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Guest post: Religious law hinders Muslim countries

Shaukat Malik is a Muslim-American Certified Public Accountant from Potomac. He left his native Pakistan in 1972 and has been living in the United States since 1980.

Infusing religion and nationalism can produce a people totally obsessed with their relgious identity. Many Muslim countries are suffering from the effects of this combination.

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Religion of every denomination provides us hope and solace in moments of despair. However, whenever religion becomes the rallying cry of a nation's system of government, it can easily become a tool for suppression of minorities and result in fascist states.

Imagine the United States and Europe declaring themselves Christian republics, with orthodox Christianity of the inquisition era enforced by the state. I think the Muslims of Europe and the United States, with populations of 37 million and more than 6 million, along with the Jews would find life a living hell.

The developed democracies and economies of Europe have experienced persecution under religion during the inquisition and learned from it. People were burned at the stake, thrown into burning oil and decapitated, all in the name of religion.

While the West has successfully reined in the power of religion after centuries of conflict and bloodshed by removing the state from the enforcement of religious beliefs, the Muslim world has been unable to accomplish this. Only Turkey has succeeded in some measure in its endeavor to join the common market.Separation of church and state has not led to anarchy in the west. Individual behavior in conformity with moral and social codes can easily be enforced through a set of common laws developed over centuries of legal practice in an endeavor to create a just and fair society.

Outdated practices of a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye, beheadings and amputations as prescribed in the Bible, which like the Quran is the word of God, have been set aside as cruel and inhuman punishments that are out of step with the times.

Religion in Muslim countries has been incorporated into the constitution and rule of law and politicians of every color must embrace its inclusion to win votes. Every country with a Muslim majority will sooner or later incorporate the word Islamic, thus inadvertently empowering the religious clerics whose street power is sought by dictators and kings everywhere. With few exceptions, all Muslim countries – including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq – have clauses in their constitutions stating that no law shall be constituted that violates Sharia law as laid down in the Quran 1,400 years ago. This makes Sharia laws superior to common laws developed by human civilization to maintain just and orderly societies.

In Muslim countries there is an obsession with religion and using it as a tool to control human behavior. Self-serving clerics believe that Islam is God's final message and Mohammad is his last prophet and anyone on planet earth who does not agree with them is an infidel. The fail to register that God's message is intended for those he has chosen to receive it by virtue of being born as a muslim and the rest of humanity is also God's creation and lives and prospers by God's will.

Muslim clerics, without fully understanding the Quran, walk around with a sense of arrogance and superiority as members of a religion chosen by God for his final message.

They forget that only 25 percent of the population on planet earth is Muslim and the remaining 75 percent is made up of more than two billion Christians, Buddhists and Hindus who like the Muslims are also God's people and exist and prosper with God's will.

The Saudi cleric tolerated and supported by the Royal family has this very limited view of Islam. Extraordinary oil wealth precludes economic considerations when adopting laws that clearly discriminate against women and other faiths. For example, there is no Christian church in Saudi Arabia, in total violation of God's message in the Quran, which clearly states that there is no compulsion in religion and that there should be complete freedom of religion.

Drinking Alcohol or having sex outside marriage is a bigger crime then the open and documented corruption of Saudi princes living it up in Europe and elsewhere. The clerics know human weakness for alcohol and sex. Alcohol is available in the private bars of the Saudi elite. Such is the hypocrisy of these laws.

In the Quran there is one verse that deals exclusively with alcohol. The verse states that in alcohol there are benefits (confirming its medical and recreational utility) but that the disadvantages (abuse, traffic accidents and money better spent at feeding a family) are greater that the benefits.

By stating alcohol's benefits and disadvantages, God clearly is leaving it to us as thinking beings to decide whether the benefits in each individual case outweigh the disadvantages.

Other verses do not forbid alcohol, as is clearly the case with swine meat, but counsel that it should be avoided. For self-serving reasons clerics will translate and interpret Quranic verses to support prohibition of alcohol.

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The U.S. government tried to prohibit alcohol. But Americans resisted and the law had to be withdrawn. Unfortunately, prohibition inadvertently facilitated the birth of the Mafia, which became rich overnight by selling illicit alcohol to willing buyers.

Human beings are mature enough to decide for themselves in the light of their individual circumstances whether they want to drink alcohol or not. Nobody is forcing anyone in Western countries to buy alcohol.

Saudi Arabia, because of its enormous oil wealth, can ban alcohol but will still draw tourists and visitors because of its Muslim holy sites.

