Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics

By Ann Elizabeth Mayer | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Islamic Human Rights Schemes and Non-Muslims

The Treatment of Religious Minorities in Muslim Countries

The peculiar historical background of the question of the rights of nonMuslim minorities makes any discussion by a Western observer of this issue perilous. Critical assessments of the use of Islam as a rationale for discriminatory treatment of non-Muslims are likely to be interpreted as being prompted by Western and Orientalist biases. The historical background is summarized here in an attempt to show that important distinctions should be made between the past, in which there were imperialist campaigns aimed at undermining the sovereignty of Muslim countries by exploiting the issue of the treatment of non-Muslim minorities, and the present, in which the equality of all citizens of Muslim countries is an issue of international human rights law. A review of the background is also needed to show how Muslims have been conditioned to look at this problem as part of a broader historical relationship with the West and how their perceptions, influenced by that history, have tended to impede their recognition of the human rights implications of traditional patterns of according unequal status to nonMuslims.

For centuries, the status of non-Muslims in the Middle East was determined by shari'a law in a situation where Muslim rulers enjoyed unchallenged hegemony over their non-Muslim subjects. At the time of the growth of European commercial connections with the Ottoman Empire, European states claimed that the treatment afforded non-Muslims under the shari'a was unacceptable. European powers were able to wrest concessions from the Ottomans for their own citizens, who were given extraterritorial status. This was done via capitulations, agreements that exempted their citizens from the jurisdiction of local courts. Subsequently, Europeans who settled in the Middle East were

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