REGRETTABLY, the popular image of Islam in the contemporary world is that of an intolerant faith. This notion is perpetuated by media images of destruction of heritage sites and religious artefacts that are sacred to non-Muslims at the hands of religious militants in conflict zones.
By citing such incidents, critics are able to point fingers at the faith and lay the foundation of the claim that its adherents are belligerent towards expressions of other faiths. This is a common view, particularly in Western circles and it receives credence from incidents like the destruction of Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan and the vandalism of heritage sites in Palmyra, Syria.
It is definitely unfair to accuse the vast majority of Muslims of intolerance due to the acts of a small minority of fanatics. Therefore, it is of great importance for Muslim states to protect and preserve the heritage sites and religious artefacts sacred to other faiths that are found within their lands and demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.
Non-Muslims have lived alongside Muslims for centuries, and their populations and sacred sites still remain in Islamic lands. The vast majority of Muslims are not constantly in a state of war with their non-Muslim citizens. Barring a few skirmishes they have coexisted.
But as the allegation of intolerance is constantly perpetuated, Muslim states need to counter this negative publicity and build bridges with other faiths and cultures and send the clear message that the expressions of non-Muslim faiths and culture within their territories are not only permissible but are also preserved and promoted for the world at large. There are numerous advantages of preserving, protecting and promoting the religious heritage within the boundaries of a Muslim-governed territory.
Firstly, to do so is itself a religious injunction within Islam’s holy scripture, which states: “…Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure. …” (22:40). Thus protecting the places of worship of other faiths is first and foremost a Muslim duty.
Secondly, the Quran also lays emphasis on travelling and seeing through one’s own eyes the ruins of historic nations to have an example before us of the causes of their rise and fall. It states: “Say: Travel through the earth and see what was the end of those before (you): Most of them worshipped others besides Allah” (30:42).
If Muslim rulers do not preserve the ruins and historical structures of non-Muslims then it would not be possible to carry out the aforementioned Quranic injunction. Thus prior to giving thought to any commercial gains of preservation and promotion of religious sites, Muslim rulers should realise that doing such is an Islamic duty which they must carry out.
Then there are economic reasons to preserve the religious heritage that is found within a country. Religious tourism is on the increase globally and is a source of revenue for the locals. Religious tourism also builds bridges between countries as the faithful from neighbouring territories would visit your land to witness what is dear to them, and your country’s image is uplifted when they see that their religious artefacts are well maintained and looked after.
To promote religious sites for a global audience, the decision-makers will have to launch a coherent destination-marketing campaign. It is no use to maintain and preserve heritage sites unless they are showcased at an international level and the world is able to witness examples of Muslim tolerance. The government will first have to provide basic infrastructure to facilitate religious tourism. The sites should be accessible, have functional facilities surrounding the perimeter, be signposted for international tourists and have international-standard accommodation.
Once the infrastructure is in place a destination-marketing campaign should be launched, for otherwise it would be embarrassing to have international guests at your door to witness a heritage site in ruins while lacking even the basic amenities. Therefore the need is to first set one’s own house in order before inviting guests over. What kind of experiences do the heritage sites offer to tourists? Are the experiences boring, bland and emotionless? What type of images will they take back home? Of a heritage site in ruins, no basic facilities around, dusty, rundown and poor neighbourhood? The decision-makers at the helm of affairs need to take such questions into consideration and be cognisant of the fact that they are also competing with other destinations. Therefore it is imperative that the product on offer stands out from the rest.