Photo Credit: SCREENSHOT
Replacing cross atop Mosul church with ISIS flag.

{Originally posted to the Gatestone Institute website}

A recognition of the religious freedoms offered by secular non-coercive states should be of particular importance to Muslims worldwide. It is a serious criticism of Islamic practice both historically and in the modern era that many Muslim countries seem to remain deeply intolerant towards the followers of other religions or the followers of differing branches of their own religion; toward people they regard as having left Islam, or even whom they perceive as having “offended” its followers, whether inadvertently or not. Persecution of religious minorities, and other Muslims seems common in many Muslim countries — from the highly restrictive Saudi Arabia to the more liberal Indonesia, and especially in countries where the religion is closely allied to the state.

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This situation needs to be discussed. Discussion could explore the disparity between European societies, where there is a separation between religion and the state — above all France — and the many home cultures where that separation does not exist, and from which so many Muslim immigrants arrive. The disparity between these two political climates is marked when it comes to religious freedom and the rights of different religious entities to live unmolested within differing nations and their differing state institutions, such as the judiciary. It is not hard to see how secular laws and values offer Muslims earthly protections well above those available to non-Muslims in Islamic states. However, there are individuals such as the British political scientist Jim Wolfreys, who condemn strong secularism and claim that it is a principal cause of ill will toward Muslims.[1]

Why should it be anti-Muslim or “Islamophobic” to write about the effects of jihad or the conservative Muslim treatment of unbelievers? The facts are well established within international bodies, NGOs, national commissions, and verifiable journalistic reports. Reformist Muslims themselves are highly critical of the discriminatory laws and behaviours in countries from which they or their forebearers originated. Indeed, it is precisely Muslims of a reformist and liberal bent who are most vocal about radical restrictions on values that other Muslims claim are universal.

Let us be clear. No doubt, there will probably always be people, call them the real “Islamophobes”, who will use problems within Muslim states or communities to try to tar Islam or Muslims as a whole. But these and other issues still need to be faced as authentic human rights concerns.

Before the emergence of international human rights standards, different cultures approached differing cultural matters, such as child marriage, freedom of speech, treatment of women or equal application of the law in differing ways. Islamic and Western norms met closely at certain points yet diverged at others. That sense of proximity remains today: murder, theft, fraud, adultery, giving false testimony, the primacy of education for children, obedience to the law, charitable giving, care for the elderly, attentiveness and treatment for the sick and disabled, punishment for crime, represent negative and positive values for the followers of all religions.

Despite this, there remain increasing gulfs between Western and Islamic values, for instance, regarding adultery. Betrayal of a spouse is an infraction of the Western moral code, but no country would dream of legislating its punishment, apart from the division of households and property in a divorce suit. In more than one Muslim country, however, it is an offence that can and often does lead to floggings or stonings to death. Slavery, sadly, still persists in many parts of the Muslim world (here, here and here).

Excessive alcohol or drug consumption are frowned on by most Westerners because of the personal, familial and social problems they engender; alcoholics and drug addicts are considered vulnerable people who require social and medical help, but moderate drinking in social settings is regarded as perfectly normal, often even desirable. For use that becomes problematic within the society, most, if not all, Western countries provide official and voluntary organizations and centres where help is made available, often free of charge. Portugal, still a fairly conservative Catholic country decriminalized drugs in 2001; since then, it has experienced enormous success in reducing drug use. Other countries are starting to move in a similar direction. In Muslim countries, however, alcohol is banned and the use of hard drugs can be punished by death – something very much the occasion in Iran.

In the West, homosexuals are no longer discriminated against by any state, and same-sex marriage is increasingly adopted, even in countries that previously had religious strictures about any expression of gay attachment, such as the formerly Church-dominated Republic of Ireland. The gap between Western governments and populations who form open LGBT partnerships and hold Gay Pride parades on the one hand[2], and the 13 Muslim countries where homosexuals may be flogged or put to death is widening. As worrying, in a 2007 survey of Muslim views in the UK, 71% of the youngest Muslims (16-24 years old) stated that homosexuality is wrong and should be illegal, as opposed to the oldest generation (55+), only 50% of whom thought otherwise.[3] In other words, from generation to generation, that gap may also be widening.

