Bitter experience has bred skepticism when self-proclaimed “moderate” or “peace-loving” Muslims declare they represent the true face of the faith, since such claims to date haven’t put much of a dent in the global spread of Islamic-inspired terrorism.
At the same time, it’s arguably hypocritical for Westerners to insist that moderate Muslims speak out, and then brush them off whenever they try to do so.
In that light, two recent developments from within the Muslim world seem encouraging, even if how much difference they’ll make in the short term remains an open question.
In Turkey, a local court in Malatya ruled on Jan. 26 that both the federal and regional governments were negligent in protecting three Christians who were brutally assassinated in 2007, despite clear indications that they were at risk.
In April 2007, three Protestant Christian missionaries, two Turks and one German, were tortured, stabbed, and strangled. Their five young assassins, armed with knives and covered in blood, were arrested at the scene of the crime. All five turned out to have links to known Turkish nationalist groups.
The victims were:
- Necati Aydin, a Turkish convert to Christianity from Izmir who operated a small Christian publishing house in Malatya called Zirve (Turkish for “peak”). Since 2005, he had served as the minister of a small Protestant community in Malatya.
- Tilmann Geske, a German missionary and pastor of a Protestant Free Church in Germany. He had moved to Turkey in 1997 along with his wife and three children to teach English, and he also preached in the local community.
- Ugur Yuskel, who came from an Alevi family in Elazig, a province of Turkey east of Malatya. He had studied in Izmit, where he came into contact with a local Protestant community and converted to Christianity. He had worked for the Zirve publishing house since 2005.
Shortly after the murders, a lawyer working for the Association of Protestant Churches in Turkey, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, wrote that the violence was no surprise.
“For a long time I had been expecting something would happen,” Cengiz wrote on May 1, 2007. “There had been signs. Christians were beaten, their churches were stoned and set on fire, and they received threats every day. Every single day there was news about the treacherous plans of missionaries in the local and national newspapers and on TV stations …. For a long period of time, the seeds of intolerance, racism and enmity against Christianity have been sown in Turkey.”
Almost nine years later, an administrative court in Malatya agreed. It ruled that both Turkey’s Interior Ministry and the regional governor’s office ignored reliable intelligence that the three Christians had been targeted and ordered the Interior Ministry to pay the families close to $335,000 in damages.
Granted, that verdict would mean more if the five suspects in the killings had ever been convicted, or if they hadn’t been released on bail in 2014. In addition, the government can appeal the award for damages, and in the end the families may see little or nothing.
Still, the precedent that a civil court in a pacesetter Islamic nation has held its own government accountable for failing to protect Christians is nonetheless significant.
At around the same time, a gathering of 250 Muslim scholars, jurists, clerics, and government officials in Marrakesh, Morocco, issued a declaration on safeguarding the rights of religious minorities in Islamic nations based on the Prophet Muhammad’s celebrated “Medina Charter.”
Led by Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian scholar who currently teaches in Saudi Arabia, the declaration draws on traditional Islamic law to assert that Islam requires the protection and full citizenship rights of religious minorities, including Christians.
The text calls for the “full protection for the rights and liberties to all religious groups in a civilized manner that eschews coercion, bias, and arrogance,” and states “that it is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.”
It also calls for “restoring our shared trust that has been eroded by extremists using acts of terror and aggression.”
L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, carried a front page essay on Jan. 29 calling the declaration a “very important step forward,” although the piece by Zouhir Louassini, who was born in Morocco and now works for the RAI TV network in Italy, noted that it fails to address the “thorny question” of whether Muslims can convert to another religion.
As I wrote when the Marrakesh initiative was announced, there are good grounds for caution. Similar undertakings elsewhere have failed to yield much fruit, and some experts wonder if the Medina Charter is actually capable of supporting 21st-century concepts of religious freedom and full citizenship.
Moreover, Bayyah is a somewhat controversial figure, known for issuing anti-ISIS fatwas, but also for alleged ties to both Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nevertheless, the Marrakesh declaration seems to reflect the frustration many Muslims feel about how ISIS and other radical movements have hijacked the public image of Islam.
At a time when Christians and other minority groups across the Middle East worry that all may be lost, steps such as the Turkish verdict and the Morocco gathering — however ambivalent they may be — suggest there still are forces in the region for whom genocidal rampages and chronic oppression are not the only ways of dealing with the religious “other.”