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Martin Parsons: In 2012, sharia enforcement continued to spread around the world

MArtin PBy Martin Parsons.

A year ago it was clear that, despite the widely presumed promise of the Arab spring, 2011 had been a year in which sharia enforcement has both spread and intensified both in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. This is part of a longer term pattern of increasing Islamisation that has been happening since the late 1970s and which has continued in 2012.

The enforcement of sharia happens at a number of levels. The ultimate aim of Islamists is that sharia becomes the only system of law and government, with both Muslims and non Muslims alike subject to it. However, in many Islamic countries sharia exists in different degrees either as the sole form of law (as in Saudi Arabia), or more commonly a formal system alongside parliamentary law with a court able to rule that parliamentary legislation must be changed to comply with sharia (as is the case in Pakistan). In other situations, it exists more informally alongside parliamentary law with a blurred boundary as to whether criminal and civil cases are taken to sharia or government courts. In other countries still, particularly those in the West, sharia is enforced informally within the Muslim  community, as significant pressure may be exerted on individual Muslims to follow the dictates of sharia.

Of course if individual Muslims wish to live their lives as individuals in accordance with sharia that is entirely up to them. Although, in practice, as sharia is a total law code covering not just personal lifestyle issues but also criminal law, commercial law, family law, etc., there are limits to how much individual Muslims can follow sharia on their own.

What we have been seeing for the last 30 or more years is both the spread and intensification of the enforcement of sharia across the world, as Islamists pursue their goal of subjecting the entire world to sharia and Islamic government. This is happening regardless of whether individuals wish to submit to it.  The community that has suffered most — though by no means exclusive in its suffering — has been Christians, particularly the ancient Christian churches of the Middle East, who in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Iran number several millions of people. 

Islamists primarily using non violent methods at present — such as the Muslim Brotherhood that originated in Egypt — have increasingly become masters of using the democratic process as a one way street to attain their Islamist goals. Other Islamists, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, focus on violent methods. However, the end goal of both is the same. Both of these strands of sharia enforcement have continued in 2012.

The following is by no means an exhaustive account of sharia enforcement in 2012. In many respects, it's just touching the visible tip of a giant iceberg.

The international spread of sharia enforcement in 2012

Nigeria illustrates the dangers of appeasing Islamist demands for the introduction of sharia. Although the country is a secular state, Islamist pressure has led to sharia having been imposed in 12 northern states which are predominantly Muslim. Islamists are now seeking to fully Islamicise the North and extend their control to central Nigeria, where the population is more equally divided between Christians, Muslims and adherents of African Traditional Religions. And they have waged a campaign of violence to achieve this. It is estimated that since 2009 over 3,000 Christians, Muslim critics and members of the security forces have been killed by the Islamist group Boko Haram. On New Year’s Day 2012 Boko Haram issued an ultimatum giving Christians 3 days to leave Northern Nigeria. This was followed by attacks on Christian meetings starting on 5th January in which 9 people were killed, followed by another 20 the following day, with numerous attacks following throughout the year specifically targeting churches and Christian leaders. On 4th March Boko Haram declared jihad on Christians in Nigeria, with a spokesman stating that they planned coordinated attacks to "eradicate Christians from certain parts of the country". Their campaign of violence has led to a mass refugee movement of Christians from the North. For example, in Yobe state 95 per cent of Christians are reported to have left after 20 churches were burnt down and numerous Christians killed.

Mali appears to be the new front in the Islamist advance. In July 2012 Islamists who had initially joined with separatists to oust government forces from Northern Mali turned on the separatists and seized control themselves. The Islamists, who include al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram, have imposed a form of sharia not unlike that the Taliban imposed in Afghanistan, with widespread reports of public executions, amputations and floggings.

Even more disturbingly, US security sources have suggested that an alliance has effecitvely been formed by various African jihadists groups. including AQIM, Boko Haram and East Africa-based al Shabaab, who are now thought to be pooling both finances, explosives and training.

Sudan. Following years of civil war in which the predominantly Arab, Muslim North sought to impose sharia on the largely black African Christian and Animist south, the 2011 partition into a northern country (Sudan) and southern (South Sudan) has not ended attempts to intensify and extend sharia enforcement.

On 7th July the President of Sudan Omar Hassan al-Bashir declared that “Our template is clear a 100 per cent Islamic constitution, without communism or secularism or western influence". During 2012, the Sudanese government has not only imposed a harsh form of sharia, but also pursued policies that appear to be aimed at "cleansing" Sudan of all non Muslims. In February, an ultimatum was issued to more than half a million people originating from the South, predominantly Christians, to leave Sudan by April 8th or be treated as foreigners. Many of these had been living in the capital Khartoum for decades having fled there to escape fighting in the South. 

Meanwhile, a genocidal campaign has been waged against the Nuba Mountain people, particularly targeting the non Muslim population there. For example, on 27th September, a crowded market place in the predominantly Christian town of Heiban was repeatedly bombed by the Sudan armed forces.

Egypt. The country’s first parliamentary and presidential elections since the fall of Mubarak saw major gains for Islamist parties. The elections which commenced at the end of 2011 and ran through 2012 saw the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party gain the largest share of the seats in both the lower (47 per cent) and upper (59 per cent) houses of parliament, with the even more radical Salafist al Nur party gaining 23 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively. The presidential poll was similarly won by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi, who, during his campaign, had promised to apply sharia "uncompromisingly". After gaining office, President Morsi faced down the army, took new powers for himself and pushed through a new Islamist-orientated constitution.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s 10 million-strong Christian population has become increasingly fearful of a whole series of measures that represent an intensification of sharia being enforced on them, including a Salafist MP being put in charge of "education reform," and Islamists in the constituent assembly demanding that church funds be placed under "state" control.

