All seven nations name Islam as their official state religion and base their legal code to some degree on Islamic sharia law. That includes Iraq, dropped from the second version of Trump’s order, whose post-Saddam Hussein government was nursed into existence with extensive financial and political assistance from the United States.
How many true “Muslim-majority” nations in the world? In other words, how many countries have a majority of Muslim citizens but do not designate Islam as the official state religion, and keep their legal systems completely free of sharia influence?
This exploration should begin with acknowledging that precise demographic data is hard to come by for nations where Muslims comprise roughly half the population. Most efforts to list the world’s Muslim-majority nations point to a 2010 Pew Research study called “The Future of the Global Muslim Population,” whose data is now seven years old.
Demographic shifts and the shortage of reliable data can make it difficult to say whether some countries hovering around the 50-percent mark currently have Muslim majorities. Reference.com, for example, cites Nigeria as a borderline case because Pew’s 2010 data had the population at 47.9 percent Muslim, but many sources list it as a Muslim-majority nation.
Three of the toughest borderline cases are Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey.
Indonesia: Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. Indonesia has about 207 million Muslim inhabitants, with a total population of 250 million, making it over 80 percent Muslim.
Indonesia is routinely cited as an example of harmonious secular government, the textbook example of a Muslim-majority nation that is not officially Muslim by law. Indonesia’s constitution, which dates back to 1945, does not specify a state religion or make special provisions for sharia law. Indonesia does require a certain faith for its president, but it is not Islam – it is a unique school of philosophy called Pancasila. As Australia recently learned, Indonesia is very serious about the importance of Pancasila.
And yet, the UK Daily Mail reported on Indonesia’s “masked sharia law enforcers” on Monday, including photographs of a man and woman receiving 25 lashes in public for violating Islamic law by “spending time with somebody who is not their husband or wife.” A woman took 100 lashes with a cane recently for sex outside of marriage, according to the report.
Gambling, drinking alcohol, women failing to wear headscarves, and homosexuality are also punished with beatings in Aceh province, which the Daily Mail explains is “the only province in the country which implements sharia law in full,” following a 2001 grant of autonomy from the central government in Jakarta.
“Over the past decade, the central government has devolved more power to regional authorities to increase autonomy and speed up development,” the Daily Mail adds. “Engaging in homosexual acts is not a crime under Indonesia’s national criminal code but remains taboo in many conservative parts of the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.”
In April 2016, the first non-Muslim was beaten in public for violating sharia law in Aceh, by selling alcohol. The victim was a 60-year-old Christian woman.
Aceh is not the lone island of sharia law in Indonesia. In a January article, the New York Times cited a recent study that found “more than 442 Shariah-based ordinances have been passed throughout the nation since 1999, when Jakarta gave provinces and districts substantial powers to make their own laws.” The regulations cover matters such as “female attire, the mixing of the sexes, and alcohol.”
According to the NYT, local officials view the spread of sharia law across Indonesia as a “point of pride,” and see Aceh as a model to be emulated. The head of Aceh’s Department of Sharia is described as a “moderate” who thinks Aceh’s version of Islamic law is “softer” than Saudi Arabia’s because it welcomes “alternative schools of Islamic thought” and accepts “the role of female leaders.” Women’s rights activists supported the female mayor of Aceh as a progressive reformer, but she promptly slapped a curfew on women once she got in office and went about “personally dispersing events deemed to contradict sharia,” such as a beauty contest.
The Times article closes with an Islamist preacher declaring that Aceh is a “model for the entire Indonesian nation” and must “become the locomotive for the movement to apply Shariah law throughout Indonesia.”
The Christian governor of Jakarta – the first non-Muslim to hold that position in the last half-century – is currently on trial for blasphemy because he supposedly criticized the Koran, and could face up to five years in prison if convicted. The governor was in tears when he appeared before a court, not to challenge the blasphemy law, but to deny he intended to insult the Koran. A crowd outside the building screamed “Allahu akbar!” while he testified.
Indonesia is not a completely secular Muslim-majority nation. The best that can be said of its current situation is that moderates, including Muslim supporters of the Jakarta governor, are trying to push back against the rising tide of Islamization.
Nigeria: Nigeria’s 1999 constitution explicitly grants legal authority to sharia courts. Sharia is mentioned dozens of times in the section of the constitution that defines Nigeria’s judicial system, including specific procedures for replacing the judges of state and local courts (candidates must hold a “recognized qualification in Islamic law from an institution approved by the National Judicial Council” for at least ten years.)
Critics of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari have accused him of transforming Nigeria into a Muslim nation. Saudi Arabia nonchalantly refers to Nigeria as such. It is a member state of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Recent efforts have been made to expand the power of sharia courts; advocates argue that officially granting criminal jurisdiction to sharia courts, rather than only permitting them to rule in civil complaints, will protect Christians in northern Nigeria because Muslims will be less likely to kill them over minor provocations.
“Many non-Muslims are being unjustly killed. People are doing injustice to non-Muslims by attacking non-Muslims just because they’re not Muslims,” explained lawmaker Abdullahi Salame in May 2016. “With the passage of this bill, no Muslim will ever attempt even to harm, much less, kill non-Muslims, because you know Sharia can attend to criminal cases and you will be dealt with. And, in Islam, when you kill a non-Muslim, you will be killed. These Boko Haram and other groups that hide behind any little crisis to attack Christians and other non-Muslims would be easily punished.”
Turkey: Turkey is officially secular, according to its Constitution – which begins with a salute to the “immortal leader and unrivaled hero” who founded the modern Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Unfortunately, there are grave concerns about Turkey’s future as a secular state, and the current health of religious freedom is far from robust. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom lists Turkey as a “Tier 2” country, in which the government commits or tolerates serious violations of religious freedom.
Turkey’s population is heavily Sunni Muslim – 75 to 85 percent, according to government estimates. Less than half of one percent of the population is non-Muslim. USCIRF criticizes Turkey’s government for exercising excessive control over all religion in a variety of ways, perhaps most significantly by denying religious minorities the right to train clergy. Islamic religious instruction for all children is mandatory unless parents request a waiver. Some parents hesitate to request such a waiver because it would mean revealing their religious affiliation to the government.
Much of the energy for reform in Turkey comes from the Alevi Muslim minority, a sizable minority that may comprise up to 25 percent of the Turkish population. The Alevis are a mystical offshoot of Shia Islam – a branch so distant that some of them don’t even identify as Muslim anymore. They have frequently complained of government discrimination against them.
As it stands, Turkey is a “Muslim-plus” country where religions other than Sunni Islam face special forms of official discrimination, even though there is no official state religion. The U.S. government has been working to encourage religious freedom reforms and praises the positive developments it sees, but there are fears about the increasingly authoritarian rule of Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Religious freedom advocates have criticized (and his followers heartily praised) Erdogan for seeking to establish Turkey as a leading force in Islam, occasionally even styled as a “caliph” or “sultan.” There is little question that Erdogan has turned the country away from strict secularism and toward Islamic nationalism.
In Part 2, we’ll review the nations where Islam is the official state religion.