Millet in the Middle East: Disunity in diversity

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Middle Eastern practice of assigning a faith to every citizen and a separate court system for each religion promotes division and sectarianism.

Tuesday 3 May 2016

In the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire, drawing inspiration from Persian and Islamic precedents, created what was known as the “millet” (nation or community) system which granted each recognised religion or sect a great deal of autonomy in managing its own affairs, from setting laws to collecting and distributing taxes.

In its heyday, the millet system – which was progressive by the standards of the time – enabled the Ottomans to prosper as a patchwork of languages and cultures.

However, under strain from imperial decline and growing nationalism, the millet system was creaking and seriously showing its age by the 19th century, prompting a series of reforms, known as “tanzimat”, aimed at creating a uniform and equal Ottoman citizenship.

Across the region today – even in Israel personal status and family laws are partially based on or inspired by the millet system. This means that, in the Middle East, we are destined – or doomed, depending on your perspective – to be born into a pre-determined religion or sect, regardless of what an individual actually believes.

With the exception of Tunisia, where identity papers do not mention religion and courts are civil, this accident of birth shapes the most intimate aspects of our lives, including marriage, divorce, inheritance and death.

If you happily belong to your designated community and are satisfied to live by its religious laws, then your life will be a contented one.

However, if you reject some of the traditional tenets of your faith, such as Christians who believe in divorce or Muslims who believe in equal inheritance rights for men and women, then life may prove difficult.

Women, who are discriminated against by pretty much every religion and sect, are particularly vulnerable when disputes arise, such as Christian women battling husbands who have converted to Islam for custody of their children.

In addition, if you belong to an unrecognised religious minority, such as Bahais, Hindus or Buddhists, then you may have trouble practising your faith.

Now if you don’t believe in God, you are still stuck with the religious label attached to you at birth, and face the risk of prosecution or even persecution in some countries.

Fortunately, in Egypt, there is no law against atheism and atheists are coming out of the closet, despite piecemeal attempts at repression. Syria once allowed complete freedom of belief, including atheism, though it severely restricted political expression. At the other end of the scale, in Saudi Arabia, atheism is classified as “terrorism”, despite the huge underground atheist movement there.

One curious effect of the millet system was that three neighbours and friends – for example, a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew – living in, say, Cairo might have shared the same language, culture and social reference points, yet they officially belonged to different “nations”.

Conversely, Christians, Muslims and Jews from opposing ends of the empire, who would not be able to comprehend each other’s speech and even culture, would have been members of the same “nation”.

In its early days, this system was workable in a vast and diverse empire confident in its variety, but in the contemporary, embattled nation-states of the region the modern vestiges of the millet system have proved an obstacle to forging a common national identity.

No matter how much nationalists insist that God is for the individual and the nation is for everyone, the confessional courts, even if they only deal with personal and family law, suggest otherwise, particularly in the minds of religious conservatives and radicals.

I would hazard to say that the religious and sectarian strife we are witnessing in the Middle East is, in part, down to these divisions. This is because defining a person’s religion and sect from birth, and providing them with differential treatment because of it, leads to social rigidity, identity politics and the difficulty in forming hybrid identities.

A classic example of this is Lebanon, where religion and sect do not just govern issues of personal status, but define the country’s political landscape, with its strict laws on which political positions go to which community. This perpetuates the small nation’s divisions.

The modern manifestation of the millet system also encourages institutionalised discrimination against minorities, by blocking minorities from the upper echelons of politics in many countries and enabling unscrupulous civil servants and security officials to mistreat those who are different.

In extreme cases, it even facilitates persecution. For example, the religion field on Iraqi identity cards has been misused by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and other militias to target citizens who belong to other religions and sects.

Fortunately, there are reformers who are striving for change, and they have scored a number of recent successes. This includes the introduction of civil marriages in Lebanon and the removal of the religion field fromTurkish ID cards.

It is time for Middle Eastern countries to remove all mention of religious and sectarian affiliation from official documents, and to abolish religious family courts.

This would not only be good for the freedom of belief – not to mention love and the equality of citizens – it would also reinforce a sense of common national identity among communities within a country, promoting a sense of unity in diversity.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 12 April 2016.

 

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Islamism is the illusion

 
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By Khaled Diab

Islamism is not the solution but is built on an illusion. Islam’s past strength was actually a secular one based on free thought.

Saturday 17 August 2013

SONY DSC“The people want to apply God’s law,” one group of male protesters chanted.

“Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party.

As if that wasn’t enough, all over the Raba’a al-Adawiya encampment, what seems to be a current hit on the Islamist charts was urging everyone within earshot of a loudspeaker to “Tell the world that Egypt is Islamic.”

