Back in the late 1960s, the rock band Crosby, Stills and Nash released a catchy tune titled “Marrakesh Express,” referring to the renowned Moroccan city. Today, moderate Muslims are preparing to unleash a new Marrakesh Express, hoping it will do far more than sell records and get people tapping their toes.
From Jan. 25-27, some 300 Islamic scholars and jurists, muftis, and government ministers of religion from Muslim states will gather in Marrakesh, representing nations such as Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, in addition to the host country of Morocco.
The aim is to issue a declaration insisting that the protection of religious minorities, including Christians, is deeply rooted in traditional Islamic law, and thus that ISIS and like-minded forces are an aberration. Organizers claim that Marrakesh will be the first summit of its kind on Islamic law and religious minorities in the 1,400-year history of Islam.
The gathering intends to make the case that the celebrated “Charter of Medina,” issued by the Prophet Muhammad in 622 AD and believed by some to be the first written constitution in the history of the world, requires the protection of religious freedom and minority rights.
The gathering is sponsored by the Kingdom of Morocco and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, an organization based in the United Arab Emirates and led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, a Mauritania-born scholar known for arguing for tolerance by drawing on traditional Islamic legal texts.
Organizers held a media conference call on Thursday to discuss the initiative.
Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, and a student of Bayyah, emphasized the importance of his leadership.
“In the Sunni world, he’s probably the foremost scholar on constitutional law, how legislation occurs in the Islamic tradition,” he said, noting that Bayyah was among the authors of the Mauritanian constitution.
“He’s been deeply troubled by what’s been happening in Muslim world,” Yusuf said, pointing in particular to the oppression of Yazidis in Iraq, Jews in Yemen, and Christians in Syria and Egypt.
Quite often when so-called “moderate Muslims” stage initiatives like this, the concern is that their message plays well in the West, but doesn’t cut much ice within Islam because the key figures don’t have much standing in the Muslim “street”.
In the case of the Marrakesh summit, that’s a slightly harder case to make. Aside from the King of Morocco, the lineup includes a former justice from Pakistan’s Supreme Court and the head of the department of Islamic studies at Iran’s Academy of Sciences.
Granted, neither Pakistan nor Iran would top most lists of model societies in terms of respect for religious freedom.
Pakistan has stern blasphemy laws often used to suppress and harass non-Muslims, including Asia Bibi, an illiterate Catholic farm worker and mother of five currently facing a death sentence. In Iran, despite the moderate profile of a government under Hassan Rouhani that came to power in 2013, Christian pastors face death sentences under a new criminal charge of “spreading corruption on earth.”
Yet there’s never going to be any serious movement within Islam toward greater pluralism that doesn’t involve those two nations, which makes the presence of serious representatives from both at the Marrakesh gathering encouraging.
Also encouraging is the fact that representatives of religious minorities within predominantly Muslim societies will also be on hand in Marrakesh, to ensure their voices are heard. They include a Sabean Christian and Iraqi government minister named Khalid Amin Roumi, and Bishop Munib Younan, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Palestine.
From the Catholic side, retired US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who often acts as an informal diplomatic trouble-shooter and who’s been a leader in inter-faith dialogue for decades, will attend. Organizers say they’ve briefed French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and they expect to have representatives from the Vatican.
“It would be great if we could have a meeting with Pope Francis to present the declaration to him,” said Imam Mohamed Magid of the Adams Center in Northern Virginia, who voiced thanks to the Catholic Church for “sticking with Muslims in the most difficult times, addressing Islamophobia.”
Before getting carried away, let’s grant three points.
First, moderate Muslims have been organizing meetings and issuing declarations like this for some time, without notable effect. One thinks, for example, of the “Common Word” initiative launched by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan after Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial 2006 lecture in Regensburg, Germany, which was perceived as linking Islam with violence.
Despite wide media coverage and an impressive cross-section of Muslim participants, that initiative hardly prevented the rise of ISIS or the further spread of Islamic radicalism, and it’s not clear that the Marrakesh gathering will do so either.
Second, and meaning no disrespect, Morocco is not one of the true centers of power in the Muslim world. If it were, say, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Iran sponsoring this effort, it probably would be more head-turning.
Third, the Charter of Medina may be a problematic foundation for 21st-century concepts of religious freedom. While it did enshrine the right of minorities in Muslim lands to practice their faith and to live in peace, some historians see it as a precursor of the dhimmi system that consigned those minorities to a permanent second-class status.
(Yusuf said Thursday that Bayyah does not share that view, arguing that the charter represents a more “egalitarian” alternative to the dhimmi system, one that has “never been abrogated.”)
As if another reason for skepticism were required, one could also note that Morocco’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, and good PR from an initiative such as this could boost its reputation as a safe haven for foreign visitors.
All that said, the fact remains that every time some ISIS or ISIS-inspired atrocity unfolds, whether it’s terrorist attacks in Paris or a slaughter in Syria, Westerners almost uniformly demand that moderate Muslims, those who claim Islam is a religion of peace, do something.
In Marrakesh next week, such Muslims will try to do something, and surely that deserves to be both known and encouraged.