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A Pak professor tells Muslims: lets blow some whistle on ourselves

Yaqoob Khan Bangash | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 12:54 IST

The precedent

  • The Church supported the building of a huge Saudi-financed mosque in Rome, which opened in 1995
  • At the time, the Papal Nuncio had expressed hope that Saudi Arabia would let Christians practice

Modern reality

  • When the West marginalises Muslims, it is rightly criticised
  • But even today, practicing Christianity or holding a Bible can get you arrested in Saudi Arabia

More in the story

  • How reciprocity is a key requirement in world politics
  • Why Islamic countries need to change things at home before they can change in the West

The word 'reciprocity' is a very useful one. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is defined as 'a situation or relationship in which two people or groups agree to do something similar for each other, and to allow each other to have the same right, etc.'

It is a very valuable tool when thinking about world politics, interpersonal relationships, or life in general. In fact, the world operates on a certain basis of reciprocity, otherwise there would be anarchy.

In terms of relations between the so-called 'Muslim' world and the rest, there also has to be a sense of reciprocity, if relations are going to be real and work.

A mosque at the seat of Christianity

In the 1970s, it was proposed that a mosque be built in Rome for the city's Muslims. On the face of it, there was nothing wrong with the idea: there were a lot of Muslims in Rome and it was their right to have a dedicated place of worship in the city.

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However, symbolically, it was a most significant move. Rome is for Catholics what Mecca is for Muslims. It is the heart of their religion and, in fact, its headquarters. For over a millennium, it had been the centre of the Christian world and a symbol of its power and reach in the world.

In the 1970s, there were more Catholics in the world than Muslims, and so, this was an even more momentous move. After some initial hesitation, the Church authorities, in keeping with principles of religious freedom, approved of the project and the mosque building began in the 1980s.

When the mosque opened to huge fanfare in June 1995, it was the largest mosque outside the Islamic world, and its minaret was only a metre below that of the dome of St Peter's Basilica - and that too on request. Surely this was not just a mosque for Rome's Muslims - it cost upwards of $50 million and was financed 80% by the Saudi government. It was an international Islamic project and was supposed to project Islam in the West.

Saudi attitude to the Bible

The Papal Nuncio to Italy underscored the principle behind the Church's support for the mosque. Cardinal Francesco Colasuonno said: "Reciprocity is what we hope for, precisely because we permit the Saudi Arabians to have a place of worship here. it is necessary to take account of the needs of Christians there."

In the 1970s, the Church supported the building of a huge Saudi-financed mosque in Rome

The Church was hoping that with its openness to Saudi Arabia building a huge mosque in Rome, at least that country would not arrest people practicing Christianity in the country, let alone allowing a church to be built on its soil, and that too in either Mecca or Medina.

That was 1995 and this is 2015 - and that wish was in vain. Even 20 years later, when the Saudi government has financed further mosques and Islamic centres all around Europe and the Americas, there is no such provision for Christians in Saudi Arabia. Even now, if you are caught with a Bible in hand, or are worshipping in the Christian manner in your house, you can be arrested.

Change must begin at home

When Muslims rightfully talk about the increasingly marginalisation of Muslims in the West, they first need to take stock and change things at home. The change needs to begin in Muslim countries and then make its way to the West.

While there is no excuse to ghettoise Muslims in the West and discriminate against them, Muslims need to speak out and act against injustices carried out against non-Muslims in Muslim countries.

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For example, a number of people rightly blasted Republican party candidate Ben Carson when he said in September 2015 that he would have a problem if a Muslim became President of the United States.

However, what is to be done with a large number of Muslim countries where a non-Muslim can legally never become the head of state or government? It is amusing that this stipulation is even in the constitutions of those Muslim countries where non-Muslims form less than 5% of the population!

A shrinking world

The world has become increasingly small due to globalisation. A decade ago, people in The Netherlands perhaps would have never heard about Christian persecution in Egypt. Now they see pictures and meet those being persecuted.

A while ago, no one might have heard of Boko Haram, but now, even people in the remotest parts of the United States know of such an organisation.

In Saudi Arabia, if you worship in the Christian way in your house, you can be arrested

In such an interconnected world, when the binary of the 'Muslim world' and the 'West' is used (though I don't completely agree with such an appellation), we must see the issue from both sides.

Without real change in Muslim countries, Muslims should not expect a one-way stream of increasing rights and freedoms in the West. With even Turkey - one of the most liberal Muslim countries - so limited in religious freedom, real homework needs to be done in the Muslim world on how to co-exist with other religions and cultures.

As Pope Benedict said in 2006, the future of the world depends on a real dialogue between Christianity and Islam. However, that dialogue cannot happen until and unless there is reciprocity on all fronts.

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First published: 11 December 2015, 10:32 IST
Yaqoob Khan Bangash @BangashYK

The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He recently published 'A Princely Affair: Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.'