Royal Patron HRH The Countess of Wessex GCVO

By Nigel Macdonald, Chair of the Awareness Foundation Trustees

Within the Islamic faith, the idea that the state should be bound by religious law and so headed by someone commanding the widest possible respect as a religious leader is widely accepted. The prophet Muhammad and founder of Islam encouraged that view very strongly.

When Kemal Ataturk, determined that the new state of Turkey should be secular despite the overwhelmingly Muslim population, when it emerged with independence from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, he was thus taking a position that was highly controversial.

The standing of non-Muslims in a predominantly Muslim country is a challenging issue, and there have been several different ‘models’ followed over many generations. All seek to conform fully with, and not contradict, the basic tenets of faith laid down by the prophet Muhammad.

Whilst traditions of hospitality and honour have led Muslims to show generosity and kindness to visitors of a different faith over many centuries, non-Muslims citizens of a predominantly Muslim country who do not share the majority faith have often found themselves treated as second-class citizens. Such differences of treatment can give rise to serious social consequences for those affected. What is more they can create considerable tension between individual faiths and the state. Such tension may be unproductive and have a lasting purpose if the equality of treatment and social freedoms which we consider so important are undermined by substantial differences in the way citizens from any particular background live out their lives.

A recent study, published by a number of leading Muslim theologians, demonstrates that the prophet Muhammad himself considered that the standing of non-Muslims required them to be recognised as equal citizens in their own right. That finding may surprise many Muslims who have long assumed that this was not the case; it is a discovery that certainly opens the way to a new understanding of the roles of citizens of different faith within a predominantly religious state. It is a position that Muslims who live in a secular state may well find very significant too. Thus these are expected to be matters of wide interest within the Muslim community throughout the world.

The body of eminent Muslim theologians who reached these conclusions, supported by Christian theologians, published their findings and suggested way forward in March 2107 as the “Al-Azhar Declaration on Citizenship and Coexistence Issued by His Eminence the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar ” The Al-Azhar University, is traditionally considered the chief centre of Arabic literature and Islamic learning in the world, so this declaration has considerable authority.

Although the Al-Azhar Declaration does not seek to make any specific statement with regard to the standing of uniquely Christian minorities it has powerful and strongly critical things to say about the rise in the wave of extremism, violence, and terrorism, over the past decade, in the name of religion. It also strongly condemns pressure, intimidation, forced displacement, and kidnapping, and the resulting serious repercussions on the followers of other religions within society and emphasises that all divine religions have nothing to do with terrorism in any form.

Christians should welcome this enlightened declaration, noting the theological eminence of those who are associated with it, and rejoice in the shared wish to make absolutely clear to all that true Islam is a religion of peace, and not one that supports extremism, violence, and terrorism, anywhere.