Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and previously served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2019-20).
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has raised serious questions about the rights of religious minorities, women, and others under its rule in Afghanistan – and its interpretation of Islam. As the Prime Minister has stated, we have to judge the Taliban by their actions, not their words.
As someone from a Muslim background, whose father, uncles, and grandfathers were Imams, religion and faith are a central part of my life. This was reflected during my service as the UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, when I worked with colleagues to challenge the persecution of individuals based on their faith around the world.
In fact, faith is an integral part of many people’s lives across the globe, especially in the Middle East and Central and South Asia region. According to a Pew Research Center report, 84 per cent of the world’s population claim to identify themselves with a religion. In my view, if we don’t understand religion, including the abuse of religion, it will be even harder for us to understand the world.
Having had the honour of working as an adviser to Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and first female head of state in the Islamic world, from 1999 to 2007, I know full well the strong and inspiring leadership role that women can play in Islamic nations. Islam has a rich tradition of inclusivity and respect which we must put forward and be proud of. In fact, we can see examples of strong female leadership in Islam throughout history, both in the distant and near past.
Muslim women have always played a crucial part in society as rulers, jurists, businesswomen, scholars, and benefactresses. Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, was not just his companion, but a businesswoman in her own right; Aisha bint Abu Bakr, another of the Prophet’s wives, became a brilliant scholar and tutored many men.
We can also see this in Shifa Abdullah, one of Prophet Muhammad’s companions, who held a leadership role in supervising transactions in the marketplace of the Islamic empire’s first capital, Medina. Or with Rabi’ah Bint Mu’awwad, an eminent scholar and jurist of Islamic law in Medina who taught famous male scholars. And with Fatima al Fihri, a Muslim woman who founded, in 859, what is today the oldest continuously operating university in the world, al-Qarawiyyin University in Fez.
In more recent times, we can look of course to Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, but also to Bangladesh: this country, which has the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population, has had a female prime minister for nearly 28 of the past 30 years.
Khaleda Zia, the country’s first female Prime Minister, and Sheikh Hasina, the incumbent, have been two of the country’s pre-eminent political leaders, and have overwhelmingly held the office of Prime Minister since 1991.
In Europe, Atifete Jahjaga served as the first female President of Muslim-majority Kosovo, from 2011 to 2016. During her time in office, she fought against extremism and radicalisation, fostered reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups in the country, and hosted a key International Women’s Summit.
Of course, there are divergences on theology in Islam as there are in every faith. But as set out above, Islam’s past and present has at its heart the values of all other faiths: respect, inclusivity, and tolerance. It is this version of Islam that we must champion.
As I set out to the Prime Minister last week in the House of Commons, he should call on the 57-member state Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to ask Al-Azhar, a widely respected and leading institutional authority on moderate Islamic thought, to issue a statement confirming the rights of religious minorities and women in Islam.
The Taliban in Afghanistan claim that they will rule within the confines of Islam. A statement from an institution such as Al-Azhar will let the world judge whether the Taliban’s actions are indeed in line with the teachings of Islam.
In my recent meeting with the Kuwait Ambassador, Al-Duwaisan, the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in London, who has served in his role for nearly 30 years, he was very supportive of calling on the OIC to ask Al-Azhar to set out the inclusive approach to the rights of women and religious minorities in Islam.
On this occasion therefore, when we have the support of Muslim-majority countries, I would urge the Government to move forward urgently with this proposal. Al-Azhar is a hugely well-respected institution across the globe, founded over 1000 years ago. Recently in 2019, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar jointly signed with Pope Francis a Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, and when the UN Security Council held a session to discuss anti-terrorism, al-Azhar was the only Islamic institution invited to take part.
If we are to build an inclusive society and world, we must all play our part and that means setting out the true virtues and values of our faiths.