By Dwight Bashir*
One of the consequences of the Arab Spring has been a reinvigorated debate about the relationship between religion and state across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This debate has been dominated by various dichotomies, such as secular versus religious, moderate versus radical, or authoritarian versus revolutionary, with some insisting on broad restrictions of public religious expression and others demanding the supremacy of one form of religion over others in the public square.
Missing from the debate is the idea of a “third way” – the full embrace of freedom of religion as a universal right, with a robust competition among various religious perspectives in the marketplace of ideas. Absent is the notion that religious freedom can provide a safe place for religious belief and activity without threatening individual rights. Largely omitted from the discussion is the understanding that, rather than relying on the personal willingness of leaders or regimes to protect certain religious minorities – such as Christians in Syria or Jews in Tunisia and Morocco – societies must codify the inherent right of every individual, regardless of group identification, to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. Perhaps most important, what’s missing is the view that, as a third way, religious freedom can help, not hinder, societal stability and well-being. It is time to consider this third way, beyond repression of religion on the one hand and monopolization by religion on the other.
As the world’s oldest constitutional republic with important ties to the Middle East, the United States has long been in a position to champion religious freedom in the region. Unfortunately, in this arena, it has had a history under successive administrations of being longer on words than on deeds. Indeed, three years removed from President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech and just over a year since his Middle East policy speech, the eloquent principles and policies enunciated to advance religious liberty remain largely just rhetoric.
The fact is that US policy has not prioritized religious freedom in the region, other than through the welcome increase of public statements highlighting the plight of religious minorities or reacting to sectarian or communal violence. The country in the region that has received the most public attention related to religious freedom is Iran, where the Administration has spoken out about the plight of Baha’is and Sufi Muslims and advocated the release of Christian prisoner of conscience Youcef Nadarkhani. There also have been concerns expressed for minority Copts in Egypt and majority Shi’a Muslims in Bahrain, among others. Such pronouncements, however, must be followed by definitive policies on the ground. President Obama committed to this proposition last year: “Our support for these principles [including freedom of religion] is not a secondary interest…it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.”
The prior Administration uttered similar words of hope on religious freedom’s behalf when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fleshed out President Bush’s “freedom agenda” for the Middle East by delivering a speech in 2005, also in Cairo, urging the advancement of democratic values, including religious freedom. Yet as with President Obama’s address three years ago, these values saw little translation into policy.
For eighteen months, brave citizens in several countries of the Arab world have been seeking a democratic alternative. Yet there is an ironic twist to their struggle. Unfortunately, many are advocating a nearly absolute separation of religion and state due to concerns that a newly elected Islamist power structure may enforce religious strictures, replacing existing autocracies with theocracies yielding a similar or worse outcome.
By neglecting to support freedom of religion as strongly as other individual rights, these supporters of democratic reform may be tacitly accepting the premise of the authoritarians they oppose – that full religious freedom leads inevitably to extremism and destabilization.
In fact, research shows that it is not freedom of religion, but authoritarian restrictions on religion, which undermine stability and fuel extremism. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that these and other abuses against the practice of one’s religion are higher in the MENA region than any other part of the world. Examples include lack of adequate legal protections in countries’ constitutions and laws, legal restrictions on all forms of religious practice, including punitive measures such as apostasy, blasphemy, and anti-defamation laws, and government favoritism toward majority believers at the expense of religious minorities. Religious freedom restrictions correlate positively with more conflict and sectarian strife, not less, if for no other reason than the following: in nations where religion matters, repression triggers restiveness, and if met by heavier oppression, violence.
It is this realization that leads to a third way, or, as described by noted political scientist Alfred Stepan, the “twin tolerations”:
“The first toleration is that of religious citizens toward the state. It requires that they accord democratically elected officials the freedom to legislate and govern without having to confront denials of their authority based on religious claims—such as the claim that ‘Only God, not man, can make laws.’ The second toleration is that of the state toward religious citizens. This type of toleration requires that laws and officials must permit religious citizens, as a matter of right, to freely express their views and values within civil society, and to freely take part in politics, as long as religious activists and organizations respect other citizens’ constitutional rights and the law.”
Note how the twin-tolerations idea rejects not only theocracy, as practiced in Iran, but also religious repression, ranging from Mideast authoritarianism to France’s less overt, but religion-unfriendly laïcité. Holding up this concept as a model, however, without a clear set of overarching principles could lead to divergent interpretations and discord. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the obvious guidepost since it includes universally accepted individual rights agreed to by every government in the world through UN membership. The Declaration implies many things about religious freedom besides protections for minorities: it allows open space for debate and dissent on religious matters in the public square; it not only permits freedom of worship, but also provides individuals the ability to express their faith publicly; it allows individuals to share their faith as they choose, to change it if they wish, or to have no religion at all. It goes without saying that all of these manifestations are to be expressed peacefully.
Regrettably, across much of the Middle East, these liberties have not only been compromised, but frequently criminalized through apostasy or blasphemy laws.
In Iran and Saudi Arabia, converts from Islam and dissidents who disagree openly with the state’s interpretations of Islam have been charged and sentenced to death for apostasy. Moreover, some countries have begun to increase application and expansion of blasphemy laws. In Kuwait, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt, individuals have been recently charged, convicted, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for blasphemy. While many of these laws existed under previous authoritarian regimes, they were not applied at the rate seen over the past 18 months. These laws promote a climate of intolerance with dismal, violent consequences for religious dissidents and especially vulnerable religious minorities.
How would a third way address the problem? One helpful approach emerged last year when, for the first time, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a consensus resolution rejecting the concept of a global blasphemy law. This resolution properly focuses on protecting individuals from discrimination or violence, instead of defending religions from criticism, and protecting the adherents of all religions or beliefs, instead of privileging one faith. The resolution calls for criminalization only in cases of “incitement to imminent violence” and recommends education and outreach as a means to address intolerance rather than restricting expression and free speech. While this approach certainly should be used to confront nations which criminalize blasphemy, so too should governments be urged to hold to account individuals, including clerics, who incite others to commit violence by promoting an extremist ideology. So much of this vitriol goes unpunished and it only breeds radicalism and violent acts.
For decades, the US policy of supporting authoritarian regimes in the name of security has helped feed anti-Western sentiment in the region, including fears of Western intervention and dependency. For US policy to counter these sentiments and be effective going forward, it must be consistent, evenly applied across the region, and supported by concrete measures.
Here are a few suggested steps to get started. First, Washington should explicitly include religious freedom promotion in its national security strategy. Second, Washington should work closely with international partners and nations in the region that are drafting new constitutions, urging robust protections for freedom of religion or belief. Finally, it should increase funding for programs that promote religious freedom and tolerance through the Human Rights and Democracy Fund, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, and new funds requested by the State Department to support democratic transitions.
Ultimately, the people of the Middle East will decide its future. In the case of majority Muslims, on the one hand most want to manifest their beliefs in public, not only in mosques, but on the other hand most want Islamic principles to guide their lives, not dictate their decisions. To be sure, there is grassroots support for imbedding Islamic law in penal codes and imposing an austere system across the board, but it’s coming from a distinct minority. The majority must be more vocal and unified, insisting that advancing freedom of religion or belief provides a compelling route to a brighter tomorrow.
*Dwight Bashir is the Deputy Director of Policy at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The views expressed here are his own, and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission. He may be followed on Twitter @DwightBashir.