Queen Rania denounces religious fanatics

Yesterday Queen Rania of Jordan spoke about "reclaiming the narrative" from religious militants.

"It’s a fight for the future of Islam and the future of the Arab world," she said. Winning it, she added, "depends on our ability to conquer the philosophical battleground ... because at the heart of this assault is an ideology."

According to the Jordan Times, reforming education topped the queen's to-do list for the region. Followers of radical Islamist groups, she said, come "from classrooms in which they were never challenged to think for themselves and where they learned an outdated curriculum": 

"Our strategy must be long-term. And that starts by investing in quality education for all ... Education reform doesn't come cheap. But the price of ignorance is far, far greater ...

"We either develop our region, or we let others dismantle it. Find solutions to the challenges, or watch the challenges avalanche. Harness the tools to drive the Arab world forward in the 21st century, or let others use those tools to drag us back to the dark ages."

So far, so good. But one very important aspect which the queen doesn't seem to have touched on is the way Arab governments help to legitimise religious intolerance. Jordan is certainly not the worst offender in this regard, but it could do a lot more to promote freedom of thought and belief, and it should stop discriminating against citizens who decide to change their religion.

Here's a summary of the situation in Jordan from the US State Department in its most recent global report on religious freedom:

"The constitution and other laws and policies provide for religious freedom, with some exceptions. The constitution stipulates that the state religion is Islam, but provides for the freedom to practice the rites of one’s religion and faith in accordance with the customs that are observed in the country, unless they violate public order or morality. 

"The constitution stipulates that there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on the basis of religion; however, the government prohibits religious practices that conflict with the official interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). The constitution notes that the king must be Muslim, and the government accords primacy to sharia in matters of personal status. 

"Conversion from Islam is not permitted under sharia and converts risk losing their civil status rights. The government discriminates against some religious groups by refusing to officially recognise their organisations, thereby denying them the right to establish their own religious courts for personal status matters. Members of unrecognised religious groups faced legal discrimination. The government continued to monitor citizens and foreign residents suspected of proselytising Muslims.

"There were reports of societal abuse or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. While relations between Muslims and Christians were generally peaceful, adherents of unrecognised religious groups and Muslims who converted to other religions faced societal discrimination and the possibility of family or community abuse."

Despite what the constitution says about religious freedom, it's a concept that large sections of Jordanian society have still not taken on board. For example, atheism – like sexual transgression – is considered an offence against "honour" in some families and is thus punishable by death at the hands of relatives.

One man, an atheist who was also gay and a former imam, had a narrow escape after he appeared in a YouTube video talking about his sexuality and religion. "He was few hours away from being killed," Mohammed al-Khadra, an activist, told me. "I managed with the help of my members and his mother to get him out of the house. I got him to Lebanon."

Khadra said:

"I have a friend who lost his wife because he told her he was an atheist. I myself lost my fiancée for being an atheist. I couldn't lie to her so I told her I am not a Muslim. She was fine with it at first then in a couple of months she said 'You don't pray, you are not a Muslim, so you must have bad morals.'

"The main view is that if someone is not a Muslim he or she must have bad morals. If he is an atheist then he must be living like an animal. That’s how they see us."

The Jordanian government, meanwhile, has to keep looking over its shoulder at the Islamist opposition – offering them a sop from time to time. Khadra continued:

"Every once in a while when they want to appease the opposition over something, they select someone to put on trial for blasphemy.

"Islam Samhan, a Muslim poet, was jailed after the opposition made claims against him. Since the government doesn’t give them their larger claims, such as ruling entirely by sharia law, they give them these smaller ones just to keep things rolling."

Samhan was arrested for "insulting the prophets" after publishing a book of poetry that was deemed to be blasphemous. 

The problems faced by Jordanians who change their religion is also documented in my book, Arabs Without God. Jordan has no explicit law preventing Muslims from leaving Islam, and no formal legal penalties. Regardless of that, though, the government does not recognise conversions away from Islam and this can have serious consequences for those affected. Muslims who leave Islam continue to be treated as apostate Muslims rather than converts to some other religion (or none).

Personal status law in Jordan is dealt with by two types of court: sharia-based courts for Muslims and others for those of recognised non-Muslim religions. Defectors from Islam can be taken to the sharia courts (by relatives or others) and stripped of important rights – in effect being punished with "civil death":

"During 2005 and 2006 two apostasy cases were heard by the sharia courts in Jordan. In January 2005, the sharia appeals court, declaring a Muslim convert to Christianity to be a ward of the state, stripped him of his civil rights and annulled his marriage. 

"The court stated that he no longer had any inheritance rights and that he could not remarry his wife unless he returned to Islam. He was also forbidden from being considered an adherent of any other religion. The verdict also implied the possibility that legal and physical custody of his child could be assigned to someone else. The convert has since left Jordan, received refugee status, and resettled in another country. 

"A similar decision in 2006 left another Jordanian man without identification cards, thus depriving him of basic social rights."

Maybe Queen Rania should have a word with her husband about this. If she is serious about "reclaiming the narrative" she should make sure that Jordan sets a good example for other countries.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 19 November 2014