Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Call to Defend Women and Minorities in the Middle East

By Lafif Lakhdar (*)

This is a solemn call to the international civil society and international media, whose influence nowadays on the ruling elites could never be overemphasized. It is also a call to the Islamic world in need of openness to the modern values of Human Rights and modernity, which are indivisible, indeed, particularly as regards to the protection of woman and of national, ethnic, confessional, linguistic, and religious minorities.

Unfortunately, the latter groups are still subject to the fourteen-century old theology of "Dhimmitude" (the status of "the People of the Book" under Islamic Law), despite the abolition of the "Jezya" (Poll Tax) in Egypt in 1855.

As regards to the violations of Human Rights, I would just give two examples. The first relates to the interdiction made to a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim or even a Muslim of another confession. Last year, a Saudi judge ordered a Sunni woman to divorce her husband who happened to be Ismaelite (a Shiaa minority), as reported in Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper (of 27/04/2006). Moreover, Sharia (Islamic Law) treats a non-Muslim wife to a Muslim man in an atrocious manner: She will have no rights of custody over her young children, in case of divorce; nor to inherit her husband.

Firstly, this is a call to respect religious freedom of minorities in the land of Islam to conduct cults, including their freedom to construct sites of worship, and to respect the rights of all citizens to change religion, or not to have one at all.

The European Commission recently has requested from the Islamist government in Turkey to respect such a basic Human Right. And it had previously requested from the same government to abolish the death sentence and the punishment for adultery. This is a clear proof, indeed, of the potential success of foreign pressure to defend universally recognised Human Rights.

Secondly, this is a call for equal treatment of all religious minorities, including the protection of non-Muslims' rights to preach in Islamic countries, the same way Muslims are free to preach in the West, and it is a call to abolish laws dating back to the Middle Ages that call for punishing Christians found "guilty" of preaching outside their churches with decapitation.

Recently, the Algerian government promulgated a law condemning Christians indicted for trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. This looks like replacing the above-mentioned decapitation sentence by a prison term. Indeed what a progress!

One should notice, however, that for civil, religious, national and cultural rights of all minorities in the Middle East to be respected, there is a need to end political exclusion and marginalization to which these minorities are currently subjected, and for their full integration in the political life of their countries. A failure to urgently address these issues would only undermine stability in the region and ignite further hatred and conflict.

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(*) Tunisian writer living in France. This article is an adaptation of a speech in French presented at a conference on ‘Copts: A Combat for Human Rights’ held in Paris in May 2006.

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