Terrorism once seemed to serve a purpose, albeit an awful one. Osama bin Laden was evil but rational: The most effective way to attack a military superpower for its interventionist policies is to strike civilians.
However, the latest assaults in France, shooting a priest and knifing three people in a church, are as close to pointless as one can imagine. The acts do not even pretend to defend Islam, and they convince no one of the faith. At least there was a hint of purpose — entirely evil, of course — in the beheading of a teacher last month, as an act of revenge for having shown his students a caustic cartoon of Mohammed.
To his credit, French president Emmanuel Macron strongly defended free speech and secularism. In doing so, he suffered the wrath of Islamic leaders and activists worldwide. For them, everyone else must surrender their freedoms to avoid attack by murderous extremists.
Unsurprisingly, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, facing declining political ratings, took the lead, railing that “Macron needs mental treatment.” Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, further disappointing those who hoped he would be an independent force, tweeted that “Macron has attacked & hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims.” In Bangladesh 40,000 people rallied against France, calling for a boycott of French products. Palestinians called for a “day of rage” against France.
The Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Jordanian foreign ministries criticized those publishing offensive cartoons and linking Islam to terrorism. Stores in Kuwait and Qatar removed French products from sale. Protests were held and calls for boycotts were made in Bahrain, Iran, Lebanon, and Somalia. Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad tweeted that Muslims had a right to “kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” A French complaint led to the post’s removal.
Neither Macron’s rhetoric nor his government’s policies are beyond reproach, especially Paris’s historic attachment to extreme and coerced secularism. However, the ongoing controversy illustrates a severe problem within Islam. A significant strain of Islamic thought justifies brutal, even deadly treatment of non-Muslims — or, more precisely, non–Sunni Muslims. Groups such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram have cheerfully, even enthusiastically, slaughtered Shiites, Sufis, and Muslims deemed insufficiently supportive of the murder of Christians.
Moreover, the problem runs deeper and wider than terrorism. Every majority-Muslim nation disadvantages and persecutes Christians and other minority faiths, including Jews, Bahais, Hindus, Yazidis, and others. The degree of discrimination and the use of violence differ substantially. However, an Islamic majority is the most powerful single correlate to religious persecution. (The second factor is authoritarian, often communist/former communist, governance.) Moreover, the worst states are very bad, either virulently intolerant or brutally violent— or sometimes both — with non-Muslims routinely killed for their faith.
There are various measures of persecution. One is the annual World Watch list, published by Open Doors. It names the 50 “top,” meaning worst, religious persecutors. Thirty-four, or 68 percent, of them are Muslim-majority nations.
Seven of the top ten, evidencing “extreme persecution,” are Muslim states: Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan (and Khan complained about France!), Sudan, Yemen, and Iran. Of the next ten, exhibiting “very high persecution,” eight are majority-Muslim: Syria, Nigeria (closely divided, but the violence comes from Islamist militants), Saudi Arabia (which was denouncing the French), Maldives, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, and Uzbekistan.
Six of the next ten, also known for “very high persecution,” have Muslim-majority populations: Turkmenistan, Mauritania, Morocco, Qatar, Burkina Faso, and Mali. Of the following ten, in which minority faiths similarly suffer “very high persecution,” eight are Muslim: Tajikistan, Jordan, Tunisia, Kazakhstan, Turkey (what was Erdogan saying about France?), Brunei, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. The final ten, a mix of “very high” and “high” persecution, include five Muslim states: Oman, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, and Niger.
One also can turn to reports, such as those of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, for more-detailed descriptions of the depredations visited upon unpopular religious believers. The commission recommended 14 nations as “countries of particular concern” and 15 for a special watch list. Seven of the first 14 are Muslim-majority states: Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. So are 12 of the next 15: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Sudan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. That comes to 19 of 29, or 66 percent.
The State Department also publishes an annual report on religious liberty, though it does not create a ranking system. Even so, the individual descriptions often are harrowing. For instance:
Afghanistan. “ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities, and the Taliban again targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the government. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consistent with trends observed in the past four years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras.”
Algeria. “Proselytizing Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. On May 28, prominent Mozabite (from the M’zah valley region) Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar died following a nearly 60-day hunger strike. Fekhar was in pretrial detention following his March 31 arrest for ‘incitement of racial hatred’ for a Facebook post in which he accused local officials in Ghardaia of discriminatory practices towards Ibadis. According to media reports, a court in Akbou, Bejaia fined an unnamed Christian for the ‘exercise of non-Muslim worship without authorization.’ . . . Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious leaders said the government continued to be unresponsive to religious groups’ requests to register or reregister. During the year, the government closed nine Christian churches. A video posted on Facebook by the Protestant Full Gospel Church in Tizi Ouzou, described by Human Rights Watch as the country’s largest church, showed police pulling congregants from their chairs during services and forcing them outside. The then-minister of interior, after speaking of churches he ordered closed in disparaging terms, stated that the churches were unlicensed to hold Christian services. . . . The government continued to regulate the importation of all books, including religious materials. Senior government officials continued to oppose calls by extremist groups for violence in the name of Islam. They also continued to criticize the spread of what they characterized as ‘foreign’ religious influences, such as Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, and Ahmadi Islam. Catholic foreign religious workers faced visa delays and refusals that hindered the Church’s work.”
Bahrain. “The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the ‘fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.’ The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for ‘exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.’ The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members. Authorities detained a number of clerics over the content of their sermons.”
