And if the first week of January is any indication, 2015 will be the worst year in modern history.
This time last year I asked the question: will the persecution of Christians continue to spread in 2014? Anyone who has watched the news about ISIS and the plight of Christian and Yezidi minorities in Syria and Iraq will be all too uncomfortably aware of the answer. Yet what ISIS has done in 2014 is, in many ways, an extreme example of a broader issue: the global spread of sharia enforcement. This is something that we have seen increase, both in its geographical spread and its intensity, in 2011, 2012 and 2013 – and clearly continued in 2014.
By “sharia enforcement” I mean the attempts by either political or violent means to legally enforce sharia on Muslims and non-Muslim minorities. This is the central aim of both political Islamists and violent jihadists. In many respects, this is an uncomfortable subject for many Muslims. However, it is a nettle that must be grasped not simply because it represents the largest increase in the persecution of minorities in the world today, but also because it is the single greatest threat to the freedoms and values of the English speaking peoples.
Increases in the severity of sharia enforcement
2014 saw significant increases in the severity of sharia enforcement in two respects:
1. The widespread use of slavery. Hundreds of Christian, Yezidi and Turkoman Muslim women held by ISIS in Badush prison in Mosul are treated as slaves and raped daily unless they agree to convert to ISIS’s own version of Islam. The UN estimates that approximately 1500 Christian and Yezidi women and children have been abducted and forced into sexual slavery. Similarly, reports from Nigeria suggest that many of the 270 predominantly Christian school girls abducted by Boko Haram in April have been forcibly converted to Islam and sold as brides or sex slaves to jihadists. In a video statement Boko Haram’s leader claimed:
“Allah instructed me to sell them… slavery is allowed in my religion.”
This is a major development in the intensification of sharia enforcement. Slavery almost entirely died out in the Islamic world, at least as a formal legal institution, in the Twentieth Century with its abolition in Mauritania in 1981. Yet the regulations on slavery, and on whom may be enslaved, still exist in the traditional textbooks of sharia that have been taught in madrassas for centuries.
2. The enforcement of jizya and religious cleansing. The advance of ISIS in Northern Iraq and Syria has caused the displacement of an estimated 200,000 Christians from their homes. Christians were given the ultimatum of either converting to Islam, paying the jizya tax on non Muslim monotheists, or being executed. The second option was not available to the Yezidis, who are regarded as polytheists by ISIS and therefore had the choice of either conversion or death – or, in the case of women and children, enslavement.
However, what has happened in Iraq and Syria is not an isolated incidence. Similar sharia-based religious cleansing has also been happening in northern Nigeria. This has resulted in repeated attacks on Churches, Christian institutions and individual Christians. For example, on January 26th, Boko Haram locked Christians in the church at Wada Chakawa in Adamawa state, before bombing it and cutting the throats of any who tried to escape, resulting in the deaths of at least 138 local Christians. This has now spread to neighbouring Cameroon where attacks and threats by Boko Haram have forced thousands of Christians to flee from the north. The aim is clearly to eradicate the entire non-Muslim population from increasingly large areas.
Similarly, ISIS appears intent on spreading its religious cleansing to Lebanon, with graffiti appearing on the walls of Lebanese churches announcing that “ISIS is coming”. While in Somalia, al Shabab – which has pledged to rid the country of all Christians – murdered a number of Christians during 2014, some by beheading. These groups base such activities on verses of the Qur’an such as:
“Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book (i.e. Christians or Jews), until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” (Q9:29)
And in attacks on the Yezidis
“Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them.” (Q9:5)
Unlike liberal Muslims, Islamists believe that these commands do not simply refer to a particular historical situation, but must still be obeyed today.
Widening geographical spread of sharia enforcement
- Sudan. 2014 saw the full implications of the family law provisions in sharia which stipulate that a Muslim woman may only marry a Muslim, and that any children of a Muslim father are deemed to be Muslims and, as such, subject to the death penalty for apostasy if they embrace another faith. Consequently, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim – who had been brought up a Christian by her mother after her Muslim father abandoned the family – had her marriage to a Christian declared invalid and was therefore sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery, followed by death for apostasy. Only strong international pressure led to her being allowed to flee to the USA.
- Pakistan. In October the Lahore High Court rejected the appeal of Christian mother of five Aasia Bibi for alleged blasphemy against Muhammad and confirmed the death sentence. Islamists had made threats to the judges. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court, which determines whether parliamentary laws are compatible with sharia, ordered that the option of life imprisonment for blasphemy should be formally removed from the statute book in accordance with its 1991 ruling that the only appropriate penalty must be death.
- Brunei. A member of the Commonwealth and British protectorate until 1984. A new sharia-based penal code was implemented in May 2014 whose punishments include stoning to death. Under the code, any Muslim who embraces another faith will be executed for apostasy and Christians will be fined or jailed for teaching Christianity to anyone under 18.
- Philippines. Under a peace deal between the government and Islamist rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a semi-independent Islamic state called Bangsamoro will be created in the south, which will be allowed its own security force and enforcement of sharia. Bangsamoro includes the town of Wao which is 83 per cent Christian and whose mayor has protested strongly against it being part of an Islamic state.
- Indonesia. Aceh province, which hit world headlines 10 years ago after being hit by the tsunami, passed a new bylaw obliging all non Muslims to follow sharia. The city of Bengkulu in Sumatra is considering a new law forcing all residents to join in daily Islamic prayers. Although the national government has not yet approved this, a similar stand off between provincial and federal governments in northern Nigeria in the 1990s led to the gradual enforcement of sharia there.
- Tanzania. A small Muslim majority of the 600 member assembly has proposed the formal inclusion of Khadi (sharia) courts within the constitution. This despite 70 per cent of Tanzania’s population being non-Muslims.
- Bangladesh. In an illustration of the Islamist understanding of democracy as a one way street to achieving the implementation of sharia enforcement, Islamists issued violent threats to deter Christians from voting in parliamentary elections and set fire to Christian villages that voted.
The need to act
Each year we have seen both a wider global spread of sharia enforcement and an increase in its intensity. Both of these have led to significant suffering for non-Muslims and, indeed, for many ordinary Muslims who just want to get on with their lives. The plight of the Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Yezidis and many ordinary Muslims in the areas of Iraq and Syria now controlled by ISIS has hit world headlines. Yet their plight is simply the tip of a much wider problem that must be addressed.
As I have argued before, it is imperative that Britain takes the lead among other western countries, and makes stopping the spread of sharia enforcement a key long-term aim of its foreign policy.
Martin Parsons has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and has written a major academic book on this subject.