Watchdog Assesses Degree of Religious Freedom in Muslim States’ Constitutions

Patrick Goodenough | August 6, 2012 | 4:41am EDT
Font Size

Leaders of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation hold a summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in December 2005. (Photo: OIC)

( – About 44 percent of the world’s Muslims live in 23 countries that have declared Islam to be the state religion, according to a new survey by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The rest live in countries whose constitutions either say nothing about an official religion or declare the state to be secular.

The study by the commission, an independent statutory body that advises the executive and legislative branch on international religious freedom, examines the constitutions of the 56 predominantly Muslim-majority members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

In most (18) of the 23 OIC countries which declare Islam to be the state religion, national constitutions also stipulate that shari’a (Islamic law) is a source of legislation in general or some matters in particular; or sets limitations on legislation, the report says.

Those constitutions include phrases such as shari’a forming “the basis for,” “the principal source of” or “the main source of” legislation.

The 18 countries are Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Four other countries do not have Islam as the declared state religion, but still have provision for Islamic law in their constitutions:  Gambia, Nigeria, Sudan and Syria.

(Nigeria permits Islamic law in certain matters despite Muslims making up only 50.4 percent of the population. The constitution provides for shari’a courts in states that want them, as well as a federal shari’a appeal court in Abuja. Shari’a has been implemented in 12 states in northern Nigeria since 1999.)

The USCIRF report says the implications of giving Islam a constitutionally-mandated role in legislation vary from country to country.

Afghanistan’s post-Taliban constitution contains a repugnancy clause stipulating that “no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam.”

In its most recent annual report on religious freedom around the world, the USCIRF said that clause has been interpreted by the Afghan government “to limit fundamental freedoms.”

“Individuals [in Afghanistan] who dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy regarding Islamic beliefs and practices are subject to legal action that violates international standards, for example prosecutions for religious ‘crimes’ such as apostasy and blasphemy,” the annual report says.

Religious freedom limited by ‘customs,’ ‘decorum’

The OIC, a bloc founded in 1969 and claiming to represent the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, brings together 56 mostly Muslim-majority countries, stretching from Guyana and Suriname in Latin America to Indonesia in southeast Asia.

The USCIRF survey says several OIC member-states’ constitutions have provisions relating to the right to freedom of religion or belief that fall short of international standards.

For example, Iran’s constitution limits this right to specific religions only, stating that “Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities who, within limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites …”

Afghanistan’s constitution grants religious freedom to non-Muslims, but it is limited to the ability “to perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law.”

Six Islamic states’ constitutions are altogether silent on freedom of religion – Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Mauritania, Comoros and the Maldives.

“Several countries with constitutions establishing Islam as the state religion either do not contain guarantees of the right to freedom of religion or belief, or they contain guarantees that, on their face, do not comply with all aspects of international standards,” the report says. “Examples of such countries include Iran, Libya, and Oman.”

The right to adopt a religion of one’s choice or change religion is protected in international law, without restrictions. Some Muslim countries, however, have constitutional provisions that do allow limitations, for example invoking “customs” or “decorum.”

Bahrain’s constitution refers to the freedom to perform religious rites and hold religious gatherings “in accordance with the customs observed in the country,” while Jordan’s upholds worship “in accordance with the customs observed in the Kingdom, unless such exercise is inconsistent with public order or decorum.”

Another right protected under international law is that of association, expression and assembly, but some Islamic states’ constitutions circumscribe this, the report says.

Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution subjects the right of freedom of expression to “any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam,” and Bahrain’s allows freedom of expression “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed.”

The report also finds that a number of Islamic nations’ constitutions confine senior government and state positions to Muslims.

In Yemen, heads of state and government and lawmakers make an oath swearing “that I shall abide by the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of Prophet Mohammed.”

In Syria, “the religion of the President of the Republic shall be Islam” and in Pakistan, “a person shall not be qualified for election as President unless he is a Muslim. The Maldives’ constitution prescribes that the president not just be a Muslim, but a Sunni as well.

The USCIRF report acknowledges that just because a country’s constitution includes provisions that compare favorably with international standards, that does not mean religious freedom abuses do not take place there.

(Pakistan’s constitution says “every citizen” has the right to freedom of religion and belief, yet the country’s Christians have long been targeted under its notorious blasphemy laws.)

“Constitutional text alone may not necessarily reflect actual practice, especially in the field of human rights,” it says. “Nevertheless, constitutional text remains important, not only as a statement of fundamental law and national aspirations, but also as tool for those seeking to enforce its promises.”

mrc merch