As the West secularizes more and more – notably in countries such as Ireland, the UK, France (since 1905) and Israel (since 1948) – the process opens up pathways for limited governmental interference in the affairs of religious communities. Conversion to another religions may not be routine but doing so is a right protected by Western laws, as is the right to proselytize.

This openness has encouraged multiculturalism, within which people of faith are encouraged to practice their rites according to the beliefs in which they have been brought up or to which they have converted. In such countries, there are no restrictions on individuals changing their religion or abandoning it altogether. This is not to say that all groups get on well together: my native Northern Ireland may have shifted from its condition of political and religious bigotry in the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up; but it still retains sectarian hostilities based on religion that have led to violence in living memory. Such extreme division is not much visible in the rest of the UK, despite the persistence of antisemitism and, after many repeated incidents of violence evidently committed under the influence of Islam (for instance here, here , here, here and here), a certain skittish apprehension regarding the genuine neighbourliness of many people newly-arrived in Britain.

This is not the situation in the Islamic world. Many Muslims entering Europe and North America may find themselves bewildered by our religious freedoms, and assume that what is permitted in their home countries — such as “uncovered women” being “available” — is permitted in the West. Traditionally, down to the present day, Islamic rulers and clerics have imposed severe restrictions on non-believers. It is a basic Muslim tenet that the only true religion in the world is Islam, and based on the Qur’an (3:85): “And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam it will never be accepted of him and in the hereafter he will be one of the losers.” According to a modern Shi’i theologian, “the holy Quran has never used the term religion in a plural form which indicates that the Almighty God recognizes only one religion and one path to Him and that is Islam”.

Perhaps that is not surprising; many religions, Christianity notably included, think the same. Like Christians, Muslims hold that true believers are, or will be, in heaven and unbelievers in hell. Muslims also believe that Jews and Christians are a partial exception to this rule, if they accept Islam: Abraham, Moses and Jesus are regarded as prophets, and the Torah and Gospels are considered divine scripture, albeit corrupted from Islam by rabbis and priests. Even so, Jews and Christians, however moral, who do not convert to Islam will also find themselves in the Fire (al-Nar) for eternity. Some Muslims are happy to engage in positive interfaith and intercommunity relations; but it is hard not to wonder if each side are actually hoping that the other side will come around to seeing things their way.

In Muslim societies, followers of minority faiths are generally small in number – often, unfortunately, not by accident (for example, here, here and here). The largest number of Christians in any Islamic state are the Copts of Egypt. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The Egyptian government estimates about 5 million Copts, but the Coptic Orthodox Church says 15-18 million. Reliable numbers are hard to find but estimates suggest they make up somewhere between 6% and 18% of the population. Most Copts are Egyptian, although there are significant pockets of them in Syria, Libya, Jordan and other countries, including in the West.

In the past year, Egypt has moved up an annual league table of persecution of Christians compiled by the charity Open Doors. According to its World Watch List, North Korea is still the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a Christian, and Nepal has had the biggest increase in persecution.

But Egypt, home to the largest Christian community in the Middle East, is of particular worry. Officially about 10% of the 95 million population are Christian, although many believe the figure is significantly higher.

Although the Coptic Christians are more clearly indigenous than many of their Muslim counterparts, the population as a whole does not regard them with special favour. Christians are despised as dhimmis, people whose lives and property are, in theory, “protected” by Islamic rulers, but who are nevertheless subjected to harsh limitations imposed under Islamic law. Over the centuries, Egypt’s Christians have been persecuted, often severely. However, until the rise to power in a bloodless coup d’état led by Gamal Abdel Nasser that overthrew the monarchy in 1952, the treatment of the Copts was similar to the treatment of Christians and Jews across the Muslim world.

