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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Marrakesh Declaration: Steps Towards A Solution Or Confusion?

Marrakesh Declaration: Steps Towards A Solution Or Confusion? HT: MEMRI.

On January 25-27, 2016, several hundred Muslim religious leaders from throughout the world and fifty non-Muslim observers met in the beautiful city of Marrakesh under the patronage of the King of Morocco to discuss and promote the "Marrakesh Declaration" on "the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Countries."

Although held under the auspices of the Moroccans, the January 2016 meeting was organized through the Abu Dhabi-based Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. The Forum is one of several projects led by Mauritanian-born Sheikh 'Abdallah Bin Bayyah.[2] The Forum's laudable purpose is "a long term vision in eradicating the extremist narrative through the use of a Primary Narrative that seeks to establish itself through via the sources of Islam, one that is based on the promotion of peace, and human compassion."[3]

Although very much part of the mainstream Islamic establishment in the Middle East, Bin Bayyah is a somewhat controversial figure in the United States, especially because of his long-standing ties with organizations and Islamist causes championed by Sheikh Yousuf al-Qaradhawi.[4] Al-Qaradhawi's strident support for the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in the past few years, included openly espoused anti-Semitism,[5] a charge the Qatar-supported cleric denied.[6]

Bin Bayyah broke with Al-Qaradhawi's International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) in 2013 and was cited by President Obama during a 2014 UN speech as a role model against extremism.[7] His fatwa against ISIS was also cited as material to be propagated by a U.S.-UAE counter-terrorism media center established in July 2015.[8]

The elderly cleric also played a key role in the 2010 New Mardin Declaration which sought to address one of the basic pillars of the takfiri Salafi Jihadist movement, some 14th century fatwas of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). A fierce Hanbali cleric, Ibn Taymiyya's condemnation of the semi-Islamized Mongol Il-Khans as no better than infidels (Kufar) set the stage for the much later takfiri extremists of the 20th century and beyond to declare any Muslim they disagreed with as infidels deserving death. Ibn Taymiyya was also an early intellectual fount of anti-Shi'a vitriol which was also adopted by the modern devotees of what would become ISIS.[9]

The New Mardin Declaration conference has been criticized as poorly organized and academically dubious but there is no doubt that its revisionism towards Ibn Taymiyya's writings provoked a bitter response in Arabic by influential pro-Al-Qaeda clerics such as Akram Hijazi and Hamid Al-Ali.[10] While it seems to have had very little effect in the continued rise of Salafi Jihadist terror, the conference did generate a slew of positive media coverage in the West, often promoted by Bin Bayyah's mediagenic student, the American convert Hamza Yusuf Hanson.[11]

In many ways, Marrakesh is a larger and broader repeat of Mardin, seeking "to use age-old Muslim texts to refute current-day religious arguments by Islamist groups."[12] 
In the case of Marrakesh 2016, the document in question is the so-called Charter of Medina, supposedly drafted by the Prophet Muhammad for the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants of that city.[13] The conference's organizers frankly admitted that they aim to "begin the historic revival of the objectives and aims of the Charter of Medina, taking into account global and international treaties and utilizing enlightening, innovative case studies that are good examples of working towards pluralism."[14]  

Certainly, the topic of protecting the rights of religious minorities in Muslim majority countries could not come at a better time. The rise of the Islamic State since 2014, and especially its treatment of Yazidi and Christian minorities in Iraq and Syria, and by the ISIS branch in Libya, has shined a bright global light on the issue.[15] Such actions by the Islamic State have directly contributed to anger directed against the Muslim diaspora in the West. 

The actual Marrakesh 2016 Declaration text, appearing in English on January 27 (as of January 30 there seemed to be no Arabic version and videos of the plenary were not available to the general public) was quickly lauded by Texas mega-church pastor Bob Roberts who called it a "huge first step," and enthusiastically, if inaccurately, noted that "there has not been a statement like this since the Medina Charter from the prophet Mohammed, that's why this is so big."[23] Retired Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, former Archbishop of Washington, D.C. spoke for all the interfaith observers present:
"I was privileged to have listened to the declaration of our final gathering. It is truly a great document, one that will influence our times and our history. It is a document that our world has been waiting for and a tribute to the Muslim scholars who prepared it. As one of the People of the Book, I thank you for this document and I thank the Lord God who has provided his followers the courage to prepare this document. I will be honored as an observer to support it."[24]  

Those closer to the action in the Middle East were more sanguine. Although he was not able to attend in person, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Baghdad Louis Sako, provided a more practical, immediate and ground zero-based view of life in government-controlled parts of Iraq, in a statement circulated at the conference, citing (without including the better known depredations of ISIS):
"Muslim contractors refusing to build homes, monasteries, etc., for Christians, whom they identify as infidels; the display of posters, even in public offices, asking Christian girls to wear a veil, following the example of Mary; a judge in Baghdad who dismissed a Christian from court, claiming that Christians are not accepted as witnesses in Iraqi courts; and militias in Baghdad who confiscated homes, lands and other properties of Christians."[25]
Other observers noted the hopeful presence of Syrian and Iraqi Christians, a Yazidi and a Druze, but also the "difficult to support" hardcore assertions by Saudi and Pakistani representatives denying any religious discrimination in their countries.[26] Also attending was prominent Orthodox Rabbi David Rosen, board member of the King Abdullah International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID).[27]