Bangladesh. “Members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, who were sometimes also members of ethnic minorities, stated the government remained ineffective in preventing forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes. . . . The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for Christians who converted to Christianity from Hinduism and Islam. The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHCUC) said ‘atrocities’ against minorities continued, but had slowed.”
Egypt. “The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. . . . In April the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) condemned the involvement of the security services in the closure of the Anba Karas Church and called for the reopening of churches closed since the implementation of the 2016 church construction law. Local authorities continued to periodically rely on customary reconciliation sessions instead of the official judicial system to resolve sectarian disputes. In April security officials closed a church in the Upper Egyptian village of Nagib in response to threats of an attack by Muslim villagers.”
Indonesia. “The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right to worship according to one’s own beliefs but states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and, as noted in the constitution, to satisfy ‘just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society.’ Individuals continued to be detained and received prison sentences of up to five years for violations of blasphemy laws. One man was detained for reading the Quran disrespectfully in an online video. In Aceh Province, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs, including one Buddhist man who accepted caning in lieu of imprisonment. Some local governments imposed local laws and regulations restricting religious observance, such as local regulations banning Shia or Ahmadi Islamic practice.”
Iran. “The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (‘enmity against God’) and sabb al-nabi (‘insulting the Prophet’). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. . . . The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, non-Armenian Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing.”
Iraq. “Restrictions on freedom of religion, as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by government security forces, remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). . . . Yazidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse by members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS, including at checkpoints and in and around PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain.”
Maldives. “The constitution designates Islam as the state religion, requires citizens to be Muslim, and requires public office holders, including the president, to be followers of Sunni Islam. The constitution provides for limitations on rights and freedoms ‘to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.’ The law states both the government and the people must protect religious unity. Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense. The law criminalizes ‘criticism of Islam’ and speech ‘in a manner likely to cause religious segregation.’ The penal code permits the administration of certain sharia punishments, such as stoning and amputation of hands.”
Nigeria. “Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and local government laws discriminated against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and in obtaining government employment. . . . Terrorist groups including Boko Haram and ISIS–West Africa (ISIS-WA) attacked population centers and religious targets and maintained a growing ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. The groups continued to carry out person-borne improvised explosive device (IED) bombings — many by young women and girls drugged and forced into doing so — targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques.”
Saudi Arabia. “Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes ‘anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.’ The law criminalizes ‘the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,’ ‘any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,’ publications that ‘contradict the provisions of Islamic law,’ and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.”
Syria. “Sectarian violence continued due to tensions among religious groups that according to NGO and media sources was exacerbated by government actions, ISIS and al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) targeting of religious groups, and sectarian rhetoric. . . . The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI) reported nonstate actors, including terrorist organizations such as ISIS and HTS, targeted religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians throughout the course of the conflict. Until its territorial defeat in April, ISIS killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, and homosexuality.”
Turkey. “The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Media outlets and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported an accelerated pace of entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations. The government did not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. . . . The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed. Religious minorities again reported difficulties opening or operating houses of worship; resolving land and property disputes and legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated; operating or opening houses of worship; and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools.”
United Arab Emirates. “The constitution designates Islam as the official religion. It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals. It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The law prohibits blasphemy, proselytizing by non-Muslims, and conversion from Islam. An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions.”
Uzbekistan. “The underlying law on religion continued to make it difficult for groups to register, according to religious groups. The government announced it released or reduced the sentences of 575 prisoners charged with religious extremism or related crimes during the year; however, some nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives said the government continued torture of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of religious extremism or of participating in underground Islamic activity. . . . Members of religious groups whose registration applications the government denied remained unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution. According to media reports, public controversy over government policies on beards and the wearing of hijabs continued, including reports of police forcibly shaving the beards of men in Tashkent. The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code prohibiting the wearing of religious garments and symbols, such as skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs in schools. . . . Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, said they continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination. Some religious minorities said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials, forcing them to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or to conduct funerals with Islamic religious rites.”
This is an awful record. Nothing comparable occurs in majority-Christian nations, where the sporadic persecution that exists often has political roots, such as in the Central African Republic and in breakaway and Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories. Nor do problems in Israel, the world’s sole majority-Jewish nation, approach what is common under Islam. (Alas, official and violent persecution does occur in majority-Buddhist and majority-Hindu states, but incidents are far fewer in number.)
Obviously, many individual Muslims do not support such brutal and intolerant behavior. However, the practice pervades political Islam of every variety, which suggests that something is very wrong with how a sizeable number of Muslims interpret their faith and practice their politics.
Islamic leaders who are ever ready to take offense at Macron and similar Western leaders should address Islam’s abysmal record in respecting and protecting minority faiths — and, more directly, how their own nations and governments treat religious minorities. Can they explain to the rest of the world why almost every Muslim-majority state is so inhospitable to any and all religious minorities, including the “wrong” variant of Islam? Why do those who chastise the West treat the most vulnerable and despised in their own societies so poorly? And, more important, can they explain how they intend to finally address this grievous failure?
Give Macron and the French people their due. They have welcomed rather than persecuted Muslims. The latest attacks appear to have repaid that openness in blood. How to stop such murders, whatever their purpose? It’s time that Muslim leaders around the world addressed how their beliefs and practices have contributed to a problem that continues to violently drive peoples and nations apart.