With the rise of fundamentalism in Egypt under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood from the 1930s on, antagonism towards Christians and attacks on individuals and property have soared. Coptic Christians suffer a wide range of discrimination, attacks on churches, including a bomb in 2011 that killed 21 worshippers, church demolitions, kidnappings of young Christian women, and murders. The demolitions were only banned in 2016 when a court in Alexandria ruled them impermissible. Churches have been demolished or burnt down, and many individuals have been killed by mobs. This persecution was described as “unprecedented” in 2018, after a year in which 128 Copts were murdered.[4]

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Christians are being attacked and driven out also at an unprecedented pace. Reports about their growing plight come from a variety of sources. The most fully researched general report was written in 2017 by Huma Haider of the University of Birmingham as a Helpdesk report commissioned by the UK Department for International Development. The report begins:

A century ago, Christians in the Middle East comprised 20 percent of the population; today, they constitute no more than 3-4 percent of the region’s population. The drastic decline in the number of Christians in the Middle East is considered to be part of a longer-term exodus related to general violence in various countries, lack of economic opportunities in the region, and religious persecution.

Later (p. 5), it gives more details of this decline:

In Egypt, it is reported that the Christian population has declined from 8.3 percent (1927) to 5.3 percent (2011)… In Iraq, there were approximately 1.5 million Christians prior to 2003 (less than 5 percent of the population) Today, estimates range between 200,000 and 250,000… In Syria, Christians numbered approximately 8 percent of the population of 22 million prior to 2011. Today, it is estimated that half have left the country, with evidence demonstrating that most do not expect or intend to return. Entire Christian villages have reportedly been emptied out, leaving some rural areas without any notable Christian presence… In the case of larger cities such as Damascus and Aleppo, the percentage of Christians fleeing is likely no greater than the percentage of Muslims fleeing.

It is reported that Christianity could disappear from Iraq… within five years… In Iran, there has been a decline in the Christian population from 0.9 percent (1970) to 0.35 percent today… Christians in the region, who do not reside in countries directly affected by the current wars, may also seek to leave, given the anti-Christian threat of ISIS and ISIS-like groups to the stability of the region.

Haider enumerates the various forms of persecution that have led to this decline, one that has accelerated in the 21st century. She lists (and elaborates on) the following categories:

  1. Violence and harassment
  2. Expulsion
  3. Destruction of religious property and cultural heritage
  4. Larceny (i.e. illegal seizure of Christian houses and land)
  5. Lack of legal and constitutional protections (unequal citizenship and insufficient freedom of religion)
  6. Restrictions on and suppression of the practice of religion
  7. Arbitrary arrests and imprisonment
  8. Targeting of religious leaders
  9. Educational exclusion (Christians forbidden to teach their children about Christianity; textbooks in some countries teach hatred and intolerance toward non-Muslims)
  10. Impunity and institutional weaknesses (mob violence often goes unpunished)[5]

A particularly widespread problem for Christians in Muslim countries is the ban on Christian proselytization. In Iran for example, attempts by Christians (or Baha’is) to convert Muslims are punishable by death. Whereas Christian and secular countries rightly permit Muslims to preach, convert, and instruct non-Muslims, 25 Muslim states forbid proselytization and have laws saying that Muslims who convert to another faith may be put to death as apostates. For a legalistic justification for the law on apostasy, readers should consult the popular online resource: Islam: Question and Answer. The website, supervised by Shaykh Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid, a Saudi Salafi scholar, treats the subject under the rubric “Why death is the punishment for Apostasy”. The matter is made simple under shari’a law: “when a person who has reached puberty and is same voluntarily apostatizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed”.[6] The shari’a ruling is based inter alia on a tradition of the Prophet recorded in the canonical collections of Hadith.

