In the days following Christmas the Christian church has traditionally remembered the visit of the wise men to Jesus. The word magi is in fact a Persian loan word indicating their origin in either what is now Iran or western Afghanistan. The whole story reminds us that Christianity far from being a western religion in fact came to birth in the Middle Eastern world and that there are millions of Christians in the Middle East and the Persian speaking world whose churches predate much of western Christianity. Matthew’s Gospel records that after the visit of the magi the Roman puppet king Herod ordered the massacre of all children under two years old in Bethlehem. The tyrant it seems, as many tyrants are, felt threatened by even the hint of a possible alternative to his brutal rule.
As the Christian church remembers the visit of the magi, now is also a good time to reflect on the suffering of Christians in the region where Christianity originally emerged. The Middle East is unfortunately full of tyrants prepared to imprison, torture and even massacre anyone they think just might threaten their power. Think Qadaffi, think the Assad regime in Syria, think the Mubarak regime in Egypt. Yet even before these regimes began to fall a shadow had begun to rise – the empowerment of Islamists who want to enforce sharia (Islamic law) on the entire population of their countries, including on non Muslims. In parallel with this, and in many cases not unrelated to it, has been a significant increase in acts of intimidation including kidnapping and terrorist acts targeted specifically at Christians and churches, who form the largest non Muslim minority in most Islamic countries. These acts have generally aimed at securing the implementation of sharia enforcement on Muslims and non Muslim alike and in some cases have also additionally aimed at what is now being termed ‘religious cleansing’ – the attempt to create a ‘pure’ Islamic state by the eradication of non Muslim minorities.
In saying this it should be obvious that we are talking about sharia in the sense of a legal code that is enforced, rather than in the secondary sense of a codification of Islamic principles of daily life that individual Muslims may choose to live by – as Islamist apologists have sometimes disingenuously tried to claim. If individual Muslims choose to live a certain way they should, within the limits of British values, be free to do so.However, the enforcement of sharia rules on those who do not chose to follow them, including Christian minorities in the Islamic world is another issue altogether.
Whilst there are four schools of Islamic law in Sunni Islam which predominate in different geographical regions and a separate Shi’a form of sharia, the variations between them are largely a matter of detail in relation to the issues that I will discuss below.
Let us just for a moment look at what has been happening in terms of moves towards the spread of sharia enforcement in the last year, including the gaining of power by Islamist parties aiming at the eventual enforcement of sharia:
The advance of sharia enforcement in 2011
In Tunisia where the ‘Arab Spring’ began the Islamist Party Ennhada, which aims to create an Islamic state governed by sharia was legalised in March. Ennhada subsequently gained 40% of the seats in the National Constituent Assembly, making it the largest overall party. The new sense of empowerment felt by Islamists was clearly evident when on 16th September a group entered a Christian church in the town of Kef and attempted to turn it into a mosque.
In Libya the head of the Transitional National Council, Abdel Jalilil stated on 22nd October that laws of the new constitution will be based on Islam i.e. sharia, and any laws opposed to sharia would be abolished. He also called for the banking system to be Islamicised i.e. become regulated by sharia.
In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood (al Ikhwan al Muslimun) and the radical Salafist Jama’a al-Islamiyya formed a political alliance to fight October’s parliamentary elections. Islamist parties are currently estimated to have gained 70% after the second round of elections – a proportion that is not expected to change significantly in the third round due to take place on the 3rd/4th January. They will therefore dominate the 498 seats of Lower House which is charged with setting up a 100 member committee to draft a new constitution. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’a al-Islamiyya have stated that sharia should be enforced in Egypt. However, the Muslim Botherhood’s spokesman Dr Kamal el-Helbawy went even further and in an apparent allusion to recreating the early Islamic caliphate called for the borders between Arab states to be dismantled.
