I am currently in Morocco for the Marrakesh Declaration and Call to Action, a three-day gathering of prominent Sunni and Shia scholars (though primarily Sunni) from around the world who have come together to affirm the rights of minorities within Muslim-majority contexts and mobilize action to protect them. Drawing from historic Islamic sources, particularly the Charter of Medina, a contract established by the Prophet (peace be upon him) with the Jewish community in Medina ensuring freedom of religious practice and vows of protection, the summit will issue a declaration at its conclusion. In workshop sessions, participants are developing the substance of this declaration and plans for its implementation. Clergy of other faiths and interfaith activists are attending as observers, supporters, and contributors to the discussion.
The gathering has been in the works for four years, led by the prominent Mauritanian Sunni scholar Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah under the auspices of his Forum for Muslims Promoting Peace, with the Moroccan king serving as co-sponsor and host. Sheikh bin Bayyah, an Islamic legal expert, developed the framework for the summit and its declaration, seeking to bring tradition and modernity into conversation. His efforts came in response to the rise of extremist groups in the Muslim world that target minority groups (among others) with violence, rape and sexual enslavement, forced conversion, and destruction of holy sites. These “uneducated” and “arrogant fools,” as Sheikh bin Bayyah described them on the first day of the meeting, distort Islam, and so these prominent ulema (Islamic scholars) have an important role to play in discrediting extremists’ arguments and advancing protection of minorities and their cultural and religious traditions as an essential Islamic duty.
There is no doubt that the current moment is one of exceptional crisis for the world generally, and for the Muslim world in particular. But this moment of crisis is also one of opportunity, creating motivation as never before for those involved in peacebuilding in the Muslim world to come together across sectarian, ethnic, and national lines to affirm, renew, and strengthen positive teachings and relationships within the tradition, address historical points of disagreement that have divided the greater Muslim community, and draw from the many Islamic sources available to transform the drivers of violence in the Muslim world and beyond.
There have been many attempts to organize the greater ummah, or world community of Muslims, to find points of consensus among the religion’s diverse followers in order to advance peace and reduce sectarianism. For example, the Amman Message, drafted in 2004 and signed by hundreds of Muslim leaders, called for tolerance and unity within the ummah. The 2010 Mardin Conference convened over a dozen Sunni scholars to methodically denounce and invalidate a fatwa that is often cited by militant jihadists. Gatherings and statements such as these have been and continue to be significant markers in considering Islam in the current global context. However, these platforms and declarations have sometimes been criticized for failing to organize and mobilize action yielding tangible impact in ending violence and transforming its underlying drivers. It is the hope of many convened here in Marrakesh, including the conference organizers, but especially the minority representatives from Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, that this meeting and declaration will yield such action. At the very least, the presence of numerous government representatives and prominent scholars is acknowledgement of the existence of a serious problem that needs addressing. As noted by Shahed Amanullah in a tweet, it’s an important step.