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 sharia 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, particularly those in the west, sharia is enforced informally within the Muslim community – although there may be significant pressure 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.
However, what we have been seeing for the last 30 or more years is both the spread and intensifying of the enforcement of sharia on whole areas 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 – including traditionalist and liberal Muslim and non Muslims – wish to submit to it. The community that has suffered most from the spread of sharia enforcement, 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 (al Ikhwan al Muslimun) that originated in Egypt have increasingly become masters of using the democratic process as a one way street to attain their Islamist goals – as we have seen this year in countries such as Egypt. However, other Islamists such as Boko Haram in Nigeria focus on violent methods. Nonetheless, the end goal of both is the same – the enforcement of sharia and Islamic government on all Muslims – willing and unwilling alike as well as on all non Muslims. Both of these strands of sharia enforcement have continued in 2012.
The following is by no means an exhaustive summary of the way that sharia enforcement has spread and intensified in 2012 and is in many respects just touching the visible tip of a giant iceberg.
The international spread of sharia enforcement in 2012
Potentially the most serious developments have occurred in the Sahara / sub Saharan Africa belt.
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 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 ‘war’ (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% 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 siezed 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 which the Taliban imposed in Afghanistan with widespread reports of public executions, amputations and floggings.
Even more disturbingly, US security sources have suggested that an effective alliance has been formed by various African jihadists groups including North African based AQIM, Nigerian based Boko Haram and East African 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% 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 aiming at ‘cleansing’ Sudan of all non Muslims. In February an ultimatum was issued to more than half a million people originating from the South who were 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 fed there to escape fighting in the South.
Meanwhile a genocidal campaign has been waged against the Nuba mountain people, which particularly targets the non Muslim population there. For example, on 27th September a crowded market place in the predominantly Christian town of Heiban was 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%) and upper(59%)houses of parliament, with the even more radical Salafist al Nur party gaining 23% and 25% 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 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 2011 election as an Islamic religious police has been given legal recognition by 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 church buildings in order to appease Islamists. Meanwhile on 19th November the mayor of the city 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 14 May 2012 ,a bomb exploded and
Christian homes were torched in Ambon leading to Christians fleeing their homes.
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 Islamist extremists. 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
Several themes emerge from this:
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: Whilst some Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its offshoot Hamas in Gaza have become highly skilled at using the democratic process as a one way street to gain power, other Islamists such as Boko Haram in Nigeria 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 latter including both Muslim critics and those of others faiths such as Christians. The ‘myth’ believed 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, Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah to call for an international law against defamation of religion, effectively a global blasphemy law similar to that in Pakistan, that would criminalise any criticism of Islam, including potentially 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’, Egypt being perhaps the clearest example, but it is also becoming 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 the early centuries of the Christian church there was a Western Church that looked to Rome, an ‘Eastern Church’ in the Byzantine Empire and a ‘Church of the East’ that existed in areas to the East of Antioch such as Persia, Afghanistan, India and China. The latter was largely wiped out by the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities by Ghengis Khan in the thirteenth century and then in the fourteenth century by specific persecution of Christians by Tamurlane who ruthlessly exterminated Christians wherever he found them, although remnants still exist in countries such as Iran (385,000), Iraq (440,000) and South India (3.9 million). However, the Eastern Church in the old Byzantine empire survived under the Islamic concept of dhimmitude, by which Christian and Jewish communities were given a certain degree of toleration by sharia as second class citizens, although this did not stop an estimated 2 million Armenian Christians being massacred between the late nineteenth century and the end of the Ottoman empire in 1923. As a result large numbers of Christians still exist in countries such as Egypt (10 million), Syria (1.4 million), Lebanon (1.3 million) Jordan (145,000), Israel (150,00 with a further estimated 70,000 in the Palestinian territories). However, what we are now seeing is a further attempt to religiously cleanse whole areas of non Muslims on a broadly similar scale. In a House of Lords debate held a year ago on the plight of Christians in the Middle East in the light of the Arab Spring, 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 in those regions.
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 causes and by its attempts during 2012 to negotiate with the Taliban, whose involvement in any form of government would inevitably lead to a greater intensification of sharia enforcement in Afghanistan (the Taliban actually withdrew from the negotiations presumably feeling they had a better chance of achieving their aims by simply waiting for western forces to withdraw). Anyone who wants to see how effective appeasing Islamism is, might care to take a good hard look at the suffering of millions of people in Northern and Central Nigeria. 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.