The Muslim Brotherhood has long been known to have infiltrated the Egyptian army, which since the fall of Mubarak has essentially run the country. It is therefore particularly disturbing that hundreds of Christian protesters were brutally attacked by the army on Sunday 9th October while they were protesting about the earlier torching of St George’s church in Aswan on 30th September. In the Army’s response to this peaceful protest 25 Christians were killed and hundreds injured as armoured vehicles drove straight at protesters, while generals from the ruling supreme council of the armed forces subsequently blamed Egyptian Christians for the violence. This was by no means the first such attack this year on Egypt’s Christian minority of 10 million who make up around 13% of the population. Attacks on Egypt’s Christian minority have in fact significantly increased since the fall of Mubarak. For example, on 25th June 200 extremists burned 8 houses belonging to Christians in the upper Egypt village of Awlad Khalaf – after rumours spread that a house one resident was building would be used as a church – new church buildings being forbidden by sharia. While on 30th June thousands of extremists looted and torched Christian homes and businesses in Kolosna in Minya province. Despite calls for help, the army and military police took three hours to arrive and even then took no action when properties were attacked. The violence erupted after a Christian husband tried to defend his wife from sexual harassment at a bus terminal. There has also been a big increase in the number of Christian women and girls who have been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, with any subsequent renunciation of Islam treated as apostasy which is punishable by death under the Maliki school of sharia which is dominant in Egypt. This is a growing problem for Christian minorities in a number of Islamic countries, including for example, Pakistan. However, in Egypt it has significantly increased since the start of the Egyptian revolution this year.
In Syria there is very real fear among the Christian minority that the Assad regime will be replaced by a radical Islamist government. These fears have been fuelled by pressure put on them and threats made by Islamists to take part in the uprising. For example, Adnan al-Noor a leading Syrian sheikh issued a warning, which many Syrian Christians understood to be directed at them, that all opponents of the revolution will be “torn apart, chopped up and fed to the dogs”. Syria has a Christian population of around 2 million making up approximately 10% of the population, although that number has been significantly increased recently by an estimated 350,000 Iraqi Christian refugees who have fled what is now effectively religious cleansing in central and southern Iraq.
In Morocco an Islamist party won the largest share of vote in elections conceded by King Mohamed in an attempt to avert an Arab spring revolution similar to Tunisia and Egypt’s. However, although there will now be an Islamist prime minister the King of Morocco will still have the final say on government policy relating to defence and religion.
In Iraq where the rule of the secular Ba’ath party has been replaced by a fragmenting coalition of religious parties, the past year has seen ever increasing attacks on Iraqi Christians and churches particularly in the central region. The specific targeting of Christians appears to be designed as a form of ‘religious cleansing’ to eradicate non Muslims from Iraq and has resulted in approximately two thirds of Iraq’s 1.4 million Christian population fleeing as refugees to neighbouring countries such as Syria and Jordan. This religious cleansing is a rare case where some Islamist understandings of sharia differ significantly from those of the classical schools of sharia. The latter base their understanding of sharia on medieval interpretations of the Qur’an which grant Christians dhimmi status (i.e. second class citizens who must pay the jizya tax), while Islamists base their understanding of sharia on their own interpretations of the Qur’an.
In Sudan the Sudanese civil war was essentially about the predominantly Arab and Islamic North trying to impose sharia on the mainly Christian and Animist South. On 9th July, in a rare sign of hope in the struggle against the imposition of sharia, South Sudan became independent as the world’s newest country. However, its long term security will always be an issue as sharia dictates that once an area has at any point in history once been subjected to Islamic law and government it becomes an act of ‘defensive’ jihad to fight to reimpose Islamic government and the enforcement of sharia.
Meanwhile in North Sudan on 12th October President Bashir announced government plans to adopt a completely Islamic constitution with sharia as the main source of national law. Already, some Christian pastors in the North have been warned not to hold services on pain of death. While women, including Christian mothers with young babies have been put in prison for not following sharia requirements such as being fully veiled and having a male escort when in public, a situation horribly reminiscent of Afghanistan under the Taliban when many widows with no male family left alive were arrested and imprisoned as they begged for food on streets.
