Why religious freedom is inseparable from progress in the Middle East

Opponents of Morsi pray in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Amr Nabil / AP The revolutions that shook the Arab world … Continued


Opponents of Morsi pray in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Amr Nabil / AP

The revolutions that shook the Arab world in 2011 continue to reverberate throughout the region. While each nation, with its own economic, socio-cultural, ethnic, and political realities, lends a distinctive character to the conflict there, in a deeper sense, these disparate struggles are the result of an encounter between modernity and fundamentalism in the Muslim world. Caught in the middle of this struggle are many vulnerable religious minorities, including millions of Christians.

For some in the Middle East, the West provides a model for liberalism and prosperity that merits emulation. Many Muslims, however, recoil in revulsion at any Western influence as corrosive and immoral. The former see the West a roadmap for progress; the latter believe that Islam must be purified, purged of all Western influence, and returned to fundamentals. Moderates, by definition, tend to lack a uniformity of thought and approach a strategic weakness that fundamentalists, with their singularity of purpose, have been able to exploit to their advantage. Yet as fundamentalists look to the past as the means to reclaim greatness, they often overlook a crucial component of early and medieval Islam namely, its capacity to absorb and incorporate diverse thought as it grew from the faith an irrelevant tribe to global significance in a matter of decades.

The Golden Age of Islam was characterized by a general tolerance for “people of the book” (Jews and Christians), and free philosophical and scientific inquiry. Early Islam encountered Greek philosophy with an open mind; the medieval philosopher Avicenna would even reconcile classical philosophy with Muslim revelation, as Aquinas would later do with Christianity. Conquered peoples were made to pay the “jizya” (a tax on non-Muslims), but many, such as the Coptic Christians of Egypt, regarded the Arabs as liberators. This new Muslim empire, which stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to North Africa and from the Levant to the borders of China, demonstrated a remarkable capacity to absorb diverse religious and cultural influences in a manner that served to strengthen, rather than weaken it.

Religious minorities would play a vital role in this robust culture from the outset. Islam’s Golden Age arguably saw its apex under the Umayyad Caliphate in Medieval Spain, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims together achieved feats in learning (philosophy) and architecture to be rivaled only by those of Constantinople. These achievements contributed to the intellectual revival that occurred in Europe later in the age of Scholastic philosophy. Despite their inferior “dhimmi” status (a form of official discrimination), the persecution of non-Muslims in Spain was rare.

Islam’s medieval moment did not last. Many observers, from Bernard Lewis to Robert Reilly to Fareed Zakaria, have attempted to diagnose this decline, citing intellectual, economic, and political causes. Whatever the source, there is consensus among Muslims and non-Muslims alike that all is not as it ought to be nor indeed as it once was. The centuries that followed the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate saw the Christian West prosper. As modern Europe increasingly asserted itself in the Middle East, the great powers particularly Britain, France, and Russia advocated for the rights of religious minorities there. These efforts met with some success: the jizya was largely repealed; dhimmitude, as much an attitude as a legal status, was not so easily abrogated. In recent decades, however, the commitment of Western democracies to religious freedom has waned with the rise of an increasingly secular public culture. The preeminence of secularism in the West coincided with and likely contributed to the rise of fundamentalism in the Middle East. Perhaps most disconcerting for Middle Eastern Christians, generally proponents of liberalism, is how comfortable Western liberal democracies have become with political Islam and even extremism. In consequence, many feel betrayed, especially by America.

The world continues to grow smaller. Cultural encounters will become more common, and more vital. As Muslims in the West serve as a cultural bridge to the Middle East, so the Christians of the Middle East are a vital bridge to the West. The contributions of the region’s Christians intellectual, cultural, economic to their societies tend to be overlooked by policymakers and politicians in the formulation of Middle East policy.

Christians, the largest religious minority in the Middle East, are now departing from their ancestral homelands in record numbers. The causes are many, but are principally related to the rise of extremism, persecution and the perception that Middle Eastern Christians ought to be associated with the West despite the fact that most Western Christians are either unaware of their existence or feel no cultural bonds with them. It is a trend that Western policymakers should find troubling. Religious uniformity is the goal of the extremists, who wish to remake the Muslim world in the image of Saudi Arabia. With each Christian who is killed or driven out, they are a step closer.

Andrew Doran has served at the Department of State and traveled widely throughout the Middle East. His views are his own.

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  • itaintmojo

    Coptic Christians are not happy with Sharia law Arabs anymore, if they ever were. Not in Egypt. These days Copts are being harassed and chased out if not killed. Not by secular Egyptians. The persecution comes from Sharia Egyptians of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Nours.

