‘Muslim Majority’ Versus Islamic Nations, Part 2: Sharia Law and Islam as the State Religion

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (left) sparked protests when he handed over two islands to Riyadh after trade talks with Saudi King Salman in April 2016

In Part 1 of this look at the Islamic world, we examined three nations with Muslim majority populations where the future of religious freedom is in question.

Next, we will run through the Muslim-majority countries where Islam is the state religion. The nations of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia were all covered in a previous article on President Trump’s executive order to temporarily restrict immigrants and visitors from those points of origin. All name Islam as their official state religion.

Afghanistan: America’s investment in blood and treasure to liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban produced a 2004 Constitution that formally identifies the internationally-recognized country as the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” The constitution’s preamble begins, “In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficient, the Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of Worlds; and Praise and Peace be upon Mohammad His Last Messenger, and his disciples and followers.”

“The sacred religion of Islam” is the official state religion, although the constitution stipulates that “followers of other faiths shall be free within the bounds of law in the exercise and performance of their religious rituals.” The U.S. State Department has consistently rated actual religious freedom in Afghanistan as poor, although better than it was under the Taliban. Among other things, conversion away from Islam is considered apostasy and is punished by death, and the Bahai religion is considered blasphemous, so its practice is punished by death. Publicizing or promoting religions other than Islam is forbidden.

The constitution expresses appreciation for “the sacrifices, historical struggles, jihad, and just resistance of all the peoples of Afghanistan, admiring the supreme position of the martyrs of the country’s freedom.”

Article Three of the Afghan constitution states that “no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan.”

According to the U.S. State Department, representatives of minority religions complain they are not afforded the same legal rights as Muslims. Less than one-half of one percent of the Afghan population currently follows a faith other than Sunni or Shia Islam. About 90 percent of the country is Sunni Muslim; the Shiites often complain of discrimination.

Algeria: Islam is the state religion, and is specified as a “fundamental component” of national identity in the constitution. Algerian law grants religious freedom to the less than 1 percent of the population that does not practice Sunni Islam, but proselytizing by non-Muslims is a criminal offense, as is “offending the Prophet Mohammed.” Non-Muslim groups have reported difficulty registering with the Algerian government.

Bangladesh: About 90 percent of the population is Muslim. Islam is the official state religion, as specified in the 1972 constitution.

The fundamental principles of the government are “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah, nationalism, democracy, and socialism meaning economic and social justice.”

Overall, the Bangladeshi constitution is much heavier on socialism than Islam. It includes provisions that forbid discrimination based on religion. However, the U.S. State Department reports complaints of discrimination against non-Muslims, in matters such as property disputes and the presence of Islamic questions on university exams.

The State Department notes that the government of Bangladesh provides hefty financial support for its Islamic Foundation – orders of magnitude more than it gives to Hindu, Christian, or Buddhist welfare trusts – and makes special allowances for fatwas (religious edicts) issued by top Muslim leaders. The secular government also has a special relationship with large mosques, although it does not directly control most of them. The government can appoint and remove imams from the state-approved mosques, and there are government-run training academies for imams.

Bangladesh is over 90 percent Muslim, with Hindus comprising the largest religious minority at 8 percent.

Bangladesh made international headlines over the past two years for the murders of atheist and gay-rights bloggers by Islamist vigilantes. “As the world progresses under the banner of freedom of expression, we seem to be hurtling backwards,” one blogger told CNN in 2016. Religious freedom activists criticized the Bangladeshi government for spending more time denouncing the victims and imprisoning bloggers than hunting for the killers.

ISIS and al-Qaeda are both active in Bangladesh, claiming responsibility for much of its religious violence.

Comoros: Tiny Comoros has a population of just 767,000, which is 99 percent Sunni Muslim. Only a few hundred residents practice a religion other than Sunni Islam. Islam is mandated as the official state religion by the 2001 constitution. Subsequent legislation defined Sunni Shafi’i Islam as the only permissible religious practice.

Practicing any other religion in public or proselytizing for it is illegal and can result in deportation for foreigners. Non-Sunni Muslims are forbidden from training clergy or building houses of worship. Conversion from Islam is a criminal offense. The designated leader of national Islam, the Grand Mufti, is appointed by the president. The children of citizens are required to receive education in the Koran.

Djibouti: The population of this small country is 94 percent Sunni Muslim, with a diverse mix of faiths comprising the other six percent. The U.S. State Department describes the non-Muslim population as “generally foreign-born citizens and expatriates, highly concentrated in Djibouti City.”

Islam is the constitutionally-mandated state religion. The president swears an Islamic oath of office. There is a government Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which has the power to close mosques and replace imams. Imams are treated as civil servants working for the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which technically owns their mosques.