There has also been an increasing issue of religious cleansing taking place in North Sudan with President Bashir having announced prior to the separation that he intends North Sudan to be 100% Muslim (it is currently 98% Muslim). There are reports of daily air strikes, arbitrary arrests and executions aimed at non Muslims living in the border region of North Sudan, with Christian leaders being particularly singled out and tortured.
In Iran the enforcement of sharia has continued to become even stricter. In 2011 supreme court upheld the death penalty imposed on Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani because he had converted to Christianity from Islam. Although in recent years there have been a number of informal executions of converts from Islam, some of which appear to have been orchestrated by the government, apostasy from Islam is not against Iran’s penal code. However, the supreme court’s decision reflects the fact that judges are allowed to draw on fatwas (legal opinions of sharia judges) and Islamic sources where national law is silent and have done so in this case to formalise the death penalty for apostasy from Islam (i.e. leaving Islam for another faith).
In Pakistan 2011 saw the assassination of two liberal politicians who had voiced support for reform of the Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws under which, amongst others, Christian wife and mother of 5 Aasia Bibi who has been sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Muhammud. The assassinations of Salman Taseer, a liberal Muslim who was governor of Punjab Province and Shabaz Bhatti a Pakistani Christian who was minister for religious minorities were welcomed by leading Islamic scholars in Pakistan who viewed them as having committed the sharia offence of blasphemy and therefore deserving of the death penalty because they had advocated the abolition of part of sharia I.e. the blasphemy law.
In the Maldives a revision of the constitution in 2008 just before the dictator Abdul Gayoom departed had already left non Muslim Maldivians in a potentially stateless limbo by restricting the acquisition of citizenship to Muslims. However, Islamists have seen the new democratic process as a road to even stricter enforcement of sharia. In 2009, not long after the first democratic elections in 30 years, the Maldivian parliament almost unanimously passed a bill making the construction of non Muslim buildings illegal and criminalising the public practice of non Muslim worship, something that would put it in the same league of repressive sharia enforcement as Saudi Arabia. Throughout 2011 those concerned for human rights in the Maldives have been waiting to see if this bill will be formally passed into law by the President. It has been reported that the President, Mohamed Nasheed was elected to office in 2008 in the newly democratic country with help from the UK Conservative Party. That is an influence that one may hope foreign office ministers have been seeking to capitalise on to prevent the further encroachment of human rights that this bill represents.
In Uganda which is 85% Christian and only 12% Muslim a similar attempt is being made to introduce sharia. A Muslim Personal Law bill would empower Islamic sharia courts to act on matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance. This is not a benign cultural accommodation. It is precisely in these areas of family law that both women and non Muslims in a family with a Muslim father are significantly discriminated against by sharia. For example, in divorce a mother is automatically denied child custody of any child over 7 years old and of any younger child when they reach 7 years old. Sharia inheritance rules also discriminate against women, with daughters only being allowed to inherit half the share of an estate that sons do. The situation in Uganda is particularly pertinent for the UK as in 2006 an Islamic group regarded as ‘moderate’ by the then government made a similar request for the family law aspects of sharia to become part of UK law.
In Nigeria Christmas day 2011 saw a series of attacks by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram including two targeting churches where at least 30 people were killed. These attacks were directly linked to the enforcement of sharia in Nigeria. Sharia enforcement has been steadily implemented since 2000 by state governments in Nigeria’s 12 northern states in defiance of the country’s secular federal constitution. It is estimated that 63% of the population of these states are Muslims, with the remainder being Christians and adherents of African Traditional Religions. The effective appeasement of these unconstitutional acts by a lack of effective action from the federal government has empowered radical Islamists such as the terrorist group Boko Haram whose declared aim is to make Nigeria a fully Islamic state with sharia enforced across all states . Boko Haram is seeking to extend sharia to the 7 states of Nigeria’s middle belt (roughly 55% Christian, 30% Muslim and 15% African traditional religions). Once that has been achieved a majority of states then will have implemented sharia enforcement. Islamists have indicated that they then plan to challenge Nigeria’s secular status and declare a fully Islamic state and with sharia also enforced in the 17 southern states (75% Christian, 20% African Traditional Religions and only 5% Muslim). These attacks by Boko Haram have been increasing over the last two years, but increased very significantly after the election of Christian president in April 2011 (sharia dictates that only Muslims are allowed to be head of state and only Muslims may be part of the government). The Christmas day attacks on churches were not the first this year. For example, two churches were bombed in Sileja in Niger state in the North Nigeria on 10th and 11th July with 3 Christians being killed. The targeting of churches is significant as sharia also dictates that new church buildings cannot be built.