    Sharia law is the intolerant doctrine, that is behind ALL the terror attacks. Due to oil interests, and appeasement for personal gain, no POTUS will admit this truth, and commence to educate Americans about it’s backwards violent ideology. Most Americans do not know what Sharia law is. If Americans knew what Sharia law was, they might find it difficult to understand why we remain friends with Sharia advocates, and continue to do business with them. There are over 300 Sharia law followers worldwide, and they are totally intolerant of other religions, secularists, and even small stuff like, Grey Goose Vodka, or females wearing Bikini’s.

  • Ahmed Selim

    hhhhhhhhhh you opinion extremely wrong read and talk with areal muslim then you will know the true

  • Philosopher at home

    Why should the Islamic World import western system which is unravelling at the seams.
    Morality has been confined to the dustbins, same sex marriage is a cool thing. By the way both Judaism and Christianity does not approve of that.
    The article quotes Bernard Lewis to back the argument that by returning to Islam is a kind of retrograde step. Lewis has no credibility to tell Muslims what they should do.
    It is true that some Muslims tend to over do it.
    In the West Sharia is a dirty word. But just like the Mosaic Laws it is Divinely ordained and no Muslim in his/her senses will oppose it.
    Much to my regret the Christians and most Jews have given up on those Divinely ordained laws which are designed to last to eternity. If that sounds Fundamentalist, so be it! And by the way the term fundamentalist is foreign to Islam; it is a Christian term. For Islam you are A MUSLIM! Period!!!!

  • Philosopher at home

    You are mouthing nonsense! You want to have bikinis in Egypt? Go to France or USA for such abhorrent things!

  • Andrew Doran

    Dear Philosopher at home:

    Thank you for your comments. You raise an excellent point. I certainly did not mean to suggest that the Muslim world should be remade in the image and likeness of the modern West. Indeed, many Westerners would agree that the West is morally and culturally in need of reassessing its own values. Rather, I mean to highlight the fact that early Islam had generally tolerant views with respect to both diverse religious belief and absorbing new ideas (especially Greek philosophy). These served to strengthen the Muslim world and gave rise to that Golden Age. Now, I have yet to encounter anyone from the greater Middle East who believes that all is well there today, but I have met many who resent the material prosperity of the West who long for a return to Islam’s past greatness. (Studies have, incidentally, shown that where broad religious freedoms and freedom of conscience exist, there is prosperity.) In short, Muslims need not look to the West but to their own heritage to find their own way ahead.

    Religious freedom and tolerance of diverse modes of thinking are not, in my view, necessarily synonymous with moral licentiousness. As Lord Acton once put it, freedom is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” There are countless other definitions, but this one suggests that freedom does not mean chaos and moral disorder, but instead a duty to promote truth and to promote the good – common and particular.

    Like many, I believe that man’s fundamental rights are rooted in nature and that these may be known through reason, that these rights are rooted in man’s rational nature. The believer might say that these laws were written into human nature by the Creator – and might make this claim without reference or disrespect to revealed religion. In such a way, pluralism may exist.

  • Rongoklunk

    Religion is the problem – isn’t it? We drive the god-idea into the heads of little children, and when the child becomes a man – God is already installed in his brain – for life. Doesn’t matter how irrational it is, or which God is installed, the child will believe whatever he was indoctrinated to believe. It turns folks into religious robots.
    Look at 9/11. That was an act of faith, which tells us that faith is the most dangerous force on the planet. If we properly educate our children about reality, they won’t believe in ancient superstitions, and will look to science for knowledge of the universe, and everything in it, including our origins.
    The fact that our ancestors made-up thousands of Gods should tell us how desperate they were to have somebody up there watching over them. They invented more than 3500 Gods; obviously including current Gods, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu and the Christian God. But we don’t need them anymore. They cause many more problems than they solve. And they don’t even exist.

  • Abey

    The Christian minorities in the Middle East are the original inhabitants of those countries. Their countries were invaded by Muslim Arabs and eventually many who could not afford the exorbitant head tax called Jizya were forced to convert to Islam. What remained of those Christians are the rich and powerful. They are the cream of the population; most cultured and most educated. Unfortunately for everyone in the Middle East they have recently been emigrating to the industrialized countries of the West in record numbers.Thus enriching the rich West and further impoverishing the poor East.

  • Catken1

    To the people who advocate religious control – do you want someone else’s religion telling you what rape is? Or who an appropriate marriage partner for you is? Or how many children you may/must have, and in what religion you may raise them? Or what church you may attend? (Remember, even if your religion in general takes control, different sects within it will fight for the top spot, and it may not be yours that wins…)

  • Catken1

    It is precisely multiculturalism, and freedom of religion, that stop one religion and/or culture from taking over the country and oppressing everyone else. That does not mean we may not bar any actions, however culturally justified, that interfere with another citizen’s liberties or right to express themselves.
    Rape isn’t barred because our culture or religion disapproves (it didn’t, until recently, in many cases) – it is barred because it interferes with the right of a person to live as she pleases and govern what is hers. (Or his – men are raped, too.)