Citizens who do not specify another religion are treated as Muslim by default and are subject to a court system that “includes elements of civil and Islamic law.” The government does not recognize non-Islamic religious marriages.

However, the constitution also protects freedom of religion and forbids religious-based political parties. The law imposes no official sanctions against non-Muslims and requires some civil servants to swear secular oaths of office. The practice of religions other than Islam is not forbidden or regulated by the government. The State Department observes that the Djibouti government has “permitted a limited number of Christian missionaries to sell religious books and pamphlets.” Conversion away from Islam is not illegal.

Egypt: Of course, there was much drama surrounding the fall of authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring, the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood’s ouster by the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Egypt’s 2014 constitution specifies Islam as the state religion, and sharia as the “principal source of legislation.” The constitution goes on to extend legal protection to Christian and Jewish religious affairs. The U.S. State Department notes that only Muslims, Christians, and Jews are explicitly granted the right to practice their religions freely. Some religious are outright banned under Egyptian law, including the Bahai and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Egypt’s constitution also grants special status to Al-Azhar, the main Islamic university in Cairo. According to the constitution, Al-Azhar is “the main authority for religious sciences and Islamic affairs,” with a responsibility for “preaching Islam and disseminating the religious sciences and the Arabic language in Egypt and the world.” The constitution requires Egypt’s government to provide “enough financial allocations to achieve its purposes,” and forbids the secular government from dismissing the Grand Sheikh who oversees the university.

Egypt is about 90 percent Sunni Muslim. While the Sisi government occasionally reaches out to other religions in various ways, especially Coptic Christians, there is no question that Egyptian law discriminates against non-Muslims in many ways, including apostasy prosecutions for those who convert away from Islam.

For example, from the State Department’s 2015 report on Egypt:

In keeping with sharia, non-Muslim men must convert to Islam to marry Muslim women, although non-Muslim women need not convert to marry Muslim men. A non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert. Custody of children is then awarded to the mother.

Jordan: Jordan is about 97 percent Sunni Muslim, and Islam is the state religion. Sharia courts are built right into the constitution. The government has several ministries dedicated to Islamic affairs. The King of Jordan is required to be Muslim, and the Hashemite royal family has religious significance.

Jordan’s constitution also guarantees religious freedom for non-Muslims, and the kingdom prides itself on promoting that ideal, but the U.S. State Department’s report on Jordan explains that the primacy of sharia in the Jordanian legal code causes some problems – most especially when non-Muslims proselytize, or a Muslim attempts to convert away from Islam. Promoting other religions to a Muslim can be prosecuted as “harming the national unity.”

The sharia courts treat converts as “Muslim apostates” in perpetuity, which can have unpleasant ramifications for child custody and property rights. Muslim women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslim men. Furthermore, the government will not allow a convert away from Islam to change his religious affiliation on the national ID card.

Christians are only permitted to run for 36 of the 150 seats in the Jordanian parliament, with 9 of those seats expressly reserved for Christians. No other religion is allowed to hold seats except for the Druze, who are classified as Muslims.

Jordan’s civil service exams require even non-Muslims to learn some verses from the Koran. The public-school system has been criticized for failing to promote religious diversity and tolerance.

Malaysia: Malaysia is only about 60 percent Muslim, but Islam is the official state religion. (More specifically, Sunni Islam – the spread of Shia Islam is illegal.) The constitution deals extensively with the rules for determining who is the “head of the religion of Islam” in different provinces.

The constitution guarantees religious freedom for non-Muslims, but there has been great controversy over the past year about the Malaysian government’s attempt to impose Islamic law upon non-Muslims. Critics have denounced this as pandering to the Muslim majority.

Malaysian law criminalizes insults to Islam and proselytizing to Muslims by non-Muslims. Non-Muslims are required to adopt Islam if they seek to marry a Muslim. Muslims who wish to convert to other religions must obtain approval from sharia courts to declare themselves “apostates” – permission the courts rarely grant. In some Malaysian states, conversion away from Islam is a crime punishable by fines, imprisonment, and/or beatings. Malaysians carry a national ID card that specifies whether they are Muslim or not.

Maldives: The Republic of Maldives is absolutely repressive. Sunni Islam is the state religion, the constitution is “based on the principles of Islam,” sharia law is superior to civil law, and the public practice of any other religion is forbidden. Even proselytizing Muslims to change to other denominations of Islam is forbidden.

Public officials are required to be Sunni Muslims. Non-Muslims cannot even be full citizens of the country. Speech which contradicts the “basic tenets of Islam” is forbidden. Schools are required to teach “obedience to Islam” and “instill love of Islam.” Mosques are effectively government institutions.  