In this highly combustible situation this year the Muslim governor of the Central bank of Nigeria published plans for the introduction of sharia banking. Sharia finance is a very recent newcomer on the financial scene even being avoided by the majority of banks in Saudi Arabia as recently as 2005. Other Islamic countries such as Oman still resist legalising it as they recognise it as part of the Islamist agenda to subject increasing areas of society to the Islamic clerics who act as sharia judges. The latter is unfortunately a lesson Gordon Brown as Chancellor and Prime Minister failed to heed when he naively legalised sharia finance in the UK.
In Senegal in June 2011 eight churches were looted and burnt to the ground in the capital Dhaka as extremists issued a ‘declaration of war’ against “new churches” being built in the city, sharia as we noted forbids the building of church buildings.
In Indonesia in September a suicide bomber blew himself up as a congregation were leaving a church service in Solo, Central Java. Islamists have been waging a violent campaign in Indonesia to eradicate Christianity from Indonesia and enforce sharia on the entire country.
These brief examples do not include many countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen where sharia is already enforced. These are simply a snapshot of some of the countries where the Islamist agenda of sharia enforcement has advanced in the last 12 months. The list is by no means comprehensive – in the past year Islamists have also for example launched violent attacks on churches and Christians in Ethiopia (69 churches and a Bible college burnt down, 3 Christians killed and an estimated 10,000 made homeless); In Somalia where a Christian was beheaded by the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab- beheading being a sharia punishment favoured by Islamists, similarly a Christian was also beheaded in Afghanistan by Islamist terrorists; In Kenya Islamists are targeting Christians in the predominantly Muslim North, with al-Shabab launching a grenade attack on a church, one could go on…
The ideology of sharia
What is happening is not a random unconnected series of events. They have historical precedent in the medieval interpretations of Islam that are termed classical Islam, which envisions the enforcement of Islamic government and sharia, if necessary by means of force, on Muslim and non Muslim alike. However, it is now being primarily driven forward by Islamist ideology. For the last thousand or more years churches in the Middle East have been subject to dhimmi status, a type of second class citizenship accorded Christians and Jews who are termed ‘people of the book’ (Ahl-i-Kitab) in the Qur’an. They have lesser legal rights than Muslims, they are excluded from holding political and judicial office though they may be civil servants, and are required to pay an additional form of taxation for non Muslims termed jizya. They are forbidden from building new churches and any adult male Muslim who embraces another faith faces the death penalty. The most serious offence in sharia is to denigrate the prophet Muhammad – which could of course include denying that one believes he is a prophet – this carries a compulsory death penalty. The testimony in court of a Muslim is given twice the weight of a non Muslim, similarly a woman’s testimony is only equal to half that of a man’s. These lead to appalling instances of injustice where sharia is enforced. For example, accusations of blasphemy are used to settle scores against both Muslims and Christians in countries such as Pakistan, although Christians are particularly vulnerable as the testimony of any Muslim accusing them is given greater weight than their word simply because they are non Muslims. Women who are victims of rape are particularly vulnerable as sharia requires them to produce 4 witnesses and if they cannot do so they risk being imprisoned for making a ‘false accusation’ – even if they are pregnant.
The idea that Muslims should govern non Muslims, which is central to both sharia and its concept of dhimmitude is something that is taught in Classical Islam – the interpretations of the Qur’an taught in madrassas that were fixed in medieval times. That is why, for example, dhimmitude – including the jizya tax was part and parcel of the life of Christians in Turkey in the nineteenth century Ottoman empire.
