Thomas Farr is Director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Nina Shea is Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
Ray Suarez (RS): Revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia brought new political parties to power. But it’s raised concerns about the fate of religious minorities under Islamist governments.
As we heard earlier in the program, the Middle East in general has experienced an outflow of Christians, Baha’is, and people of other faiths. And, Muslim minorities in countries like Iraq face sectarian tension daily.
But, with religious violence happening halfway around the world, why should Americans be concerned?
Thomas Farr, with all the United States is worried about in this part of the world: nuclear proliferation, stable governments, and the end to daily horrific violence, why is religious freedom, the encouragement of religious freedom, not merely a diplomatic goal of the United States but a key strategic one as well?
Thomas Farr (TF): I think there are two answers to that important question. One is, historically, the United States has stood with the persecuted. To move away from that would be endangering our own self-understanding.
In a more practical vein, I think there’s a national security issue at stake here. So particularly in these countries that are reaching toward democracy, such as Egypt, or Tunisia, what we should be trying to convince them of is that if you don’t get religious freedom right then, you’re not going to succeed at democracy. And you continue to incubate, and for our purposes export radicalism and terrorism.
RS: Nina Shea, can you, as you look over the landscape, give us some examples of what religious minorities face, in some of the countries of the region?
Nina Shea (NS): Well, Egypt is the largest country in the Middle East, and has the largest minority of any kind that is non-Muslim, and they are the Christian Copts. And, they are really very frightened right now. They’ve experienced pogroms, they have experienced attacks, that is, on their churches, on their villages, and that happens with impunity.
No one goes to jail for this kind of murder and mayhem against them. So they are very frightened. They are particularly very frightened as they look at Iraq.
The minorities there have been absolutely decimated. They’ve been driven out because of this rising intolerance with the Salafi movement and the Islamists there.
And so the Egyptians are very frightened, they have been linked, actually, in death threats by Al Qaeda, to the Iraqi Christians.
RS: Even before the tensions, civil wars, invasions of the recent era, Christians were pouring out of this part of the world, into established communities in Europe, North America, South America, Central America. Are they part of just a dying era of history? Is it in the interest of the United States that these communities, which often leave in search of better educational opportunities, better economic opportunity, are really maintained in places like Bethlehem, Jericho, Nazareth, Aleppo, and so on?
NS: It's certainly a deep wound for the church, but it’s also, as Tom said, a geopolitical issue for the United States. And a human rights issue. They have been leaving for a long time. I think at the beginning of the 20th century, they accounted for about 30 percent of the Middle East population. They’re now down to about three percent. But in a place like Iraq, they’ve gone in the past ten years from three [or] four percent to 1.5 percent of the population. And it is a geopolitical problem.
Brian Grim, who’s a researcher at the very respected Pew Research Center has found a direct correlation, between intolerance, religious persecution, peace, and stability.
I want to talk about the Baha'i, too, and mention that under the new constitution in Egypt, they have absolutely no right to have a house of worship, and the education minister of Egypt just announced that the Baha'is will no longer be able to attend schools.
It’s a brain drain for these countries. Also they are moderating influences. They believe in modern education, women’s rights, they speak Western languages so they’ve acted as a bridge between East and West. All of this will be lost.
RS: Thomas Farr?
TF: At Georgetown we’re doing a two-year study on the question of Christian contributions to freedom. Half of the program is going to be focused on what you’re talking about now, that is: what have Christian minorities contributed to their own societies, and what will be lost if they’re exiled, if they’re drawn down, if they’re repressed?
In many of these countries, as Nina says, they’ve been fundamental to the development of culture. One of the outcomes of this study, we hope, which is being done now by scholars all over the world, is to say to these countries: “Take a look at your own interests. What are you losing if you chase these people out? Christians and others. What do you gain by embracing religious freedom for everybody?” Which is full equality under the law for religious individuals and citizens.
RS: During the rise of political Islam, one of the tools of government pressure has been the use of blasphemy laws. We see it all over the world, but certainly in this part of the world. And with new constitutions being written, new governments taking power, Nina Shea, is blasphemy a big 21st century crime?
NS: It is. We’re seeing the resurgence of the application of blasphemy and apostasy codes.
RS: And explain what that is?
NS: They’re actually the same concept. Apostasy and blasphemy would be people who turn their back on a particular religion, or are heretical in some way, or perceived as heretical by the prevailing powers.
And I just actually co-authored a book with Paul Marshall called “Silenced”, that really discusses this phenomenon, of the rise of these codes. So you have it under different titles in different countries. In Egypt it’s called “insult to heavenly religions.” In fact, it’s insult to Islam.
Actually one of the richest families, a man from one of the richest families of Egypt, a Copt, who, after the parliamentary elections in Egypt, after the Islamists swept those elections, texted a little cartoon of Mickey and Minney Mouse dressed in Islamic attire, and he was put on trial for blasphemy.
There’s a woman who’s been sentenced, along with her seven children, to 15 years in prison in Egypt, for having re-converted to Christianity after having been a Christian originally, converting to marry a Muslim man, because it’s illegal for the two religions to marry in Egypt, and then re-converting back [to Christianity] after he died.
Many, many moderate Muslims are targeted by them - they’re silenced by them. If there’s a suggestion that there should be greater women’s rights, for example.
RS: Thomas Farr, the United States has encouraged the growth of popular government, all the way from Rabat in the West and heading all the way to Afghanistan in the East. But popular will often mean that minorities are, silenced, oppressed. How does the United States square these, too? Discourage blasphemy laws, when in fact what we’ve asked for is what we’re getting?
TF: Democracy, in order to endure, requires certain fundamental commitments to what we would call liberalism or human rights. So, instead of preaching this, however, I think we have to make an argument of self-interest to these countries, and it is simply this: If you really want democracy to work, to be stable, then you have got to find a way to accept this thing we’re calling religious freedom. We need to translate this into a very practical argument. What do you want?
If indeed what most of your citizens want, as I believe most Egyptians want, for example, a democracy that will be based on some of the tenets of Islam and will not collapse into anarchy, or into theocracy, you won’t get this, you won’t get what you want without religious freedom.
Religious freedom encourages people not per se to insult others’ religions or their own religions, but what it says is that you have the right to speak out about Islam or about Christianity in the public square.
This doesn’t mean that religions have to accept the idea that we should be insulted, that we have to accept insults. I’m a Roman Catholic and I feel like my religion is insulted with some regularity by some daily newspapers.
The response to that has to be reason and writing and additional speech, not laws against blasphemy or apostasy or defamation.
So we have to develop, in my view, American diplomatic programs that can speak to the self-interests of these countries. If they think we’re attacking their religion, we’ll never get anywhere.
RS: Nina Shea, the United States has major allies and major interests in the Middle East, and if you look at a country like Saudi Arabia, it oppresses its Shias, it really comes down hard on even the private practice of Christianity. How can the United States maintain relationships with key countries in that region while this kind of thing is going on?
NS: We have, until now, really ignored this issue, particularly with Saudi Arabia, and you’re right, Saudi Arabia allows no houses of worship other than mosques, and it, even within Islam, oppresses its own Shiite minority. And Saudi Arabia is feeling tensions, particularly in its eastern part, where the Shi’a are because there’s so much religious tension from them. It could unravel for them. It would be terrible for world oil markets, and us. We have to start really making this point, that the importance of religious freedom for peaceful co-existence, between us and them, and among themselves.