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Negotiating Ideas of Religious Freedom and Religious Parties in the Arab Spring

Western ideals of freedom and democracy live under the umbrella of secularism. It is hard for Westerners to fathom a democratic government that includes religious political parties. For the West, the idea of religion in politics seems to be at odds with ideas about religious freedom. This is why the United States is uneasy about supporting Islamist groups involved in the Arab Spring, even though it is possible for a government to be both democratic and religiously influenced.

The United States often forgets that its own ideal of religious freedom has gone unreached in the nation’s history. Even though it is a constitutional right, non-Christians, and non-Protestants have been discriminated against in the United States, such as, Native Americans, Jews, Catholics, and slaves. Of course, these rights applied to citizens only, which would not have considered natives and slaves. At the same time Western powers were using religious freedom as political tool to protect the rights of Christians in places like the Middle East they did not extend this freedom to their own minorities.[i]  This does not mean that things have not changed or that we should not uphold the right to religious freedom, but that the United States should be careful to label these religiously influenced governments undemocratic.

Shadi Hamid remarks in his article, “The Rise of the Islamists: How Islamists will Change Politics, and vice versa,” that the presence of Islamic political parties is inevitable following the Arab Spring revolutions. “If truly democratic governments form in their wake, they are likely to include significant representation of mainstream Islamist groups. Like it or not, the United States will have to learn to live with political Islam.”[ii] Rather than fight these popular Islamist groups the U.S. should be open to working with them. Hamid believes that interaction with these groups would be wise since both have similar interests. “Already, most mainstream Islamists have significant overlapping interests with the United States, such as seeing al Qaeda dismantled, policing terrorism, improving living standards and economic conditions across the Arab world, and consolidating democratic governance.”[iii] Hamid sees the Islamist groups emerging from the Arab Spring, like any other political party they are willing to work within the system and with other political powers to get what they want.

Fouad Ajami writes rather colorfully and optimistically about the Arab Spring in his article, “The Arab Spring at One: A Year of Living Dangerously”. His tale of the Arab Spring is one of a courageous overthrow of tyranny. “The Arab world had grown morose and menacing. Its populations loathed their rulers and those leaders’ foreign patrons. Bands of jihadists, forged in the cruel prisons of dreadful regimes, were scattered about everywhere looking to kill and be killed. Mohamed Bouazizi summoned his fellows to a new history, and across the region, millions have heeded his call.”[iv] These jihadists were not looking to destroy non-believers but the oppressive systems of government under which they lived. Ajami describes these freedom fighters much like one would describe America’s own revolutionaries.  While religious ideals helped strengthen their cause, their ideals consist mostly of what Westerners hold most dear: democracy and freedom.

Ajami considers the Arab Awakening as a continuation of what the U.S. failed to do well in Iraq. “Iraq was set ablaze, and the Arab autocrats could point to it as a cautionary tale of the folly of unseating even the worst of despots.”[v] The folly of the United States did not discourage those in nations like Egypt. Ajami describes those involved in the Arab Spring as brave individuals not willing to give up on democracy. He discusses religion and Islam very little in his article. What Westerner could argue against the beautiful and inspiring picture that Ajami creates? Those involved in the Arab Spring want the same things that America has, with a little bit of an Islamic twist. As Hamid reminds us, “In the past few years, instead of calling for an “Islamic state,” for example, the Muslim Brotherhood began calling for a “civil, democratic state with an Islamic reference,” suggesting a newfound commitment to the separation of mosque and state (although not of religion and politics).” [vi]They want their governments to be influenced by religion not controlled by religion. It would be wrong to say that the U.S. government is completely devoid of Christian influence, try as it might to appear secular.

One can only wait and see what role Islamists will play in the years following the Arab Awakening. “’The best day after a bad emperor is the first,’ the Roman historian Tacitus once memorably observed. This third Arab awakening is in the scales of history. It has in it both peril and promise, the possibility of prison but also the possibility of freedom…”[vii]


[i] Saba Mahmood, “Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East,” Comparative Studies in Social History 54, no. 2 (2012): 421-422

[ii] Shadi Hamid, “The Rise of the Islamists: How Islamists will Change Politics, and vice versa,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 3): 40-47.

[iii] Shadi Hamid, “The Rise of the Islamists: How Islamists will Change Politics, and vice versa,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 3): 40-47.

[iv] Fouad Ajami, “The Arab Spring at One: A Year of Living Dangerously,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 2): 56-65.

[v] Fouad Ajami, “The Arab Spring at One: A Year of Living Dangerously,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 2): 56-65.

[vi] Shadi Hamid, “The Rise of the Islamists: How Islamists will Change Politics, and vice versa,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 3): 40-47.

[vii] Fouad Ajami, “The Arab Spring at One: A Year of Living Dangerously,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 2): 56-65.

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