Recently in Morocco, more than 200 Islamic personalities from more than 120 countries gathered at a conference to discuss minority rights in the Muslim world.  The meeting culminated with the drafting of the Marrakesh Declaration, calling upon Muslim scholars, politicians, thought leaders, and cultural figures to address the plight of religious minorities in Muslim countries.

The Declaration elicited praise from the likes of the World Council of Churches, a global ecumenical organization claiming nearly 600 million constituents across 150 countries. “This is a very timely and significant text with an important message for us all,” said Reverend Olav Fykse Tveit, the Council’s general secretary.

Reverend Tveit’s emphasis on the timeliness of the Declaration is an understatement. The U.N. estimates that a great number of ISIS’ 3,500 sex slaves are Yazidis, whom ISIS considers apostates. A few weeks ago, Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front declared that Ahmadi Muslims, whose beliefs the organization considers heretical, must convert or leave. In Pakistan, a group of Muslims verbally accosted four Christian girls for refusing their sexual advances, running three of them over with their car, ultimately killing one girl and shouting, “Christian girls are only meant for one thing, the pleasure of Muslim men!” Police have done little to apprehend the culprits. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, notorious for his draconian measures against Malaysian Shiites, remains shrouded in corruption charges for accepting a $681 million gift ahead of his 2013 re-election as prime minister. The donor? Saudi Arabia. Open Doors USA, a watchdog group advocating for Christians, reports that Muslim states occupy six of the top ten slots for religious persecution of non-Muslim and minority Muslim groups.

To be sure, the Morocco Conference and Declaration are critical milestones in the ongoing discussion about minority rights in Muslim-majority countries.  But the Declaration itself evades the more thorny issues pervading the debate and fails to provide any roadmap for Muslim-majority countries to engender meaningful reforms.

Conference attendees emphasized the import of the Declaration being drafted exactly 1,400 years after Prophet Muhammad drafted the Charter of Medina, the constitution that fashioned a religiously pluralistic Islamic state.  But the 1,400th year anniversary itself is more of a convenient symbolism than a purposeful adoption.  The Charter’s precepts, which are profound and laudable, have never been fully exported in modern constitutional design in the Muslim world.  More troublingly, the Declaration fails to address and neutralize the mechanisms incentivizing the heinous cruelties committed in Islam’s name that ultimately spurred the Conference itself.  Morocco, for example, hosted the conference largely because it is seen as a vanguard of religious pluralism. At the conference, King Mohammed VI noted, “We, in the kingdom of Morocco, will not tolerate the violation of the rights of religious minorities in the name of Islam. I am enabling Christians and Jews to practice their faith and not just as minorities. They even serve in the government.” Despite these commendable affirmations, life as a Christian in Morocco remains underpriced. No church is officially recognized in Morocco, the Moroccan Penal Code criminalizes Christian proselytization, and a Christian woman can neither inherit her husband’s assets nor bequeath anything to her children.

The Declaration admirably calls for a “jurisprudence [of] common citizenship” to establish and maintain religious minority rights.  To achieve this goal, however, the Declaration draws exclusively on “Islamic tradition and principles” (a nebulous phrase that is subject to a myriad of interpretations) and fails to even refer to, let alone incorporate, the minimum human rights guarantees of the U.N.’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (in particular, Articles 18, 19, 20, and 27), which are crucial for achieving true “common citizenship.” Indeed, the Declaration strangely invokes the “public order” limitation of the ICCPR without even mentioning the ICCPR’s rights safeguards – a signal that the drafters have little understanding or deference to international human rights law. If “citizenship” is a common denominator among the Morocco Conference attendees, then it should be concretized and operationalized through specific legal prescriptions that are consistent with international law. For example, a common citizenship for millions of persecuted Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, which has acceded to the ICCPR without reservations, would mean the restoration of their full and free right to vote in Pakistan’s elections.  That would mean ending the use of preconditions forcing Ahmadi Muslims to disavow their identity or the founder of their Community and removing any discriminatory language in the renewal of Pakistani citizens’ passports and National ID cards.

The Declaration’s deliberate omission of the ICCPR’s robust protections for religious freedom and freedom of expression indicates a troubling unwillingness on the part of some of the Morocco Conference attendees to jettison legislation aimed at criminalizing insults to Islam. Such is the import of the Declaration’s incredibly malleable call for “confront[ing] all forms of religious bigotry, vilification, and denigration of what people hold sacred, as well as all speech that promotes hatred and bigotry.”  In other words, the Declaration perversely subjects religious freedom to the grip of draconian anti-blasphemy and anti-apostasy laws, which have been correlated to a surge in terrorism.  Until this intractable issue is fully resolved once and for all, the Declaration’s call for a “courageous review of educational curricula” in Muslim-majority countries – some of which spew hate against Muslim minorities perceived as insulting mainstream Sunni Islam – will be seen as less than credible.

Finally, while the Conference attracted a plethora of Islamic scholars, the most vulnerable and potentially dangerous sub-group of Muslims in the world – i.e., disenfranchised and disaffected Muslim millennials – largely see these scholars as representative of a status quo that needs to be supplanted. Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institute fellow and expert on extremist movements, notes, “You don’t come [to this conference] with these government-sponsored clerics, who are very much part of the ruling establishment in the Middle East, which itself has been a big part of the problem.” Compounding this situation is the fact that conference administrators failed to invite legal scholars who regularly represent persecuted Muslim minority communities to attend the event.

Admittedly, some challenges in implementing the Declaration lie beyond the scope of the Conference. For example, conference attendees such as Pakistan and Iraq – also included in the Open Doors persecution report – have been placed on “high alert” for the 2015 Fund For Peace’s Fragile States Index.  Thus, acclimating communities to the Declaration will require a profound restructuring of the political and economic apparatuses of some of these Muslim states.  But enduring change will also require a redrafting of the Declaration itself. Until the Declaration harmonizes fundamental international human rights safeguards contained in the ICCPR with the intellectually rich and robust Islamic tradition of protecting religious minorities, it will be swept into the dustbin of history as yet another noble failure by the Muslim world.


Amjad Mahmood Khan, an expert on religious freedom in the Islamic world, is an adjunct professor of law at the University of California Los Angeles