Religious freedom is a core human right and a central tenet of American democracy. But the religious pluralism that now prevails in the United States took hundreds of years to emerge, and it is still tested by bigotry and discrimination.
In 1656, members of the Religious Society of Friends—Quakers—began to arrive in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans, themselves once victims of religious intolerance, forced many to leave and persecuted those who stayed. Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson—Quakers who with other victims would become known as the Boston Martyrs—were hanged on the Common.
Their execution on October 27, 1659, is commemorated as International Religious Freedom Day, both to celebrate religious liberty and as a reminder that it is always hard won. The religious tolerance that Bostonians enjoy today is a relatively new phenomenon. In the 1800s, Protestant mobs persecuted Catholics, and during World War II, Catholic mobs did the same to Jews.
These facts are worth keeping in mind as violent sectarianism strikes Egypt, where the Coptic Christian minority is under siege. Most recently, two masked gunmen opened fire at a wedding party outside a Cairo church, killing four, including an eight-year old girl. There’s a dangerous tendency in the west to regard persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East as inevitable. But Egypt’s sectarian violence is a symptom of the country’s political crisis as its transition to democracy stalls.
Hostility toward Christians is not new to Egypt. But the political turmoil that began with the overthrow of President Mubarak and intensified with the military’s removal of President Morsi has led to an unprecedented wave of attacks on Christians. After the coup on July 3, Muslim Brotherhood supporters sought scapegoats among the vulnerable Copts, and the persecution increased after August 14 when the military raided Muslim Brotherhood sit-in protests, slaughtering hundreds.
Copts—who represent about 10 percent of Egypt’s more than 80 million people—are pawns in the showdown between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some Morsi supporters claim that Christians’ hostility to Islam led them to conspire with the military to overthrow the democratically elected president. At the same time, the military-backed government seems more interested in using the violent incidents to paint the Muslim Brotherhood as extreme than in trying to prevent them. For example, after Muslim extremists seized control of the town of Dalga on July 3rd and launched a pogrom against Christian residents, 76 days passed before the military moved in.
While former President Hosni Mubarak may be gone, the new military government is governing in a fashion reminiscent of—if not more repressive than— his regime. The notorious Emergency Law is back in full force, and the government is attempting to quash dissent, restricting basic freedoms and persecuting not just supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood but also secular opponents. The U.S. government provided unconditional support to Mubarak throughout his three-decade rule. That policy both failed Egyptians and undermined American interests in the region by helping to create the current instability, yet the United States remains insufficiently committed to democratic reform.
The United States needs a completely new policy, one that puts respect for human rights at its core.
The United States should work with its regional and European allies to promote political reconciliation with the goal of producing an inclusive, civilian-led government. The government’s recent order banning the Muslim Brotherhood was a big step in the wrong direction. It should instead work to bring non-violent Islamist leaders into political process. Toward that end, it needs to release from prison Muslim Brotherhood leaders not facing criminal charges. Repeated elections show that many Egyptians wish to support an Islamist party; to leave them disenfranchised is to ensure continued conflict.
President Obama has suspended most of the aid to Egypt. But for this approach to produce change, he must clearly articulate the steps the Egyptian government needs to take for aid to resume. The United States should also use its voice and vote at the International Monetary Fund to oppose loans to Egypt until the government puts in place sound economic policies and political reforms.
As the last few years in Egypt have shown, elections are just a small part of the democratization process. If religious pluralism and genuine stability are to take hold, Egypt will also need the infrastructure of democracy: a free press, the rule of law protected by an independent judiciary, and clear legal protections for religious freedom and other fundamental rights. Egyptians, like people everywhere, have a right to form and fund private organizations, independent of the government, through which they can express their opinions, pursue their interests, and hold their government accountable.
The United States must be prepared to help foster the development of this infrastructure over many years. As Boston’s own history shows, there are no shortcuts—-and frequent setbacks.
Elisa Massimino is President and CEO of Human Rights First.