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Winning peace for minorities in Muslim lands

Thought leaders

Ending terrorist attacks on religious minorities will require more than weapons. Since 9/11, more scholars are challenging Muslims and others to embrace ideas that prevent religious violence.

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Participants plug their translator devices during the opening of an international conference in Paris on the religious and ethnic minorities being persecuted under the Islamic State group Sept. 8. The conference included high-level representatives from more than four dozen countries as well as international organizations and religious leaders.

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In the nearly 15 years since the 9/11 attacks, the struggle against terrorists has been one mainly of spycraft and war. Yet another struggle has steadily advanced, one aimed at winning a peace. It is the promotion of religious ideas that can counter the narrative of using violence as a tool to impose one’s cause.

In just the past few months, two prominent religious scholars – one Jewish, one Muslim – have projected such ideas with their writings. Unlike much of the news about the “war on terror,” they have received little notice. Yet like the growing body of works about the peaceful practice of Islam, they may be reaching many in the Muslim world.

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One scholar is Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain. His latest book, “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence,” explores the common ideals of the three Abrahamic faiths. In his analysis of the sacred texts, he finds that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are not fated to be sibling rivals. Instead Mr. Sacks offers this simple insight:

“To be a child of Abraham is to learn to respect the other children of Abraham even if their way is not ours, their covenant not ours, their understanding of God different from ours. We know that we are loved. That must be enough. To insist that being loved entails that others be unloved is to fail to understand love itself.”

The other writer is Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian religious scholar and a professor of Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia. Last month, he gathered hundreds of Muslim scholars and intellectuals at a conference in Morocco to deal with the rising attacks on non-Muslims by terrorists who cite Islam.

The conference ended with the “Marrakesh Declaration,” which calls on majority-Muslim countries to accept the concept of citizenship for all who are “bound by the same national fabric.” The statement asks such countries to ensure “rights and liberties to all religious groups in a civilized manner that eschews coercion, bias, and arrogance.”

Trust and love are “the basis of improving society,” Mr. bin Bayyah told those at the conference. These qualities are rooted in Islamic traditions and principles. They are embedded, he said, in a charter supposedly written by the prophet Muhammad that governed the city of Medina in the 7th century. 

Bin Bayyah also made these points: Majority-Muslim states must see themselves as modern “nation-states” operating under a constitution that ensures the peaceful existence of minorities among majorities. In modern times, allegiances are no longer religious in nature but bound by civic principles in which equality is guaranteed.

Respected figures like Sacks and bin Bayyah are not lone voices in religious circles. The more that such scholars articulate the spiritual basis for harmony in diverse societies, the more they can help end the attacks on minority faiths.

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“Wars are won by weapons,” writes Sacks, “but it takes ideas to win a peace.”


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