However, other countries that embrace the Saudi brand of Islam and ban alcohol and impose other restrictions on women will lose visitors to countries that do allow the consumption of alcohol. It is simple business. This is clearly illustrated by Dubai's success.

The rulers in Dubai have caught on and cashed in with liberal rules for consumption of alcohol. Notwithstanding the present credit crises Dubai has become the future Disneyland of the Middle and Far East.

Dubai's success when compared to its orthodox neighbors is partly because there is no prohibition on alcohol and no restrictions on dress. It has become a holiday destination for Pakistanis, Indians, Iranians and Arabs. Arabs from neighbor states simply drive to Dubai for a good time without fear of being flogged for enjoying a glass of beer.

In the process Dubai is earning billions.

In today's world information travels fast and the Internet makes it easy to attract tourists. Tourism, especially from the upcoming economies of China, Russian and India, is on the rise and is a source of revenue for many European countries. Unfortunately, tourism evaporates under prohibitions on alcohol and dress codes.

Muslim leaders should consider creating "Sharia-Free Zones" to encourage tourism and create employment for their struggling populations.

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If the Quran is to be a book of guidance for all times, then surely God intended us to use it to make laws that create a just and fair society, and not marginalize women and minorities that make up more than 50 percent of every population concentration on earth.

Crimes of blasphemy, drinking alcohol and committing adultery are not crimes that should lead to death or flogging of anyone. These are indeed minor crimes easily dealt with through civil law. Blasphemy laws in today's Internet world of free speech are indeed laughable. In Muslim countries they are so broadly defined that is easy to trap anyone you wish to lock up.

Cunning clerics exploit human weakness for sex and alcohol. There is an inordinate focus on these crimes in Muslim countries. The premise behind this emphasis is to control and crush opposition. Similarly, women are controlled through rules permitting a man to marry up to four women and divorce women without the consequences of having to share 50 percent of his net worth, as is the case in the West.

The punishments along the lines of a tooth for tooth and eye for an eye are the same as would have been handed out 1,400 years ago in Arabia.

Crimes such as drinking, adultery and blasphemy are classified as crimes against the state as opposed to crimes of a personal nature. In Pakistan, the punishment for blasphemy can be life imprisonment or death. Flogging for drinking a beer and stoning to death for adultery are suggested punishments. In the Muslim world the Muslim women carries the flag of family honor and must behave in a manner prescribed by men.

Women are whipped in Saudi Arabia for simply being in the company of men who are not related to them or for not wearing their Hijab. Women cannot go out alone or drive a car in Saudi Arabia. Ironically, considering its leader King Abdullah was photographed taking a walk holding hands with President George W. Bush, the protector of the free world, coming across as childhood friends reminiscing a childhood spent playing in the schoolyard.

Through these laws the ruling party – generally operating within a dictatorship or a one-party pseudo-democracy – ends up controlling more than fifty percent of the population.

Such laws inevitably limit interaction with visitors and the exchange of ideas and knowledge. Non- Muslims, feeling totally alienated, will be reluctant to interact or share their ideas and knowledge developed through their superior education systems with Muslim countries due to the unwelcome environment.

Pakistan's founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, struggled against the British with Mahatma Gandhi, and like Gandhi believed in complete freedom of religion. Unable to negotiate majority rule for Muslim Majority States as part of India, Mohammad Ali Jinnah demanded a separate state for the Muslims. The religious Khilafat Movement opposed him because of his secular views on religion. He clearly envisioned a democratic state for the Muslims that came into existence as Pakistan. He never envisioned a theocratic state, as confirmed by many of his speeches.

His demand for a separate homeland for the Muslims was exploited almost 30 years later by Pakistan's military dictator Zia ul Haq, who declared that idea behind the creation of Pakistan was to create a theocratic state along the lines of Saudi Arabia. Muslim clerics who until then had been marginalized as prayer leaders suddenly found a political role under a loving military dictator. Elevated to the role of legislators, these dictator-appointed defenders of Islam started a process of converting Pakistan into a blurred image of their patron Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan had remained a secular country from its birth in 1947 until December 1984. Its name was simply Pakistan and nobody referred to it as "The Islamic Republic". People knew they were Muslims and quietly practiced their religion. People lived peaceful lives.

Zia-ul-Haq, in an effort to cover up his illegal takeover of an elected government and to protect himself from the consequences of hanging Pakistan's dynamic Prime Minister Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto, used the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 as a pretext to avoid holing elections. He volunteered Pakistan's services to America and used Pakistan's involvement in the Afghan war as an opportunity to transform a Pakistan that had remained steadfastly secular into a blurred mirror image of a theocratic Saudi Arabia.

