Islamism’s spread challenges religious rights

After years in prison and exposure to torture, 'freedom' can taste bitter. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

To coincide with the launch of Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian, researchers at the charity have identified two major trends accompanying faith-based persecution. One of those is Islamic extremism.

When a Filipino city of 200,000 inhabitants fell into the hands of militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group, political leaders could no longer ignore the jihadists’ move east. The regional governments knew it would happen one day, given the presence of groups allying with IS and an Islamist separatist group operating in the south of the archipelago. The battle of Marawi, described by one press agency as “the Philippines’ longest urban war”, was only ended after five months and large-scale intervention by government armed forces. First attacked were a church and a Christian school; Christians were singled out and killed, a priest was abducted and held for four months. But the question that remained was: Where will the radicals go next? Critics say Indonesia and Malaysia have been too lenient with Islamic militants, which could make them vulnerable to intensified violent activity.

The battle to wrest control of Marawi from fighters claiming allegiance to IS paralysed the city and two months after it ended, almost 300 people, including some Christians, were unaccounted for. A priest was kidnapped for four months 

While IS is the most extreme movement, a spectrum of Islamist groups operates in different contexts around the world. The aims of the various groups vary from overthrowing non-Islamic rule by force to introducing sharia (Islamic law) through activism, participation in public life and democratic processes. The question of how much space one Islamic creed or another should occupy in public life has opened up fault-lines between Islamists and secularists, extremists and moderates, Sunni and Shia, not to mention Muslims and non-Muslims. In Muslim-majority countries Islamists can be observed trying to normalise a more radical form of Islam, and in Muslim-minority countries, they can be seen trying to radicalise the Muslim communities there and expanding their influence. Recruits can be successful, educated professionals, as well as less educated, poorer Muslims attracted by a victimhood narrative. One regional expert has suggested some young people see jihad as providing meaning amid the materialistic, superficial “selfie” age.

However, Islamic law poses a threat to religious freedom. Living under it places non-Muslims under pressure in their day-to-day lives and their interaction with neighbours, colleagues and relatives, and it can present security threats. Not only Christians have become targets in places where more radical forms of Islam have spread: in Bangladesh, Hindus as well as Christians, foreigners, and liberal writers have been targets of increasing attacks and Islamic fundamentalism. Islamists have also targeted other Muslim minority groups, such as practitioners of Sufi Islam, a more mystical form of the religion. The South Asian Terrorism Portal writes in its Bangladesh Report of 2017 that “there is the threat of increasing radicalisation, as significant numbers of youth[s] appear to be attracted to the movements of global jihad”.

The Bangladeshi government has consistently denied the presence of international terrorist organisations such IS and Al-Qaeda in the country, despite growing evidence, and has taken a stand against secular critics, arguing that citizens have no right to write or speak against any religion. The government has also been accused of arbitrarily cracking down on political opponents, stifling media and arresting critics.

Militancy and division in Asia

Overall, an increase in Islamic militancy has begun affecting many Asian countries: foiled bomb attacks in Bangladesh and Indonesia; the political fall-out of the blasphemy conviction of the Christian ex-Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed Ahok, in the Indonesian capital; the battle of Marawi and wider Mindanao unrest in the Philippines; and the forging of an “Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army” in Myanmar, to name but a few. Observers believe that the fight for control of Marawi and the expulsion of the Rohingya Muslim minority from Myanmar could serve as a rallying cry to would-be jihadists around the world.

Harder to record than violent attacks in Asia are increases in social pressure. Nonetheless, observers point to trends they have seen. In Indonesia, intolerance towards Christians became visible on banners, in publications and on social media posts during Ahok’s blasphemy trial. It has filtered down to educational institutions, where non-Muslim children can reportedly face overt discrimination. At the same time, government agencies that once secretly funded the proselytism of Christians by Muslims – especially in areas such as Papua New Guinea – are now doing so in an open manner. Such evangelism is strong among the more impoverished groups in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. One researcher at Open Doors said: “Call it what it is: Islamisation strategies. Some even illicit – just buying poor people.”

Money is an important factor behind proselytism. In Indonesia and the Maldives, Saudi Arabia has been aggressively expanding its financial prowess through a large number of investment projects. These include building mosques and Islamic boarding schools, where Wahhabism, a fundamentalist form of Islam, is taught. The result, however, is the creation of intolerant societies where freedom of religion is trampled underfoot.

Expansion in Africa

Many of the trends seen in Asia are also occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. Islamic NGOs that have been or still are funded by countries with strong political Islamic agendas, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, have in the last 20 years expanded madrassas and Islamic schools that teach radical views. The effect of this is increasing intolerance towards Christians that can been seen on the newly launched  World Watch List, where several sub-Saharan African countries have moved up in the direction of the Top 50. 

Indeed, Christians are facing increasing pressure and persecution in Muslim-majority countries in East, West and North Africa. In Egypt last year Islamic State announced that it aimed to wipe out Christians from the region through violence. In parts of northern Nigeria, different forms of Islamism coexist: extremist jihadist attacks by Boko Haram, and sharia creating a tolerance for some of the group’s actions. Other factors come into play, including the reduction of grazing land due to climate change: Hausa-Fulani Muslim herdsmen, often assisted by like-minded settlers, carry out attacks on the country’s Middle Belt’s majority-Christian and African traditionalist inhabitants. This situation suggests ethnic cleansing based on religious affiliation.

Observers have noted a pattern of Christian properties being targeted as Fulani-Hausa herdsmen carry out attacks in Nigeria’s Middle Belt

In addition, researchers at Open Doors believe there is a gradual expansion of political Islam over majority-Christian southern Nigeria, with the intention to Islamise the south. They say this occurs when Muslim leaders and their constituents pressure adherents of other religions “via banking, businesses, symbolism, mosque-building, schools and NGOs, to the extent that Christians (and adherents of other religions) must either leave or gradually adopt Islamic mores and, in some cases, convert to Islam or resist this attempt to impose an Islamic identity on their land.” They argue that similar dynamics can be observed in other countries with different intensities.

A more overt form of pressure being observed in some African countries is a sort of voluntary ghettoisation that serves to radicalise a Muslim community and, as a result, cleanse it of non-Muslims. The result is a stratification of society between Islam and Christianity which is furthered by Muslim communities side-stepping national legislation by setting up informal Sharia courts, and trying to expand into majority-Christian areas. Where governments are unable to create stable states that can protect their citizens, this easily leads to a vicious circle in which authorities are side-lined or co-opted, giving in to perpetrators of persecution for the sake of “peace”.

And a still more overt form of pressure is being applied in northeast Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan, where Open Doors researchers believe the murders, torture, displacement and deportation of civilians, and destruction of property, could constitute ethnic cleansing or even genocide, both of which are punishable under international law.

Finally, it is worth mentioning instances where Christians are not targeted but find themselves caught in the crossfire of violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In such instances, as was seen in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion, Christians were easy targets and their neighbourhoods easy to take control of.

In sum, the increase in Islamist influence in recent decades takes different forms in different contexts. However, from the perspective of the Christian, these developments have resulted in religious freedom being placed under ever greater pressure.

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