mass, in solidarity with a beleaguered Coptic community offering their bodies, and lives, as "human shields," making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and build an Egypt free from sectarian strife: "Egypt's Muslims attend Coptic Christmas mass, serving as "human shields."
Ali also points to the "flight" of Christians from the Middle East as proof of widespread persecution. According to Gallup surveys in Lebanon, however, Muslims are slightly more likely than their Christian counterparts to want to flee the country permanently and for Muslim and Christian alike the reason they give is primarily economic.
More problematic and deceptive is Hirsi Ali's charge that: "What has often been described as a civil war is in practice the Sudanese government's sustained persecution of religious minorities. This persecution culminated in the infamous genocide in Darfur that began in 2003." Sudan has certainly been a battleground for decades, but to say that Darfur is an example of the Muslim-Christian genocide is flat out wrong. The black African victims in Darfur were almost exclusively Muslim. The killers were Arab Sudanese Muslims (janjaweed) who murdered black Sudanese Muslims.
Addressing the issue of religious freedom requires greater global awareness and a concerted effort by governments, religious leaders, academics and human rights organizations, as well as curricula reform in many seminary and university religion courses (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. However, when lives are at stake and the safety and security of all citizens threatened, accurate and data driven analysis is crucial. Inflammatory statements and unsubstantiated generalizations exacerbate the problem, risk more strife or even violence and do little to contribute to finding a solution.