  • Catken1

    Well, I for one am going to say that bikinis, and women’s bodies, are NOT abhorrent. It is those who abuse and rape other people who are abhorrent, not women who dare to go out in public without a burqa. No one has to wear a bikini in Egypt, or anywhere, if they don’t like it – but if you attack a woman for wearing a bikini, anywhere, it is you who are behaving immorally, not she. Her body is not yours to control, nor is she “asking” to be raped if she shows “too much” of it, however much of it you deem “too much”.
    And I know many loving, healthy same-sex married couples, and I find their marriages to be just as valuable, moral, and worthy of respect as mine.
    There is no morality in blaming the victim of a rape. There is no morality in condeming love and families and married people because they did not follow your religious taboos in choosing a spouse. There is no morality in forcing others to abide by your religion when they do not believe it, because you do not trust the value and worth of your religion enough to spread it via persuasion and argument rather than by government force.
    Live by your own beliefs as you see fit, certainly. I will fight for your right to do so. But I will fight AGAINST anyone who tries to cement one religion’s beliefs into law, because whenever religion is imposed by government, cruelty, oppression, and evil are the inevitable results. History shows it clearly.

  • Andrew Doran

    Dear Rongoklunk:

    There is no disputing that some have abused the “god-idea,” as you call it. The atheist-idea, however, has been at least as destructive a vehicle in history, and probably far more violent. Everyone has heard the claim that more people have been killed in wars of religion than in any other wars in history. This is, of course, nonsense and no serious person would say such a thing. Still, violence in the name of religion is abhorrent.

    Both atheists and theists make credal claims — that is, they are each expressions belief, which make claims of objective truth. Whether one side or the other is correct is not a matter to be settled by governments. Rather, governments should protect the freedom of citizens to believe as they like — or not believe at all. To this end, I think we can all agree that the U.S. government must do a better job of promoting freedom of religion and conscience.

  • floydhowardjr

    Jesus will be here soon.

  • leibowde84

    That’s what his deciples said about 2000 years ago.

  • leibowde84

    Theocracies are always evil. I will take a dictatorship over a theocracy any day.

  • leibowde84

    The US should never give any support to any Theocracy or anyone trying to create a government based on religious law. We, as people, are here for each other. As JFK indicated, we must make decisions based on our lives here on earth, and not for God. Our responsibility in the governmental realm is to humanity, not the divine. The mere creation of a theocracy breeds injustice. Not to say that Democracy is perfect, but it at least disregards religious teachings unless they are backed up with true merit.

  • Sajanas

    The thing that gets forgotten about The Golden Age of Islam’s religious tolerance is that there were a lot of other religions that did *not* get that kind of nice treatment. Its not like there was just the choice between Judaism and Christianity back then…. there were lots of other pagan polytheist and other monotheist religions in the region that didn’t make the People of the Book cut, and were pretty rigorously persecuted. The people in the Indian Subcontinent had some real problems with Hinduism not being granted those dispensations from the Islamic invaders either, at least until more enlightened Muslim rulers like Akbar realized that freedom of religion shouldn’t be drawn in some sort of line.

    Its not just other religions that need toleration, either. The Middle East needs to be willing to allow people to say different things about Islam, or to deny and leave Islam too. Of the states where Atheism is illegal, almost all of them are in the Middle East or North Africa. And all it does is shore up the power of religious people to rule without question.

  • csintala79

    It is hardly secret that the regimes that we have or are supporting coming to power in Muslim nations are essentially Islamic fundamentalists. While tyrannical dictators, those leaders we have helped depose or are in the process of helping to depose were or are leaders of secular regimes. Their persecution of dissidents is based on the danger they pose to the regime; posing minimum threat, religious minorities operate within an environment that exhibits a degree of tolerance for divergent religious views. Arab Christians seem to be more comfortable with secular despots than religious fanatics. The real threat to the religious is not from secularists, but from heterodox religious adherents

  • csintala79

    It took a millennium for the European Enlightenment, which brought in a modicum of religious toleration; atheism was strongly censured in Britain until the mid to late 19th century. The poet, Percy Shelly, was expelled from Oxford in 1811 for writing a pamphlet favorable to atheism. Don’t expect the Muslim nations to become tolerant of disbelief anytime soon. A majority of most of the citizens in those nations would be repelled by that though, meaning democracy will not bring religious toleration. Atheists will have to hope for a benign dictator such as Ataturk.