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Islam and Other Religions >
What about Muslim religious intolerance?

Anyone who reads the newspapers or follows human rights reports is aware of problems with religious pluralism and tolerance in the Muslim world. Regrettably, a significant minority of Muslims, like very conservative and puritanical Christians and Jews who strongly affirm their faith, are not pluralistic in their attitudes toward other faiths. Religious minorities in the Muslim world today, who are constitutionally entitled to equality of citizenship and religious freedom, increasingly fear the erosion of those rights—and with good reason. Blasphemies against the Prophet and the desecration of the Quran have often been used to justify attacks against Christians. In addition, intra-Muslim communal intolerance and violence between Sunni and Shii extremist organizations and militias in Pakistan and Iraq have been all too common. Religious and communal tensions and conflicts, varying from discrimination to violent exchanges to destruction of villages, churches, and mosques to rape and slaughter, have flared up in Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

A key debate today about pluralism and tolerance involves the use of past Islamic doctrine to solve current problems. Some want to protect minorities by reinstating their status as dhimmi (meaning protected people). The dhimmi were non-Muslims living under Muslim rule who paid a special tax (jizya) and in return were permitted to practice their own religion, be led by their religious leaders, and be guided by their own religious laws and customs. This treatment was very advanced at the time. No such tolerance existed in Christendom, where Jews, Muslims, and Christians who did not accept the authority of the pope were persecuted, forced to convert, or expelled.

However progressive this policy was in the past, it would amount to second-class citizenship for non-Muslims today. Therefore others insist that non-Muslims must be given full citizenship rights because of the Quran's emphasis on the equality of all humanity. They cite the Quranic passage describing God's decision to create not just a single nation or tribe but a world of different nations, ethnicities, tribes, and languages: “O humankind, We have created you male and female and made you nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another” (49:13). The Quran's recognition of the human community's religious diversity and support of religious pluralism are found in Quranic texts 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).

Prominent Muslim scholars maintain that the Islamic law on apostasy, which prescribes the death penalty, was not based on the Quran but was a man-made effort in early Islam to prevent and punish the equivalent of desertion or treason at a time when the community faced enemies who threatened its unity, safety, and security. Thus apostasy was linked to rejecting not only one's faith but also one's political allegiance to the community. For example, the attempt of some Arab tribes to break their political alliance with Muhammad's followers after his death led the first caliph, Abu Bakr, to fight a series of wars characterized by later historians as “wars of apostasy.” These tribes were not denouncing their faith; rather, they were breaking political ties to Muhammad's community, and what are known as wars of apostasy were really political acts of desertion or treason. Similarly, the Kharijites condemned and revolted against the Caliph Ali not because he renounced Islam but because he agreed to negotiate with Muawiyyah, the Muslim rebel governor of Syria, which they saw as an act against God's will and the consensus of the community. Reformers argue that the early Islamic community-state, surrounded by enemies, came to regard dissent, desertion, or breaking a political alliance as apostasy because it was such a political threat.

Reformers like Indonesian scholar Nurcholish Madjid argue that times have changed, and so must the law. Citing Quran 3:85, “If anyone seeks a religion other than Islam: complete devotion to God, it will not be accepted from him; he will be one of the losers in the Hereafter,” Nurcholish argues that punishment for leaving the faith is not a matter for the state but God's decision on the Day of Judgment. Similarly, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, when asked, “Can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam?” responded, “The answer is yes, they can because the Quran says, ‘Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion’ [109:6], and, ‘Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve’ [18:29], and, ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ [2:256].”

It is important to remember that, historically, religious exclusivism has been common in all world religions, especially in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; each of these religions has had a tendency to act as if it alone has the one true faith. But as we face the future in which Muslims and Christians make up half the world's population, Islam and Muslims, like Christianity and Christians, are challenged to balance their sense of uniqueness with true respect for other faiths. In fact, Muslim popular opinion in America reflects movement in this direction. Responding to a question on Islam and religious pluralism in a 2008 Pew survey, while a minority (33 percent) of Muslims polled said, “My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life,” a majority (56 percent) believed “Many religions can lead to eternal life.”

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