The concept of religious freedom is often interpreted as a fundamental component of a healthy democracy since most autocratic governments enforce their particular agendas without concern for the masses. Yet, the assumption that a democratic government embraces principles of freedom as part of a genuine effort to uphold justice and equality can be misleading. Saba Mahmood, in his article “Religious Freedom, The Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East” reminds us that the concept of religious freedom is often used as a tool of segregation and oppression when he writes, “From the seventeenth century onward the discourse on religious liberty in the Middle East has been intertwined with European projects of extending “protections” to non-Muslim minorities (primarily Christian) as a means of securing European interests in the region” (419).
Mahmood’s article explores the notion of religious liberty in the Middle East as colonial and postcolonial societies embrace this principle without scrutinizing the concealed motives rooted within the unstable framework of liberty. The author reminds us that the European effort to protect religious minorities represent more than religious tolerance and a desire to seek equality when he states, “If this were so, the European powers would have accepted similar provisions in regard to their own minorities, which they refused to do throughout history” (428). In other words, if the minorities needing representation could potentially increase Western power in the region, then Europeans embraced the efforts required to seek for a more balanced political and religious environment.
The role of religious freedom among minority groups in the Middle East leads Mahmood to the exploration of the Coptic Orthodox Community in Egypt, which constitutes about twelve percent of the population. The author questions the sincerity of the attempts aimed at protecting the Coptic community as he reminds us that principles of religious freedom are often used as a way of proselytizing religious messages under the disguise of a secular[i] agenda while establishing a correlation between the acceptance of nationalistic ideologies and the success or failure of minority groups in Egypt[ii].
The Western world generally advocates for democratic values while undermining and generalizing the religious, political, and cultural differences in the Middle East. Furthermore, the suggestion that America’s secular government seeks to uphold the law separate from religious influence is questionable, considering the consistent conservative Evangelical Christian presence in the political arena. As Hamid Shadi reminds us in his essay “The Rise of the Islamists: How Islamists Will Change Politics and Vice Versa,” “Washington tends to question whether Islamists’ religious commitments can coexist with respect for democracy, pluralism, and women’s rights;” yet, this questioning suggests that America’s religious commitments do coexists.
Considering the continuous unstable political environment in the Middle East, one can clearly conceive that this state of discontent reflects people’s opposition to oppressive governments, the prevalent presence of the United States in the region, as well as diverse views of opinions regarding Islam, government, progress, and freedom.[iii] Perhaps this realization has led the Muslim Brotherhood to adjust its position as Shadi writes, “ 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” (41).
As Egypt and the rest of the Middle East continue to find a solution to their unstable political environment through secular and religious principles, the United States can assist these countries by restricting its political agenda to create a democracy that fits Western principles. Furthermore, the depiction of Egyptians during the Arab Spring as seekers of Western democracy complicates our relationship with the Middle East even more. Shadi reminds us that even if these movements potentially indicate a desire to move towards Western forms of democracy and freedom, they should not be interpreted as a progression towards a less Islamic state and a more Westernize democracy.[iv]
As we reflect on the Western influence in the Middle East, let us recognize that the definition of freedom varies according to socio-cultural factors; thereby, a universal imposition of ethics ignores this diversity as it seeks to present and potentially impose its particular vision as superior.
[i] The author reminds us that “the principle of religious liberty, far from being a secular instrument of state neutrality, was for these advocates closely woven with their desire to win Christian converts” (433).
[ii] The realization that minority rights depend on national rights is echoed in the following statement by Samer Soliman, the Coptic intellectual-activist “The principle of national unity has been our only hope (439).
[iii] Shadi argues, many Islamist groups, including the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, have gradually stripped their political platforms of explicitly Islamist content (41).
[iv] The moment of apparent convergence between Islamists and the United States during the revolutions does not mean that they will-or should- agree on all foreign policy questions in the future (43).