In December 1984, to have himself re-elected for another five year term as President of Pakistan, General Zia held a referendum with a trick question asking the people of Pakistan if they were happy with the changes he was making in line with the laws and practices of the holy prophet and whether they wanted Pakistan to be governed in accordance with Sharia laws as stated in the Quran. Of course any Muslim answering the question is only thinking about Sharia as a guide for rules that create a just and fair society and would probably answer, yes. No one had imagined that by answering this question in the affirmative they were signing on to a Saudi-style Wahabbi Islam involving whipping, executions and complete violation of all women rights.

Unfortunately, the United States, obsessed with defeating the Soviets, assisted Pakistan's military dictatorship in de-secularizing Pakistan and did not pay attention to the dangerous game Pakistan's military dictator was playing. Islamization transformed Pakistan into an artificial and confused pseudo-theocratic state. Today's Osama, the Taliban and the war in Afghanistan are a legacy of America's war against the Soviets.

Relgious belief, especially of the orthodox brand, can easily turn into extremism at the expense of local communities. Extremists always find support by cunningly exploiting religious sentiments by labeling their target as an infidel whose elimination has been sanctioned by God. This, combined with nationalism, as is evident in Iraq and Afghanistan, will drive men to sacrifice their lives. Belief is a human trait that will lead a man to do anything to attain his goal. Belief is what makes great sportsmen and also great tyrants.

Adolph Hitler used anti-Jewish propaganda by instilling a belief in the majority Christian German population that as a nation they were a superior race – and almost succeeded in conquering the world. In the process millions of Jews and others considered undesirable by the Nazis were simply murdered.

Religious beliefs, reinforced by lack of education and self-serving interpretation, lead to high birth rates among poor Muslims. Contraception is rarely practiced and ignorant men burden their wives and family with childbirths every two years in the belief that God will provide. Unfortunately most of these surplus children will become recruits for terrorists.

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Islam does not stop us from contraception. In the Quran God instructs man to sow his seed as you would sow a crop. A lot of thinking must go into the decision of having a baby. The religious fanatics oppose contraception without understanding the Quran. Family planning is a must for all Muslim countries. This is another area that is holding Muslims back.

America's success is confirmed by its freedom of religion and separation of church and state. America's founding fathers were indeed very fortunate to embrace theses principles of inherent human rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Religion is acknowledged by the inherent nature of these rights and allows the individual to practice his faith according to his personal beliefs. This confirms Islam's overriding principle that there is no compulsion in religion.

Muslim governments must focus on improving the lives of their people through better education, healthcare and happy lives. Wealth presently enjoyed by a few must be shared with the masses through democracy and accountability. Muslim countries must take advantage of the vast experience of Europe with the inquisition and its devastating effects on society that ultimately led to the separation of church and state.

Muslim countries must learn from Turkey's transformation into a secular Muslim state that can rub shoulders with its European neighbors. Muslim countries have been blessed with vast wealth in the Middle East. This wealth should be utilized to realize the promise that this world holds for all who endeavor to find it.

You cannot force anyone to believe. Freedom of religion is very important for a free society.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public life in its report in October 2009 estimates that the global Muslim population stands at 1.57 billion, meaning that nearly one in four people in the world practice Islam.

We cannot deny 1.57 billion Muslims the fruits of liberty and happiness and a better life.

Muslim countries must initiate a change by separating church from state by giving divine inherent freedoms to their citizens, namely the freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This effort must be supported in equal measure by the United States and Europe as custodians of these divine liberties.

However, to help Muslim countries rein in their religious establishment, the United States, as a leader of the free world, must confront Saudi Arabia, a close ally, on its status as a theocratic state that is directly and indirectly supporting an ideology of Islam that has been embraced by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Theocracy and its offshoots have no place in today's world of free speech assisted by the Internet revolution. It will inevitably produce tomorrow's Osamas.

Although vested interests in industries that profit from war and war on terrorism may not support a change in Saudi Arabia's theocratic system of government. It is vital and crucial that we convince Saudi Arabia to embrace a moderate brand of Islam with complete freedom of religion. Saudi Arabia, as custodian of Mecca and Medina, is a symbol of Islamic practice in the Muslim world and can easily become a benchmark for moderate Islam.

The true essence of Islam is its followers' ability to have a one-to-one relationship with God. A Muslim does not need any intermediaries to regulate his relationship with God. The time has come for Muslim states to remove themselves from the management of religion and leave it to the individual and his conscience to practice his true faith.

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