Tunisia. A new draft constitution makes Islam and sharia “the principal source of legislation”. The ruling Islamist party Ennhada claims this principle will guarantee “freedom, justice and equality”.

Meanwhile, the "Centrist Association for Awareness and Reform," formed by Salafists after the 2011 election as an Islamic religious police, has been given legal recognition by the Ministry of the Interior.

Syria. Groups with suspected links to al Qaeda entered Syria from Iraq, and appear to be seeking to "cleanse" Syria of its Christian population of approximately one-and-half million. For example, at the beginning of June, most of the 10,000 Christians living in the town of Qusayr fled after hearing mosque loudspeakers telling them “Christians must leave Qusayr within six days, ending Friday” (8th June). There had earlier been a similar ultimatum allegedly issued by the military leader of the opposition. Similarly, in Homs, only 80 Christians are now left out of an original 50-60,000. Disturbingly, the 80 left are being prevented from leaving by Salafist groups who are using them as human shields and are reportedly not allowing them any new food supplies, as a result of which 6 have already died.

Indonesia. To some extent, Indonesia mirrors Nigeria in illustrating the folly of appeasing Islamist demands for sharia. At least 16 of the country’s 32 provinces have added elements of sharia to their legal systems in response to Islamist pressure following an Islamist campaign of violence that ended in 2001. In 2012, Islamist protests against non-Muslim places of worship existing in Indonesia led to the provincial government in Aceh province ordering at least 20 churches to tear down their buildings. On 19th November, the mayor of Tasikmalaya in West Java announced that sharia would be implemented in the city, as a result of a promise he made to Muslim leaders during his election campaign.

However, Islamist violence directed particularly against Indonesian Christians now seems to be increasing again. In the Maluku islands, where thousands of Christians were killed by Islamist violence between 1999 and 2001, violence has again erupted. On 14th May 2012, a bomb exploded and Christian homes were torched in Ambon, leading to Christians fleeing their homes.

Philippines. Mindanao looks set to effectively become a separate Islamic region governed by sharia, as the government reached an agreement with Islamist jihadists fighting to create an independent Islamic state there.

India. Despite India having a secular constitution, sharia courts are tolerated in some Muslim majority states. A disturbing development last year saw police supporting the enforcement of sharia on non-Muslims. On 19th January a sharia court ordered that a Christian minister and four other church leaders, who it had earlier ordered the arrest of, should be expelled from Kashmir. Kashmiri police appear to have similarly colluded with Islamists when, on 23rd May, 400 Christians fled their homes after their century-old church building was torched by Islamists. When local Christians tried to file a case with the police they were advised "not to play up such cases".

Themes emerging from the global spread of sharia enforcement in 2012

1. The danger of appeasing Islamists by all allowing partial or full sharia enforcement in Muslim majority areas. What has happened in Nigeria and Indonesia should highlight the reality that not only is sharia enforced on many who do not want it, including both Muslims and non Muslim alike, but appeasing Islamists simply leads to demands for greater Islamisation which are often accompanied by jihadist violence.

2. The need to recognise what all Islamists are seeking to achieve. While some Islamists have become highly skilled at using the democratic process as a one way street to gain power, other Islamists use violent jihad. However, their ultimate aims are essentially the same: imposition of Islamic government with sharia enforced on both the willing and the unwilling. The myth that there are "moderate" Islamists was exposed in September, when Turkey’s Prime Minister Recap Tayyip Erdogan — widely regarded by western liberals as a "moderate" Islamist — joined with the leader of Hezbollah to call for an international law against defamation of religion; effectively a global blasphemy law similar to that in Pakistan, which would criminalise any criticism of Islam, potentially including articles such as this one.

3. Opposition movements that include Islamists tend to get taken over by Islamists. This is what happened in the 1979 Iranian revolution. And we have seen it happen in the ‘Arab Spring’; with Egypt being perhaps the clearest example, but it is also increasingly evident elsewhere, including Syria.

4. Religious cleansing of non Muslim populations, particularly Christians is currently reaching levels that are unprecedented in most people’s lifetimes. In a House of Lords debate, held a year ago, on the plight of Christians in the Middle East, Lord Patten warned that "we are facing religious cleansing in parts of the Middle East", while the Archbishop of Canterbury warned that the position of Christians in the Middle East was now more vulnerable than it had been for centuries and likely to lead to large scale emigration of Middle Eastern Christians. This is a crisis that requires concerted international action both from a humanitarian perspective and because the ancient Christian populations in the Middle East have historically represented an important leavening influence against the advance of radical Islam.

5. Combatting the spread of sharia enforcement should become a central part of British foreign policy. However, Britain is only one player on the international scene. The US is currently pursuing a naive liberal policy towards the international spread of Islamism, as can be seen both by the refusal of the State Department to recognise Boko Haram as a "foreign terrorist organisation" because it assumes that the violence in Northern Nigeria is due to socio-economic factors, and by its attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, whose involvement in any form of government would inevitably lead to a greater intensification of sharia enforcement in Afghanistan. However, if Britain is to exert any real influence behind the scenes on US foreign policy, it is essential that — as I argued a year ago — combatting the spread of sharia enforcement around the world becomes a key long-term aim of British foreign policy.


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