Editorial: Signs of hope in Pakistan and Egypt

For many years now Barnabas Fund has stood up for the persecuted church in the Islamic world. Sadly, during that time we have seen persecution increase, particularly due to an increasing geographical spread and intensity of shari’a enforcement. One of the reasons this has proved so hard to reverse is that while Islamic theology and shari’a encourage Muslims to criticise non-Muslims any criticism of Islam is prohibited. Even Muslims who are prepared to criticise aspects of Islam may find themselves accused of blasphemy, which in many Islamic countries carries a mandatory death sentence. They may even be declared apostates, which similarly carries a death penalty for any adult man. Quite how much of a one way street the Islamisation process is, once started, is clear when one understands that even criticising the Islamic blasphemy law itself is often viewed as blasphemy. While even if the police do not prosecute, frequently Islamist vigilantes take the matter into their own hands and carry out the execution. That is why in 2011 Salman Taseer, then governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province and a liberal Muslim who had spoken out against his country’s blasphemy laws, was gunned down by his own bodyguard.

Yet there are signs of hope:

In Pakistan last year there were a series of small, but not insignificant reverses to the Islamisation process that has been going on for several decades.

One of the central aspects of this has been the notorious blasphemy laws. As the most severe of these prohibits any criticism of Muhammad, it leaves Christians particularly vulnerable with Muslims seeking to ‘set them up’ by asking whether they believe Muhammad was a prophet – with the ‘wrong answer’ amounting to blasphemy. There have also been numerous cases of false accusations of blasphemy made against Christians, often by Muslim neighbours wishing to settle scores – and with shari’a giving at least twice as much weight to a Muslim’s testimony as a non-Muslim’s hundreds of Christians have been wrongly convicted.

However, in 2015 the federal government drafted a bill to reduce false accusations of blasphemy, while the provincial government in the Sindh similarly passed an amendment to its Mental Health Act that aimed to give a measure of protection for those suffering from mental illness. Even more significantly, while hearing an appeal by the killer of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that criticism of the blasphemy law did not itself amount to blasphemy. This was potentially a landmark decision, although there is still the possibility that this could be overruled by Pakistan’s Federal Shari’at Court, which is allowed to strike down any law or legal decision it deems incompatible with shari’a.

While in another development 2015 saw the Pakistan government announce that in future school history textbooks will include the role played by Christians and other minorities in the country’s formation. The move is potentially significant as Pakistan was created in 1947 as a home for Muslims, rather than as a specifically Islamic state, with the white and green blocks of the nation’s flag representing the non-Muslim minorities and Muslims respectively.

Meanwhile a similar shift in emphasis away from Islamic identity to focusing more on national identity has been evident in Egypt since President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013.

At the beginning of 2015 President al-Sisi spoke at a gathering of the leaders of Egypt’s al-Azhar University, the intellectual centre of Sunni Islam. He challenged them to take the lead in examining both the teachings and the source materials for interpreting Islam in order to bring about a “religious revolution” in the thinking that he described as “antagonizing the entire world”. Sisi spoke of “the need for a new vision and a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam — rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years.”

What President al-Sisi was highlighting is something that many western political leaders still fail to grasp, that the problem with concepts such as jihad and dhimmitude (inferior legal status of non-Muslims) is not simply due to modern Islamism, but is also rooted in the interpretations (ijtihad) of the Qur’an that were fixed in medieval times and are now known as Classical Islam.

Reopening the door of ijtihad does not in itself solve any of the problems faced by Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries. Islamists also bypass the interpretations of the Qur’an that were fixed in medieval times and directly interpret the Quran and hadith in a fairly literal manner to develop their own radical theology. However, President al-Sisi was arguing that Islam needs to be reinterpreted in a way that is tolerant of non-Muslims. In a similar televised speech to mark the birthday of Muhammad (Mawlid al-Nabi) which occurred on 23rd December President al-Sisi called for respect and tolerance for non Muslims saying:

“We talk a lot about the importance of reforming religious discourse…In our schools, institutes and universities, do we teach and practice respect for the other? We neither teach [respect for the other] or practice it…God did not create the world for the ‘ummah’ [Muslim community] to be alone, for one community, but for communities. [He didn’t create it] for one religion, but for religions,”

The President went on to say:

“Can I impose upon someone pressure, physically or morally, to change their religion? Would God accept this?…What are we afraid of? Are we custodians of people’s minds or choices? No we are not. In religion specifically, no. Each of us will be judged independently…and will have to answer [for their choices and what they choose to believe].”

The president even urged Islamic clerics to send Christmas greetings to Christians. President al-Sisi followed this up with himself joining Pope Tawadros and Coptic Egyptians during a Christmas service taking place at the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbasiya, Cairo. While there he emphasised the importance of unity among all Egyptians, including Christians, and in a move away from traditional shari’a emphasized that differences between people should not mean different treatment. Significantly, he also apologised for the delays in rebuilding churches that were destroyed by Islamists in 2013 saying:

“We have taken too long to fix and renovate [churches] that were burned…this year everything will be fixed…Please accept our apologies for what happened…God willing…by next year there won’t be a single church or house that is not restored.”

These words are enormously important as shari’a forbids building churches, which is why Islamist attacks on them are in reality attempts to “cleanse” Muslim majority areas of non-Muslims.

2015 also saw calls for reform of Egypt’s blasphemy laws by liberal Egyptian politicians including Anwar Esmat al-Sadat, the nephew of the late President Sadat.

However, the fate of the late President Sadat, whose assassination in 1981 by Egyptian jihadists ushered in the Mubarek regime is a reminder that any move towards religious freedom where Islamisation had taken root will always be strongly contested. In this respect, the three important groups in Egyptian society are the Egyptian government, the Islamic clerics (ulema) and broader public opinion. President al-Sisi is seeking to get all three on board.

However, at the same time, the country is facing a growing insurgency both from supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who the President ousted from power in 2013 and from radical jihadist groups such as the IS linked Sinai Province who are attempting to turn the Sinai peninsula between Egypt and Gaza into a jihadist state.

Let us remember leaders like President like President al-Sisi in our prayers. The Bible exhorts us “that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people, for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

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