Do Muslims really want Sharia & support freedom

May 14, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

Muslim mob attack on Joseph ColonyAn extensive survey of Muslims conducted in 39 countries throughout the world has revealed a broad desire for the implementation of sharia law. Those questioned also expressed an extremely high level of support for the freedom of non-Muslims to practise their faith. This is granted by sharia to Christians and Jews, but only on condition that they submit to demeaning and discriminatory dhimmi regulations.

In this article, Barnabas Fund’s International Director Dr Patrick Sookhdeo explores how we are to interpret these findings.

The study, The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, by the US-based Pew Forum interviewed 38,000 Muslims on matters relating to the application of sharia, democracy and morality.

SUPPORT FOR SHARIA?

In countries across South Asia, South-east Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East-North Africa region, most Muslims favour making sharia their country’s official legal code.Afghanistan, where sharia is already effectively the law of the land, had the highest level of support at 99%, while several countries, including Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq and Niger, had over 80%.

There was less consensus over which aspects of sharia should be applied. There was strong support for its role in family matters, with generally lower but considerable percentages backing severe sharia penalties such as cutting off the hands of thieves.

Among those who say sharia should be the law of the land there was a high level of support in some places for the stoning to death of adulterers, chiefly in Pakistan (89%), Afghanistan (85%), the Palestinian territories (84%) and Egypt (81%).

I was particularly concerned by the strong backing in parts of South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa for the death penalty for those who leave Islam. Egypt had the highest percentage, at 86, among Muslims who had said that sharia should be the law of the land.

Barnabas Fund has been campaigning for many years against the Islamic apostasy law, which prescribes the death penalty for any adult male Muslim who leaves Islam, and in some schools of sharia for women apostates also. Converts from Islam to Christianity in certain countries are consequently extremely vulnerable.

In Iran, for example, although there is no official law against apostasy, the constitution allows judges to draw on Islamic law and fatwas for their rulings for matters not covered by the law of the land, so a number of converts to Christianity have been charged with this offence. The last time a Christian was officially sentenced and executed for apostasy was in 1990, but several Christian converts from Islam who had been charged with this “crime” have been murdered after their release.

I would have been very interested to see an analysis of responses by gender. Sharia law discriminates strongly against women, but gives men a number of major advantages. It would have been interesting to know whether Muslim men and women supported it in equal numbers. I would also like to know how privately the questions were asked. In many contexts, to speak against sharia is to invite violent reprisal from Islamists. It is possible that the people surveyed responded according to how they felt they should answer as devout Muslims.

For me, a significant flaw in this study is that it did not ask Muslims from a number of key countries where sharia is actually enforced, such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia and Iran, how they feel about living under it. Many Iranian Muslims are turning to Christ, a process which often begins with them rejecting Islam because they have experienced the oppression of Islamic sharia since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in their country.

SHARIA FOR ALL?

Although there was widespread support for sharia, most Muslims questioned said that they do not believe that it should be applied to non-Muslims. However, there is an ambiguity in this question, and the Pew Forum survey does not however make it clear as to what exactly this means. The Muslim respondents may have taken it to be asking whether all aspects of sharia are to apply to everyone, for example, wearing the hijab, or they may have understood it to refer to the sharia-prescribed dhimmi status of non-Muslims. Under this, Christians and Jews are required to pay the jizya, a humiliating tax, and follow a set of other demeaning and discriminatory regulations; in return they are permitted freedom of worship.

In five countries – Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Egypt and Jordan – at least half of those who believe that sharia should be the law of the land said that all citizens should be subject to it. The highest percentage, at 74%, was in Egypt, where there is a significant Christian minority that comprises around ten per cent of the population.

Since the revolution, Egypt has been moving towards becoming an Islamic state. In March, areligious police force that is working to uphold Muslim morals was announced, raising fears about rights and freedoms, especially for women and religious minorities. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice shares its name with the much-feared religious police (“mutawaah”) in Saudi Arabia, who ruthlessly enforce the regime’s strict and puritanical interpretation of Islam.

Muslims in parts of Indonesia have also been pushing for sharia. Aceh is the only province where it is officially permitted, though many other local authorities in Muslim-majority areas also attempt to implement sharia-inspired regulations and by-laws, some of which discriminate against Christians. Islamist pressure has resulted in the closure of numerous churches. Last year, at least 45 places of Christian worship were shut in Aceh.

FREEDOM FOR ALL?

This leads us to consider the responses to questions relating to religious freedom. There was widespread support for the freedom of non-Muslims to practise their religion.

Again, there needed to be greater clarity in this question as to what this concept means to a Muslim. “Religious freedom” as we would understand it does not exist within Islam, under which Christians and Jews may practise their faith within certain limits. Other religions are (at least in theory) proscribed altogether, and the only people free to choose or change their religion are non-Muslims wishing to convert to Islam. We must also remember that term “freedom” in Western usage carries a nuance of “equality”, which is certainly not there in Islamic usage.

Most Muslims expressed the view that non-Muslims in their country were “very free to practice their religion”. In 33 of the 38 countries where people were asked this question, at least half said that this was the case. But they would probably understand this as “free” only within the limits imposed on them under Islam. This would exclude the freedom of non-Muslims to share their faith with Muslims and also exclude the freedom of anyone from a Muslim background to follow a non-Muslim religion.  True, many of the countries surveyed do not have laws against these things, but the traditional sharia teachings are often enforced unofficially by the extremists within the Muslim community.

Another significant flaw in this survey is that it did not ask Christians and other non-Muslims who live in these countries whether they feel that they are “very free to practice their religion”. I am sure that we would have seen a very different set of responses from them.

In Iraq, 91% of Muslims agreed with the statement that “it is good that others are very free to practice their faith”. But hundreds of thousands of Christians have been forced to flee the country as a direct result of targeted Islamist violence against them. In Indonesia, the figure was 93%, but churches there often face intimidation and harassment from Islamists, and many have been forced to close as a result. In Nigeria, 97% of Muslims agreed with the statement, but churches in Muslim parts of the country are frequently bombed and Christians murdered.

Among the countries where at least half of respondents said that non-Muslims were “very free to practice their religion” were: Azerbaijan, where church services are monitored and raided, Christian literature is confiscated, and members are harassed and imprisoned; Morocco, where all citizens are considered to be Muslims even though there is a small indigenous Church and where sharing one’s Christian faith with Muslims is punishable by a fine or imprisonment; and Turkey, where Christians face restrictions on their rights to own property, conduct worship services, and open schools, hospitals and other institutions.

CONCLUSION

This survey has produced some interesting findings, but a number of the questions indicate a failure to understand the Muslim mind. The use of “Western” terminology, which would be defined very differently under Islam, has led to some misleading results. For although Muslims expressed support for the freedom of non-Muslims to practise their faith, this is not freedom as we conceive it. True religious freedom includes more than freedom to worship in peace and without having to submit to demeaning regulations; it includes also the right to share one’s faith with those of another religion and the right to convert, as underlined by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Christians living in Islamic contexts do not typically enjoy these rights.

– patrick sookhdeo

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