Still another Catholic expert on the Middle East, Fr. Jean Druel, while praising the effort to reinterpret the Medina Charter within a contemporary context and noting that this attempt would not please the Salafists, wondered "what happens when you violate this charter?"[28]

And that is one key flaw of this Declaration. How does a document better known for its existence on paper rather than as a practical model serve as a modern counterweight to extremism? 
The Salafi Jihadists also make the same appeal to the foundational documents of formative Islam and find ample justifications for their extremism and violence there ready to be cherry-picked and applied to the contemporary world.
ISIS self-consciously treats minorities in ways that mimic early Islam, drawing from the much more historically consequential "Pact of Umar" made with conquered Christian populations.[29] Some scholars have even doubted the authenticity of the Medina Charter, suggested it may be a compilation of two documents and questioned especially the portions mentioning the treatment of the Jews of Medina, the very part of the Charter that gives it that timely inter-religious dimension. They note that the Jews of Medina were not treated as individual tribes but as bound associates of Arab tribes. In fact, the three Jewish tribes are not even mentioned by name.[30]

Given that the Medina Charter is dated traditionally from 622 A.D., it would be worthwhile noting how religious minorities were actually treated in the supposed time of its viability under Muhammad's rule. The historic record, such as it is, is not a heartening one. 
The fate of the Jewish tribes of Medina is a well told tale still found in many Arab textbooks. The Banu Nadir and Banu Qaynuqa were expelled en masse for violating the terms of their "contract" two years after the Medina Charter. Not surprisingly, one of the elements of the Charter and of the treatment of the Banu Qaynuqa and Banu Nadir is the concept of collective responsibility/punishment documented frequently in ordinary Islamist discourse to this day.[31]
The liquidation of the third Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza, is another well-known story, even included in fifth grade ISIS textbooks.[32] This tribe was accused of rebellion after the Battle of the Trench (627 A.D. - five years after the Medina Charter) and was allowed to choose a mediator from an Arab Muslim tribe traditionally allied with the Banu Qurayza. That mediator, Saad Ibn Muadh, a man much beloved by the Prophet Muhammad, decreed that all the men of this Jewish tribe were to be beheaded and the women and children sold into slavery.

The extermination of this tribe was actually cited by ISIS as a model for the mass murder of a rebellious Syrian Sunni Arab Muslim tribe in 2014.[33] And showing how compelling is the memory of those events, Saad Ibn Muadh's ruling on the Banu Qurayza 14 centuries ago was cited as recently as a few months ago in Gaza as a model for finishing with the Jews during the "Stabbing Intifada."[34] American Salafi preacher Yasir Qadhi also used Ibn Muadh's death sentence in 2013 as a positive teaching moment on principled leadership.[35]

It is easy to find similar ugliness in the past of many faith traditions and we are talking here not so much about the historical record but of widely held perceptions about history. But can a narrative base itself on the alleged tolerant nature of the Medina Charter while divorcing itself from the alleged punitive treatment of the Jews of Medina? Can resurrected visions of "traditional conviviality" be so promoted given the way that Jihadists use both Islamic proof texts and selective readings of historical events to justify their violence?

Given the growth of Islamist-fueled intolerance in many Muslim majority countries, any call for tolerance and better treatment of religious minorities is to be unambiguously welcomed. Despite the lack of the words "equality" and "individual" rights in the Marrakesh 2016 Declaration, it is a step in the right direction. It is hard to believe, however, absent any acceptance by many Muslim states (including some, like some unnamed representatives from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, already on record at the conference that they don't discriminate) that these fine words will have much immediate effect.

While reforming the educational curriculum and reformulation of fiqh are laudable goals, they pale into insignificance with the present emergency that is a battered and dispossessed Yazidi community, a Mosul Christian community robbed of all they possessed at gunpoint and ancient communities region-wide emptying from a Middle East where they see no future, no economic stability or personal security.[36] After the textbooks are eventually purged and the jurisprudence is spruced up, what will remain of actual, living communities?

Furthermore, how do such conferences and declarations, replete with compromised figures drawn from often discredited regime elites, move the needle in the discourse of the common people, especially the already alienated young? The statements of established Islamic clergy and governments over the past decades have already failed to prevent the rise of Al-Qaeda and ISIS and a seemingly inexorable move towards various types of Islamism. Isn't the obvious solution the promotion of civil codes and secular states?[37]

While using the Medina Charter as a tool to fight the Islamists on their own territory is an interesting, even bold, concept, it would seem to fall short. In the end, drawing from an idealized version of Islamic history is no substitute for individual rights and the enforcing of a rule of law that fully protects those rights. If a 1400-year-old "constitution" that never seems to have actually been used helps to secure those modern rights and that rule of law, then that is great.
If not, the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration will join many other well-intentioned but empty expressions of good will that generated some nice, fleeting headlines among the enthusiastic and uninformed but little more. One can only wish the organizers and those frontline states supporting them the very best and encourage that gestures can be rapidly transformed into public policy in a region that seems emptying of rights for all of its people, but especially its minorities. Hmmm........Exactly what is needed before taking over Europe.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of MEMRI.

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