No Freedom without Religious Freedom in Egypt

As events in Egypt unfold toward some kind of change it is becoming clear, if one looks beyond the crowds in square, that there is no freedom without real religious freedom. One commentator noted quite correctly that there is a difference between a change in a government and change in a regime. If President Mubarak steps down, but leaves in place the existing structure in which a long standing oligarchy continues to control the country there will be few of the changes sought by the Egyptian people. On the other hand if this entire regime, this entire network of inter-related and mutually reinforcing powers is overthrown then there will real changes for the Egyptian people. Less clear is just how positive these changes will be.

This is why two groups who are not part of the current regime are still wary of change. One is the Israelis, the other Coptic Christians. Both fear that regime change will bring the Muslim Brotherhood into power, and with the Brotherhood will come both renewed attacks against Egyptian Christians (which are already common) and an Egyptian state determined to destroy Israel. At this stage no one really knows how or whether the Brotherhood will play a major role in any new Egyptian regime. And the Brotherhood itself has officially renounced violence for many years. Yet even if that renunciation can be trusted, and even if the Brotherhood is only one of many political players in a new Egypt, the fear will remain.

The reason is simple: the Brotherhood, like many other Islamist groups, has no commitment to real religious freedom either for non-Muslims or fellow Muslims of different sects. Islamist thinking on inter-religious relations is typically based in the idealization of the period in which Muhammad ruled Medina. As idealized, the political system he ruled was understood to have largely overthrown tribalism in favor of an Arab people united by religion. Judaism and Christianity were acceptable religions in this new society because they were monotheistic and tribe-transcendent. But Jews and Christians were obliged to give their loyalty to this new Islamic state, and Arab Muslims were expected to acquiesce in all efforts to keep the new religion of Islam pure. In other words the expected loyalty of Muslims and non-Muslims meant not only obeying Muhammad’s rule, but doing nothing to undermine the state’s specifically religious interests. In return for being protected by Muhammad the people would do nothing to suggest that the religious claims of Islam as embodied by Muhammad and his immediate successors were less than perfectly true. Depending on how much Muhammad and subsequent Muslim rulers chose to enforce this claim of loyalty to an Islamic regime non-Muslims might live out their own religious convictions quite freely, or might be deeply oppressed.

The understanding of government as a kind of contract between the people and their ruler, with the former pledging loyalty to the ruler and his religious ideology and the latter promising to protect the people from enemies without and within was the classical system of Islamic governance, and it is the system that the Islamists wish to restore. And one can see why both Israelis and Coptic Christians fear it – quite apart from the viciousness with which it is already implemented in Iran. For Copts this system would make them a permanent underclass in Egyptian society, a position they already occupy but which at least is not dignified by law. The situation for Israel could be worse. The Islamist understanding of international relations allows only temporary peace treaties with non-Muslim neighbors in the framework of an ongoing obligation to Islamize them. And even this may not apply if there is a significant Muslim population within a particular territory. At least one reading of classical Islamic law would oblige Muslim rulers to liberate large nearby Muslim populations from non-Muslim rule, or even Muslim rule that is less than pristine in its orthodoxy.

Although there are significant differences in the Islamist movements in the Middle East, both in terms of their goals and their methods, many are burdened by their commitment to a particular model of governance based on Muhammad (and his immediate successors) in Medina. That model, which would have been readily recognized as valid in medieval Christian Europe or Byzantium, cannot function in the modern world. It removes from public debate the religious ideology that forms the basis of governance, and cannot recognize the permanent existence of states with any other ideological basis. Specifically it cannot recognize full religious freedom for its own population or the permanent right to exist of non-Muslim states. It is justifiably feared by Christians in Egypt and Jews in Israel, and should be feared by every Egyptian Muslim who holds his or her own opinion about the meaning and practice of Islam.

Religious freedom is the basis of freedom and democracy, not a byproduct. Religions, with their competing claims to comprehend the Reality within which all human social relationships take place, are the natural counterpoint to not only other religious political ideologies, but all totalitarian political ideologies. The situation of the Copts and Israelis is really a litmus test for any new Egyptian government. If they are not free and secure then neither the Egyptian population as a whole, nor Egypt’s neighbors, can live without fear.


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