But that is not exactly the message that has been reaching the international community from the pro-Morsi camp. Although only a single letter separates the two in Arabic, there is a world of difference between the democratic legitimacy (Shari’ya) the Muslim Brotherhood asks of the world and the Shari’a protesters were loudly demanding.

“I want to defend my religion and my country’s Islamic identity,” Mohamed Eissa, 20, told me, adding that he wanted Egypt to implement Shari’a. And what about democracy, I wondered? “If we apply Shari’a, we will have the best democracy in the world,” he claimed.

I doubt many non-Islamists when they think of Morsi’s “democratic legitimacy” would ever associate that with implementing Shari’a, as countries which have done so sit near the bottom of the league in terms of freedoms and rights.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As I stood there in Raba’a, a scarce secular soul, I pondered a question I have asked myself repeatedly: what exactly is the point of the Islamist project in a Muslim society?

After all, Egypt already implements Shari’a in its personal and family law, with all the gender and other inequalities that involves. In addition, there is absolutely nothing to stop a devout Muslim from practising every facet of his or her faith.

In contrast, Egypt has no civilian family courts for those who wish to run their personal affairs according to modern, secular standards. Moreover, though freedom of expression is a constitutional right, this freedom has been severely curtailed in recent years by the obscure, vague and innovative legal concept of “insulting religion”.

But does centuries-old Islam, the world’s second largest religion, really need self-appointed defenders to shield it from “insult”, when the Qur’an itself welcomes doubt, questioning and even ridicule?

And why do these self-appointed defenders of the faith contradict the example of the prophet they claim to emulate? For instance, Muhammad pardoned one of his scribes, Abdullah Ibn Saad, even after he claimed that the Qur’an was invented and Muhammad was a false prophet.

These examples highlight how Islamism, rather than providing the solution, as it claims, is actually built on an illusion.

Islamist discourse, on the whole, holds that the reason for the Muslim world’s decline is its deviation from Islamic law and values. That explains why Hassan al-Banna, despite his attempts to inject some elements of modernity into traditional Islamic thought, fixated on questions of morality and Shari’a. One of his ideological descendants, Sayyid Qutb, went so far as to invent the dangerous idea that Muslims were living a period of modern “Jahiliyyah” (pre-Islamic ignorance).

But by misdiagnosing the malaise afflicting society, Islamists have prescribed totally the wrong medicine, with severe and debilitating side effects.

Any objective, dispassionate reading of Islamic history reveals that Islam’s former glory was actually built on a largely secular foundation. In addition, the start of its decline coincided with the victory of rigid dogma and orthodoxy – represented by the likes of the “father of Salafism” Ibn Taymiyyah in the 14th century – over reason and intellect.

Muhammad himself never established anything resembling what we would call an “Islamic state” today. His secular-sounding Constitution of Medina actually defines Jews, Christians and pagans – i.e. every member of Medina’s society – as being full and equal members of the Ummah.

During what is widely regarded as Islam’s “golden age”, the political and social mechanisms governing the lives of Muslims were generally secular. Though the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs derived their claim to legitimacy from Islam, they were essentially secular rulers, presiding over secular governments. They were autocratic, not theocratic.

In fact, their honorific title “commanders of the faithful”suggests that caliphs derived their authority from their Muslim (and other) subjects and not from Islam itself. Moreover, most enlightened caliphs were derided by conservatives and traditionalists as immoral and decadent.

Take Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph and stuff of legends. Under his rule, the sciences, culture and the arts flourished, despite clergy’s disapproval of the company he and his libertine son, al-Amin kept, including the outrageous and camp court poet, Abu Nuwas, considered the greatest poet of his time.

Freethinking philosophy also flourished during this era, both under the Abbasids and the Umayyads. The Muʿtazilah, for example, held that rationality, expressed through reasoned debate known as “kalam”, are the “final arbiter” that trumps “sacred precedent”.

In such a climate, it is unsurprising that non-belief was accepted and atheistic scholars, such as Ibn al-Rawandi were published, only to have their works destroyed by later, less tolerant generations.

The reasons for Islam’s subsequent relative decline are manifold: the loss of dominance over global trade, the Mongol invasions, intellectual stagnation, infighting and factionalism, colonialism, and more.

However, deviation from some imagined “pure” moral state is not one of the factors, and belief in this illusory mirage will delay effective reform. In the 21st century, the best system that encompasses the spirit of past Muslim success is enlightened secularism. That might explain why the renowned 19th-century reformer Muhammad Abduh once said that in France he saw “Islam without Muslims”.

 

Note: This article was written before the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi encampments occurred.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 15 August 2013.

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