Timothy Samuel Shah on a Fully Free Egypt

June 3, 2011

There will be no moving toward a truly free and stable democracy in Egypt unless Egypt also moves toward religious freedom. But what does it mean to insist that Egypt move to respect religious freedom in its current political transition? On May 19, 2011, President Obama—to his credit—talked directly and explicitly about religious freedom as essential to a healthy future for the Middle East. Yet the brief case he made that countries such as Egypt should respect religious freedom fell short in crucial respects.

First, President Obama presented religious freedom as if it were exclusively about respecting the rights of religious minorities, such as Copts in Egypt. Second, he presented religious freedom as if it were exclusively about respecting freedom of worship—“equal rites” rather than full “equal rights,” to use the memorable contrast Hudson Institute scholar Paul Marshall invoked shortly after the speech. Third, he failed to articulate a robust rationale for religious freedom—why religious freedom is so crucial to the political freedom and stability of a country such as Egypt.

Here is what the President said:

We look forward to working with all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy. What we will oppose is an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion and not consent. Because democracy depends not only on elections, but also strong and accountable institutions, and the respect for the rights of minorities.

Such tolerance is particularly important when it comes to religion. In Tahrir Square, we heard Egyptians from all walks of life chant, "Muslims, Christians, we are one." America will work to see that this spirit prevails—that all faiths are respected, and that bridges are built among them. In a region that was the birthplace of three world religions, intolerance can lead only to suffering and stagnation. And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.

It is valuable that the President mentioned religious freedom at all in his major statement on US policy toward the Middle East. But in the three ways noted above, this case for religious freedom is anemic. Not only does it imply that preventing churches and mosques from being “destroyed” is pretty much the sum total of what it means to respect religious freedom, it also gives the impression that religious freedom is a form of special “tolerance” that majorities extend to “minorities.” It is chiefly, he suggested, a restraint that majorities impose on themselves.

In other words, the President’s speech arguably serves to reinforce what is already a widespread fear in many Muslim-majority countries—namely, that to embrace religious freedom is to impose a secular muzzle on Islam, and to silence the sincere religious convictions of the majority, which have often been repressed under numerous Arab governments such as that of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt.

While it is essential in a context in which Middle Eastern religious minorities such as Coptic Christians are under severe threat to stress that religious freedom for these minorities must be respected, it is also essential to stress that religious freedom properly understood also includes the empowerment of the majority to voice its religious convictions and to seek proper respect and recognition of those convictions in the public square. In the next paragraph, in fact, President Obama made an argument for the empowerment of women that he could and should have made for the empowerment of all religious individuals and groups, whether of the majority or minority:

What is true for religious minorities is also true when it comes to the rights of women. History shows that countries are more prosperous and more peaceful when women are empowered. And that's why we will continue to insist that universal rights apply to women as well as men -– by focusing assistance on child and maternal health; by helping women to teach, or start a business; by standing up for the right of women to have their voices heard, and to run for office. The region will never reach its full potential when more than half of its population is prevented from achieving their full potential.

What the President says about female empowerment is absolutely true. But history also shows that countries are more politically prosperous, free, and peaceful when religious groups of all kinds are empowered, as I demonstrate in God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, co-authored with my Religious Freedom Project colleagues Monica Duffy Toft and Daniel Philpott. And this fact receives further demonstration in The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, the outstanding new study by Brian Grim and Roger Finke. And so one can and should say that the Middle East—including Egypt—will never reach its full potential when the nine-tenths or so of its populations that are religious are prevented from achieving their full freedom and potential. Religious freedom, in other words, is about advancing the full freedom of civic expression and participation of all religious groups, majority and minority. Only when such robust religious freedom is respected will Egypt have a shot at full freedom and stability.

And the terms in which this can and must be articulated in Egypt today are not secular terms, in which religious freedom is presented as an external, secular limit on the majority’s religious convictions. Instead, a proper concept of religious freedom is at least as accurately understood as a sacred covenant between religion and state, under God, that frees both of them to fulfill their divinely appointed responsibilities. What Egypt needs now is imaginative religious and political leaders who will boldly advance such a covenantal concept of religious freedom in terms that will be both respectful of Egypt's religious traditions and nonsectarian.

