New York - Morocco hosted an international conference this week on the “Rights of Religious Minorities in Muslim Countries.”
New York – Morocco hosted an international conference this week on the “Rights of Religious Minorities in Muslim Countries.”
Convened in Marrakech on January 25-27, the conference could not have come at a more opportune time against the backdrop of terrorist attacks perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State and its affiliate organizations. From Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt, to France and Burkina Faso, terrorist attacks committed by ISIS are playing right into the hands of bigots, who use these acts to demonize a whole religion and its people.
With the horrible crimes perpetrated by ISIS against non-Muslim minorities living under its rule, especially the Yazidis, it is of paramount importance to understand the Islamic principles that govern the treatment of minorities in Muslim countries.
Marrakech conference, a reminder of Islamic principles of coexistence
With this in mind, the Marrakech conference seeks to set things straight. As King Mohammed VI said in his message to the conference participants, the core message of Islam is the respect of religious minorities, especially Christians and Jews, referred to in Islam as “People of the Book.”
“The Almighty also ordered that the People of the Book were to be treated fairly, in all circumstances, and that hatred, which can influence the way one behaves towards them, was to be renounced,” King Mohammed said.
“The practical teachings of Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, came to explain the Quran. He recommended that Jews and Christians were to be treated well, and that no monk, rabbi or person found praying in a place of worship could be killed in a time of war,” he added.
In today’s world, it is common to read analyses and op-eds, or watch reports where people attempt to argue that there never existed any level of coexistence between Jews and Muslims. Using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as their only frame of reference, a majority of self-described intellectuals jump to quick conclusions and try to imply that the divide existing between Jews and Muslims nowadays is rooted in the very traditions of Islam and its holy book. However, if these pundits and talking heads did their homework, they would find many instances of coexistence between Jews and Muslims in Arab-majority countries.
To solidify the foundation for the future and maintain a culture of peace, respect and religious tolerance, one has to look back to history. While Jews were persecuted in Europe for centuries, their only safe refuge was in Muslim lands. In Andalusia, today’s Spain, for 781 years, Jews coexisted with Muslims and Christians in harmony. Jews were treated as full citizens while Andalusia was under Islamic rule.
While they were required to pay the Jizya tax (an annual tax levied by Muslim states on Christians and Jews permanently on their soils) they were allowed to practice their faith without restriction and to engage in business and other activities.
In her book The Ornament of the World How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, María Rosa Menocal, a Professor at Yale University, writes that overall situation of Jews living under the Caliphate was better than that of Jews in Christian Europe where they were persecuted and regarded as heretical.
This coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians came to an end when Christians took over Al Andalus in 1492. The first decision made by the Catholic Church was to “clean” Spain from the presence of the Jews. Hence its decision to uproot them and expel them from the country.
After this decision, Jews found refuge and thrived in Muslim countries, especially Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Turkey.
This is not to say that coexistence between Jews and Muslims has always been perfect. There are documented instances where there Jews were oppressed in Muslim countries. However, these instances have been the exception to the rule, whereas in Europe the rule was the systematic persecution of Jews.
The Moroccan model of respect towards Jews
Morocco provides the best example of coexistence between Jews and Muslims. Throughout its history, people in Morocco have learned how to coexist with other people of different religions in line with the teachings of the Quran and the Sunna. The best example of the protection of religious minorities in Muslim countries is the late Moroccan King Mohammed V’s protection of Moroccan Jews against the Vichy regime during World War II.
While Jews were persecuted throughout Europe and sent to extermination camps in Poland, Morocco stood up for its Jewish citizens and defended them as did no other country. What is more significant about King Mohammed V’s action was that Morocco was under French rule at the time. During World War II, Morocco was controlled by the pro-Nazi Vichy French forces, who urged King Mohammed V to enact laws discriminating against the Jews. If enacted, these laws would have excluded Jews from working in public service and forced to wear yellow stars as in France and Germany.
Instead of giving in to the pressure placed on him by the Vichy regime, King Mohammed V refused and reminded French forces that all Moroccans were equal before the law, regardless of their ethnicity and religion. Moreover, to demonstrate his determination to protect his Jewish subjects, he routinely invited Jewish rabbis to royal celebrations, such as the Throne Day.
King Mohammed V’s heroic move was recognized in a ceremony held in New York last month, where the late king posthumously received the Martin Luther King Jr.-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel Freedom Award.
The long overdue recognition was covered by Israeli media, which highlighted the role played by King Mohammed V in protecting his Jewish subjects and preventing the pro-Nazi Vichy regime from sending them to extermination camps.
In its coverage of the event, the Jerusalem Post focused not only on World War II, but also the years following the war, which coincided with the creation of Israel in 1948. “Mohammed V warned Muslims not to hurt Moroccan Jews, reminding them that Jews had always been protected in Morocco,” the Jerusalem Post said.
It is no coincidence that Moroccan Jews, regardless of where they live, still have a strong bond with their country of origin. The tradition of respect and openness towards the Jews was strengthened by the late King Hassan II, and more recently by his son King Mohammed VI, who both appointed prominent Jewish personalities to key official positions. The best example is Andre Azoulay, who was appointed adviser to the late King Hassan II and has kept his position with King Mohammed VI. Another example is Serge Berdugo, who was appointed Minister of Tourism in the mid-1990’s, and is now Moroccan Ambassador at-large.
To further strengthen its model of peaceful existence between Jews and Muslims and its respect towards its Jewish heritage, Morocco launched the “House of Life” program in 2010, which has restored 167 Jewish cemeteries across the country. Additionally, in an unprecedented move, Morocco recognized Jewish culture as one of the major components of the Moroccan identity and enshrined it in the new Constitution adopted in July 2011.
This role Morocco played in fostering religious tolerance and respect towards other religions was emphasized in King Mohammed VI’s message to the Marrakech conference.
“Morocco has always been an outstanding model of cultural coexistence and interaction between Islam and other religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity. One of the glorious pages in this history was the emergence of the Moroccan-Andalusian civilization, which brought together various communities and led to the development of trade, industry and the arts, as well as to fruitful exchange in the areas of knowledge, wisdom, philosophy and science.”
The seemingly widespread idea over the past seven decades that peaceful coexistence between Jews, Christians, and Muslims is impossible or that antisemitism is rooted in Muslim culture is a myth that does not withstand historic scrutiny. This myth was created to serve economic and geopolitical interests of a tiny minority that is bent on controlling the destiny of billions of people. To achieve this goal, there is nothing easier than manipulating history and misusing religion.
At a time when the world is falling prey to fear, hatred, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and extremism, there is an acute need to look back to recent history and realize that coexistence between people of different religions is an attainable goal. As long as political leaders, intellectuals, and members of the media have the will to highlight the indicators of unity and harmony among people rather than manipulating history and tailoring it to the needs of a political oligarchy whose main goal is to remain in power, achieving peace is possible.
As King Mohammed VI pointed out, it is time that we, as humans, work together to build a world of peace, love, and prosperity for the coming generations, and open our hearts to a “civilized code of behavior that bans all forms of coercion, fanaticism and arrogance.”
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @Samir Bennis
© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed without permission