Is it in any way “Islamophobic” to draw attention to these ruptures of international human rights law in many Muslim countries? It is hard to believe so. There is a vast difference between fact-based criticism of some Islamic laws or practices and the racist and xenophobic hatred that would characterize actual Islamophobia. Liberalized versions of Islam have in the past few decades been suppressed by fundamentalist takeovers of entire societies. It is also hard to believe that countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will return quickly to the moderation they had developed in the previous century. If there is hope for good relations between non-Muslims and Muslims, it must rest, as has already begun, with the Muslims in liberal democracies.

As more and more Muslims become conscious of the extremely different ways in which most secular states treat minorities — such as themselves — compared to what they may have experienced in their homelands, many Muslims may rightly seek out equitable treatment as citizens in their adopted countries. To do that, they have to struggle hard against hatred, perhaps even by their co-religionists, economic challenges, poor job expectations, physical attacks, verbal harassment, and discrimination at many levels. Such has always been the struggle faced by immigrants.

Many will have been brought up to discriminate against non-Muslims, to call Jews “the sons of apes and pigs”[7]; to believe that Christians, Hindus, Yazidis and other unbelievers are destined for hellfire, and even that other Muslims — Shi’is, Sufis, Ahmadis, and so on — supposedly rank heretics, are also destined for the Fire.

More and more, Muslims living in non-Muslim territories have learned — and are teaching — their children that such attitudes undermine the interpretation of Islam that they may wish to develop in their own communities. Many Muslims recognize that, while their original societies do little or nothing to calm the prejudice against non-Muslims, Western countries and organizations are developing ways to live with others who are different from oneself. The British organization Muslims Against Antisemitism, is a shining example; in America, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy is another. They should be treasured and helped.

Dr. Denis MacEoin is a former lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at a British university. He has written many books and articles on Islam and contributed to Islam-related work by Policy Exchange, Civitas, and the Gatestone Institute, where he is a Distinguished Senior Fellow.


[1] See Jim Wolfreys, Republic of Islamophobia: The Rise of Respectable Racism in France, London, 2018.

[2] One of the biggest such parades is the annual Gay Pride parade in Tel Aviv, which has been taking place for over 20 years. See TOI staff and agencies, “Over 250,000 revelers flood Tel Aviv for Israel’s biggest ever Gay Pride parade“, The Times of Israel, 8 June, 2018. Tel Aviv itself has been dubbed the ‘most gay-friendly city’ in the world: Christopher Muther, “Welcome to Tel Aviv, the gayest city on earth“, The Boston Globe, 17 March, 2016.

[3] Munira Mirza, Abi Senthilkumaran, and Zein Ja’far, Living apart together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism, Policy Exchange, 2007, p. 47.

[4] A fuller discussion of the tensions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt may be found in Abdel-Latif El Menawy, The Copts: An Investigation into the Rifts Between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, London, 2019.

[5] For some further reports, see here and here and here. A more comprehensive account may be found in Alon Ben Meir, “The Persecution of Minorities in the Middle East, in K. Ellis, Secular Nationalism in Muslim Countries. Minorities in West Asia and North Africa, London, 2018; for full details and instructions for purchase of the chapter or the book, go here.

[6] Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, ed. and trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, rev. ed., MD, 1994, o8.1, p. 595; for fuller rulings about apostasy in general, see ibid paragraphs o8.0 to o8.7(20), pp. 595-598.

[7] This is a widespread expression, used at all levels. See, for example, Jeffrey Goldberg, ‘Egyptian President Calls Jews “Sons of Apes and Pigs”; World Yawns’, The Atlantic, 14 January, 2013. For earlier examples, see Anon, ‘Arab/Muslim Anti-Semitism: Muslim Clerics – Jews Are the Descendants of Apes, Pigs, And Other Animals’, Jewish Virtual Library, updated November, 2002. See further a study by social psychologist Neil J. Kressel, ‘The Sons of Apes and Pigs: Muslim Antisemitism and the Conspiracy of Silence, Potomac Books, University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

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