Mauritania: The population is almost entirely Muslim. Islam is the state religion. Citizenship is restricted to Muslims; a Muslim who converts away from Islam loses his citizenship. A small number of government-approved Christian churches are allowed to serve the needs of foreigners, but Mauritanian citizens are forbidden to attend them. Apostasy is punishable by death. There is a government Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional Education that monitors mosques and helps promote religious edicts. There are government-sponsored Koran radio and TV stations, government funding of mosques, and imams who collect government paychecks. Proselytizing for religions other than Islam is forbidden.

Morocco: Islam is the official state religion, as specified in the constitution. The king of Morocco is officially entitled “Commander of the Faithful and Protector of Islam.” Secular and religious authority are deeply entwined. For example, only the king’s royal decree can make a fatwa from the officially-recognized high council of Muslim scholars binding. Judges are trained in sharia law. Violation of various Islamic codes, such as breaking fast during Ramadan, can bring criminal charges.

The government forbids proselytizing by non-Muslims and restricts the distribution of religious materials other than the dominant Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam. Muslim women are forbidden from marrying non-Muslim men. Criticism of Islam is punishable by imprisonment, and television stations are required to dedicate a certain amount of time each day to Islamic religious content, including the five-times-daily call to prayer. Islamic instruction is mandatory in the public schools, although foreign-run schools are allowed to skip religious instruction entirely.

Over 99 percent of the population of Morocco is Sunni Muslim. Interestingly, the only other religious group given special consideration under Moroccan law is the Jews, a very small minority that resides largely in Casablanca. “There is a separate set of laws and courts with authority over personal status matters for Jews, covering issues such as marriage, inheritance, and other family matters,” the U.S. State Department reports. Jewish schools are uniquely allowed to provide Jewish religious instruction.

Pakistan: Pakistan’s formal name is the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” Islam and sharia are written right into the constitution, which begins with the declaration that “sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone.”

The Pakistani legal code is not completely based on sharia, but Islamists in the country are working very hard to change that. One of the flashpoint cases is the 2011 murder of a provincial governor who defended a Christian woman against Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws. Huge demonstrations have been held in support of the killer.

Pakistan’s powerful Islamic councils, which technically have only advisory roles to elected representatives, are a constant source of sharia horror stories, such as declaring that it’s “un-Islamic” for abused women to leave their husbands, and “light beating” of a wife is acceptable when all else fails.

Saudi Arabia: There is no need to spend much time discussing Saudi Arabia, which is among the most oppressive Islamic theocracies in the world. The above-mentioned chief of the Sharia Department in Indonesia’s Aceh province is correct that his brutal medieval legal system is softer than the Saudi version.

Sharia is not just part of the Saudi constitution – it is the Saudi constitution. The Saudi religious police do not just beat their victims, they often kill them. Religions other than Islam are absolutely forbidden in the Kingdom. Visitors who do not believe in Islam are forced to obey Islamic law. Conversion from Islam is punishable by death.

A January 2015 article in the Washington Post considered the accusation that Saudi Arabia’s implementation of sharia law is not much different from the practices of ISIS, and found the contention difficult to dismiss.

Even a bubbly Tom Hanks fish-out-of-water comedy about a businessman’s adventures in Saudia Arabia was forced to dance uncomfortably around the reality that his character could have been killed for entering Mecca or Medina.

The Gulf States: Saudi Arabia’s allies around the Persian Gulf include Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. All of them have constitutions that declare Islam is the official state religion, and sharia is the basis for their legal codes. Foreign visitors to the tourist-friendly capitals of these rich and modern-looking Gulf states often learn to their dismay just how serious they are about enforcing sharia law against non-Muslims.

Tunisia: 99 percent Sunni Muslim, Tunisia’s constitution declares it to be an Islamic state, and describes the state as “the guardian of religion.” The president is constitutionally required to be Muslim.

The “free exercise of religious practices” is also stipulated in the 2014 constitution, and it requires places of worship to be politically neutral. However, the government oversees Islamic religious practices, supervises mosques, and pays the salaries of imams. Mosques are considered government property. The national Islamic religious leader, the Grand Mufti, is appointed by the president. Public schools are required to provide an hour of Islamic instruction per week. Much of the civil legal code is based on sharia law.

Registered Christian and Jewish houses of worship are allowed to operate. According to the U.S. State Department, the government has provided financial support to the Jewish community, including paying the salary of the Grand Rabbi.

The Tunisian government is fighting a political and physical struggle with the radical Islamist party Hizb al-Tahrir. Ominously, there have been polls that show a growing majority of Tunisian citizens reject the principle of religious freedom and oppose marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims.

In Part 3, we’ll complete our examination by looking at Muslim majority countries where Islam is not the official state religion.


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