Religious freedom requires that human persons and their communities and institutions be free to explore, embrace, and express the truth about the transcendent in accordance with their own judgments of conscience. When governments through coercion or co-option effectively control and direct the consciences of persons and their institutions, religious freedom is undermined or denied. When the Egyptian government has controlled and co-opted the leading institutions of Islam in the country, such as al-Azhar university and the office of the Grand Mufti, which it has done under the Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak regimes, the state has presumed to put its thumb on the scales of religious truth, robbing its citizens and the country's leading religious institutions of the freedom to form and express their own judgments about the most important, ultimate questions of transcendent truth.

This is not a device for honoring Islam but for insulting it. This is not a means of obeying God but of turning God into Caesar's—or in this case Pharaoh's—instrument.

The result is that both religion and state suffer. The state that manipulates religion in order to win religious legitimacy in fact fools no one—instead of enhancing its own strength by winning the support of religion it succeeds in degrading and diminishing both religion and its own authority. It signals all too clearly a poverty of legitimacy. Besides, a manipulated and coerced religious legitimacy is in fact no legitimacy at all. And a religion that lends itself to such manipulation loses any genuine voice and authority, even over the spheres of religion and morality.

The demand for religious freedom is the demand that the state cease to direct human traffic with the transcendent for its own purposes and instead defer to the efforts of persons to achieve their own understanding of and relationship with the transcendent. God is not the property of Pharaoh. In Egypt, this demand will take the form of liberating religious institutions from state control and manipulation.

As well, it also takes the form of freeing religious institutions to seek to engage and influence public life by any and all non-violent and non-coercive means at their disposal. No one religious party or group should have privileged access to political power; all groups should be equally free to express their judgments about the transcendent and shape public life in accordance with them. The state is not the property of any group’s vision of God.

All of this could be understood as a kind of secular insistence that the state stay out of religion's business and religion stay out of—or at least refrain from controlling—the state's business.

But to my mind this notion of religious freedom is more conceptually secure and socially viable, and would be far more in keeping with the convictions of most ordinary Egyptians today, if it is seen as a sacred covenant rooted in a sense of duty to God or the transcendent. The state owes it to God or the transcendent to respect and honor the sincere efforts of its citizens to seek God and establish and express their own relationship with him.

Individual citizens owe it to God to give to God that obedience that they believe God requires, not an obedience that they believe Pharaoh requires. Anything short of this is idolatry—the exact opposite of the proper worship of God. Individual citizens owe it to the transcendent truth (and to themselves) to give to the truth that loyalty and fidelity that truth requires, not a set of convictions and beliefs trimmed to suit the requirements of Pharaoh. Anything short of this is hypocrisy and superficiality, and the result is an unexamined life of conventional religious conformity that is not worth living, or, at any rate, not pleasing to God.

Various institutional arrangements may instantiate such a sacred covenant between religion and state. While both an atheist state and a theocratic (or perhaps better Erastian) state that absorbs religion into itself would violate such a sacred covenant, many other arrangements in between would respect it.

To be clear, also, such a concept of religious freedom would in no way be strict-separationist, for it would invite a busy two-way traffic between religion and state, in which religious individuals and institutions are free to influence the state and the state is free to provide some support to religious institutions and communities.

The only provisos are that religion must not be permitted to take over the state, and the state must not be permitted to provide support to religion in a way or to the point that such support becomes co-optative or radically discriminatory.

The core point, though, is that such a concept of religious freedom is not so much a secular dictum as a sacred duty. For it is a necessary condition of religious integrity and fidelity to the truth. And when this sacred duty is fulfilled in a society like Egypt, the result will be the simultaneous liberation of religion from entanglement with Pharaoh and the empowerment of religion—all non-violent religion—to serve society with all the suasive, spiritual, and non-coercive resources at its disposal.

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