In December 2019, the Charter of the New Alliance of Virtue was released in Abu Dhabi. The document purports to be a new version of the Prophet Mohammed’s seventh-century Charter of Medina, which sought to bring peace between warring tribes.
The modern Charter’s stated goals are to bring together Jews, Christians, Muslims, representatives of other religions, and other people of goodwill, in a common affirmation of virtues that are essential for living in peace.
The Charter is the product of the efforts of the much-respected authority on Islamic jurisprudence, Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, the founder and president of the Forum for the Promotion of Peace in Muslim Societies.
The Religious Freedom Institute, a DC-based non-profit where I serve, played a role in shaping the final text of the Charter. Among RFI’s contributions was an affirmation of natural rights, defined as “rights that exist prior to the state and inhere in each human being by virtue of his or her existence.” Further, rights created by governments “are most valuable when they apply to all and reflect norms of human dignity and justice.” The Charter also acknowledges the importance of Dignitatis Humanae.
Among other salutary affirmations of the Charter: “All people, irrespective of their diverse races, religions, languages, and ethnicities, by virtue of the divine soul breathed into them, are endowed with dignity by their Omnipotent Creator.” Quoting the Quran: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Surah 2:256); and, “It is the responsibility of the state to protect religious freedom, including diversity of religions, which guarantees justice and equality among all members of society.”
At RFI we have debated whether a declaration like this can help achieve our signal goal for this and other regions – i.e., advancing religious freedom on the ground. Many similar documents inspired by Islam have appeared in recent years, such as The Amman Message (2004), A Common Word (2007), the Marrakesh Declaration (2016), and the Human Fraternity Declaration (2019). The last was signed in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar. Is there any evidence that such declarations have made a difference in Muslim-majority parts of the world?
Unfortunately, the evidence thus far is not encouraging. According to Open Doors’ 2019 “World Watch List,” over 80 percent of the twenty most religiously repressive countries globally are Muslim-majority, most of them in the Middle East. Over 70 percent of the worst fifty countries worldwide are Muslim-majority.
The realities on the ground that these statistics represent can lead even the boldest religious freedom advocates to fear that these declarations are at best empty, feel-good exercises in wordsmithing. Cynics say they are intended to beguile and deceive.
So why did we invest time and energy in the Charter of Virtue? There are essentially two reasons. The first is history. It suggests that non-binding statements of principle, delivered authoritatively and at the right moment, can have a long-term impact for the good, even when their authors are deeply flawed, or to all appearances naive. An example is the American Declaration of Independence, whose audacious religious truth claim – “all men are created equal” – became the engine and sustainer of American democracy, notwithstanding the apparent hypocrisy of some of its slave-owning architects.
The non-binding 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which proclaimed “the inherent dignity and . . . the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” including the right of religious freedom for all, was signed by nations who had no intention of protecting those rights and fail to this day to protect them. But the UDHR stands today as a permanent rebuke to tyranny, and its principles are repeated in the non-binding 1975 Helsinki Accords, which contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Second, we believe that current attempts to stem religion-related violence and terrorism in the Middle East have not worked. The dearth of religious freedom in the Muslim-majority nations of the Middle East and South Asia is feeding a catastrophe of civilizational proportions. Christianity is under siege in the lands of its birth and adolescence. In Iraq, it could simply disappear within a decade. Pressure is mounting on Christian and other non-Muslim minorities to flee the region, and with them goes the stabilizing force of religious pluralism.
Here’s our bottom line: The solution to these problems does not lie in U.S. military force, or in Western secular notions of constitutionalism resting on premises independent of religion. Both are doomed to fail because they lack credibility in Muslim settings. The only possible solution lies in the actions of Muslim-majority nations themselves, drawing on their own religious premises. This is why we have decided to do the risky work of identifying and supporting Muslim leaders who, like Shaykh Bin Bayyah, believe that the sacred tenets of their faith can support religious freedom and full citizenship for all.
To be sure, the Muslim leaders who have signed the Charter of the New Alliance of Virtue are far from perfect. Like America’s Founders and the rest of us, they do not always act in accord with what they say they believe. But we believe they understand that the worldwide credibility of Islam hangs in the balance, as does the possibility of living together in peace despite our profound differences.
Of course, it is manifestly clear that declarations will never be enough. If there is any hope of success, lofty words must be distilled into these societies through concrete pathways that reach young Muslims around the world. In addition, imams and other Muslim religious leaders need to embrace the validity, even necessity, of supporting the Charter’s principles.
Whether the words of the Charter of the New Alliance of Virtue turn out in the end to be just barren rhetoric will ultimately depend on the willingness of the signatories and their supporters to insist that noble words become noble deeds.
*Image: Dove of Peace by Pablo Picasso, a 1949 lithograph