This is certainly not the view of many ordinary Muslims, particularly in Britain. Whilst some do have rather romantic notions about sharia, relatively few appear to have any real understanding of what it actually involves in practice and would probably be shocked to read some of the details in this article. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the enforcement of sharia and Islamic government around the world is the primary aim of all forms of Islamism. I write the above having personally witnessed what it means to live under a radical Islamist government where sharia is enforced on the entire population.
In February 2011 just as the Arab Spring was getting going I observed that the trend over the last 30 years in Islamic countries was for greater Islamisation, rather than for greater liberalisation. Regrettably that now appears to be the case with the Arab Spring as well. The recommendations I made then for British foreign policy in the Islamic world I believe are now more important than ever:
- 1. Prioritises long term aims over short term gains such as developing trade deals with North Sudan.
- 2. Focused on developing a functioning civil society so as to allow alternatives to Islamism to develop. This is a point that must be forcibly made to western leaning autocratic governments that are rightly afraid of growing Islamist movements in their own countries.
- 3. Focused on the promotion of basic human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion etc.
- 4. Prioritises the promotion of these basic human rights over the promotion of ‘democracy’, which many Islamists see simply as a route to achieve their own ends.
- 5. Recognises that the medium term trend in most Islamic countries is towards greater Islamisation, rather than towards greater liberalisation. As such it must be realistic about the strategies being adopted by Islamist groups.
Crucial to achieving these will be combatting the spread of sharia enforcement across the world. It is in Britain’s national interest that this becomes a central feature of British foreign policy:
The enforcement of sharia and Islamic government around the world is the central aim of Islamists – including violent Islamists. As I have demonstrated before, the aims of Islamists who use the ballot box differ only in their method, not their long term aims from those of violent Islamists, as can be seen where Islamists in countries affected by the Arab Spring have used democracy as a route to power. Although how long those countries remain democratic once Islamists gain power remains to be seen.
Once sharia is enforced lobbying by western governments is largely ineffective as it becomes almost impossible to dislodge it, as can be seen from this year’s assassination of two liberal Pakistani politicians who called for reform of the country’s blasphemy laws.
Equally, where sharia is enforced it does not assuage the demands of Islamists as some on the liberal-left seem to assume. Rather, it gives them bridgehead from which to seek to expand sharia enforcement further afield, as can be seen from what is happening in Nigeria.
Further, once Islamists control an area, it is much easier for Islamist terrorist groups to train others for attacks on the West from there, as can be seen in the safe havens provided to al Qaeda by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamists in Sudan.
Or, take again the example of Nigeria, if sharia enforcement continues to spread, how long will it be before Boko Haram is training Nigerian extremists and sending them to Britain to engage in global jihad against us?
Some practical steps that could be taken
1. Make stopping the spread of sharia a key aim of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The FCO's aims currently include:
pursuing an active and activist foreign policy, working with other countries and strengthening the rules-based international system in support of British values to:
•safeguard Britain's national security by countering terrorism and weapons proliferation, and working to reduce conflict;
To that list needs to be added “and working to stop the spread of sharia enforcement around the world.”
2. Annually report on the spread of sharia enforcement across the world and steps being taken by the FCO to prevent further spread.
3. Ensure that the UK asylum system takes full account of the persecution that minority groups face in countries where sharia is enforced so that victims of sharia receive a fair hearing of their case.
4. Sponsoring a UN resolution aimed at stopping the spread of sharia enforcement. Of course it would be opposed, but it would also push the issue up the international agenda and send a signal to countries toying with it that western democracies regard it as an unacceptable system that abuses human rights.
In writing this I am very aware that simply raising the issue of sharia will stir up considerable controversy. However, that is a controversy that needs to be aired, the enforcement of sharia is a central aim of Islamists – whether violent or non violent their aims are the same. It is therefore a nettle that needs to be grasped in terms British foreign policy if we are to be both safe as a country and promote our values abroad.