Religious Freedom Amid the Arab Spring

Indispensible to U.S. Foreign Policy Going Forward

Susan Thistlethwaite says a comprehensive U.S. approach to religious freedom is indispensible to effectively engage the forces unleashed in the Arab Spring.

President Barack Obama’s most important insight about the recent political upheavals in the Arab world in his recent speech on the Middle East was this—religious freedom and other human rights are deeply connected to “political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.” Religious freedom, he explained, is part of a “set of universal rights” that he set as the “core principles” of U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, including “the right to choose your own leaders.”

Some conservatives immediately argued that the president’s approach aligned him with George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” This is mistaken on several counts. The Bush era “freedom agenda” amounted, in practice, to support for the very despotic regimes now overthrown or under siege by their citizens across the Middle East, and a refusal to recognize the results of democratic elections that the Bush administration did not like, such as in Gaza in 2005.

In addition, religious freedom in the Bush “freedom agenda” was often a stand-alone policy. In practice, this amounted to “calling out” bad actors, as the former president did when attending the Olympics in China, rather than integrating religious freedom into overall approaches to other foreign policy concerns such as economic, civil, and political transitions.

President Obama takes a very different view—one that is a clear advance on the Bush administration method. Religious freedom for the president is not a “stand alone” ideal but rather embedded in a series of commitments that are practical and dynamic in regard to how “human dignity,” the root of the “core principles” that include free speech, political freedom, and women rights, is actually achieved. Importantly, this approach avoids singling out religious freedom only as a set of individual rights.

Instead, religious freedom is dealt with as part of a broad cultural and political transition. In this perspective, religious freedom does not occur in a vacuum. U.S. foreign policy moves away from lecturing “bad actors” toward laying out a course for how an increase in religious freedom can occur.

Religious freedom, then, in President Obama’s view, tends to increase when other positive changes are also occurring, especially political and economic transformation, and is best pursued by the people themselves as they define their own approach to democracy and advance their own economies, in ways that are culturally and religiously congruent for them. This “embedding” of religious freedom in political, cultural, and economic transformation is a helpful step forward in American foreign policy.

Another step that was not named in the president’s speech, but that would aid in better positioning United States foreign policy in relationship to the kinds of changes that the Arab Spring has unleashed, is to explicitly embrace religious freedom as political rights. This is consistent with the idea that a nation’s citizens need to construct their own democratic revolutions in their own ways.

Thus, religious freedom should come to be understood not only as individual freedom to worship and freedom of religious affiliation, but also as the freedom to form religiously oriented political movements and engage the public square from that perspective. In the transition that is occurring in states where these repressive rulers have been overthrown in the Middle East, religious, often openly Islamist, political parties are on the rise. This is, in part, a direct rejection of dictators who repressed political and religious freedom especially in the public square.

Great concern is being expressed about the potential for antidemocratic influence by these Islamist political parties, not only in Egypt regarding the Muslim Brotherhood, but also in Tunisia. Yet, the development of religious parties in the Middle East after the overthrow of repressive regimes is inevitable and not necessarily all negative. This is the argument recently put forward by three political scientists, Monica DuffyToft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, in their new book, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics.

The provocative thesis of this analysis of the advancing role of religion in global politics is this—new religious forces are the product of modernization, including globalization, political liberalization, and Internet communication. The authors argue these were the very trends that were supposed to bring about an end to religion and the rise of secularism, but instead they have given rise to the exponential growth and influence of religion in politics around the world. Political outcomes are now partially a product of religious trends in the public square, which leads them to conclude that it not wise to dream that religious actors and institutions can be confined to a “private sphere.”

Indeed, restrictions on religious freedom have been a losing strategy for nations around the world trying to keep religion out of politics. Trying to “keep religion out of it” by repressive tactics simply causes political theologies to radicalize and become more extreme, as happened in Egypt under former President Hosni Mubarak. “Trying to keep religion out of it” less by violence and more by legal restriction doesn’t work either. Countries where religion is or has been sharply restricted, such as Christianity and Islam in contemporary China or the Catholic Church by the Communist regime in Poland, have seen religion grow, not decline. China, for example, is on track to become not only the largest Christian country in the world, but also the largest Muslim country.

Religious freedom, understood not simply as an individual right but as a whole society’s approach to religion—its economics, culture, and politics—permits religion to become a “’force multiplier’ for important social and political goods, including democratization, peacemaking and reconciliation,” say the authors of God’s Century. This is not always the case, of course, but religious actors and religious parties tend to move toward the center when they are forced to compete with other political actors and movements in a free society. This is a relatively simple political calculus of how groups appeal to the broadest range of voters.

This point is well illustrated by Shadi Hamid’s response to the question “Should we fear the Muslim Brotherhood?” as it was becoming clear the Mubarak regime was ending. Hamid is the director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy and a Hewlett Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. On the one hand, Hamid observes, “The Brotherhood, to be sure, is not a force for liberalism.” On the other hand, especially where national security concerns are paramount, “The risks of Islamist overreach…can be mitigated through creative policymaking. The United States and the international community can help facilitate the building of robust political institutions that constrain the power of elected leaders, Islamist and secular alike.”

For U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, this means regular and substantive engagement now with Islamist parties. Waiting until after elections have solidified the power of Islamist parties is not wise. As Hamid further argues in the May/June issue of Foreign Policy, now is when these parties still feel “vulnerable” and will be more open to engagement. “By initiating regular, substantive dialogue with Islamist groups to work on areas of agreement and discuss key foreign policy concerns, the United States might discover more convergence of interests than it expects,” he writes.

Engaging these Islamists while they are still in the process of developing their political postures in this new era in the Middle East broadens the number of actors with whom the United States can engage. And it is consistent with President Obama’s commitment, outlined in his May Middle East address, that “We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future.”

This policy shift is consistent with a deepened understanding of how religion actually functions today in the world. Religious freedom in this new world context must be understood as a comprehensive understanding of religion not only as individual rights but also as religious freedom to engage the public square. Religious freedom means the freedom of all actors in a society to engage in nonviolent, democratic activity, whether religious or not, and to engage each other without fear of reprisals. Religious freedom is not separate from politics, but instead deeply embedded in the way in which societies build “robust political institutions” that are capable of responding to, and if need be, constraining various forms of political power, whether religious or secular.

Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and its former president between 1998 and 2008. An ordained minister of the United Church of Christ since 1974, she is the author and/or editor of numerous books, and has worked on two different translations of the bible.

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Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

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