Katherine Lanpher (KL): We know Islamist parties have made inroads in Tunisia, Libya and now in Egypt. We have the first Islamist president to assume power. What does this mean for Copts, Jews, or other minorities?
Elliott Abrams (EA): The Copts in Egypt certainly feel in danger. There are opinion polls showing that virtually all of them voted against the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. They're worried and there are – in at least some of the speeches and practices of some of the Islamist groups over the years – reasons for them to be worried. It’s a concern and it ought to be a key issue that we – the United States – raise with these new governments.
KL: How exactly do we do that?
EA: There’s [two types of] requests: openly or privately. Does the president or the secretary of state in [their] speech say: “We hope our relations with you are going to be good, but it's going to depend in part on how you treat religious minorities?” In fact, we've done that. The president and the secretary have done that. The other thing is what do you say privately? You can say to them that this is not just a speech. Our country is about 90% Christian. Congress cares a lot about this. If this becomes an issue it's really going to hurt bilateral relations. I would hope that is in fact what they're saying so that people realize on the receiving end that this is not posturing. This is a serious potential issue.
KL: How do you make sure that doesn’t translate into to a larger dispute between the United States and other governments?
EA: It can. They can interpret it as the United States being a Christian country that’s just interested in advancing the rights or privileges of Christians. I don't think there’s any real way around that. The truth is, it would be an issue. Take Egypt. If Copts by the thousands were beginning to leave... if you have violence against Coptic churches and the police and the army were not protecting those churches, I think that would be an issue in the United States. I don’t think that should be our goal to keep that out of the bilateral relationship by playing it down. Our goal should be to persuade them to truly protect religious freedom.
KL: The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights specifies: “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” But there is also a declaration of human rights in Islam signed by 45 states belonging to the Organization of the Islamic Conference and it makes no mention of religious freedoms. How is freedom of religion understood? If we don't want to say by the Middle East as a whole, at least by these 45 states belonging to this conference.
EA: There’s a potential problem here. Several Islamic countries, led by Saudi Arabia took exceptions. They didn’t say, “Yes, we sign.” They said, “Yes, we sign except when it comes to religion.” For example, the Saudis said nobody has a right to convert from Islam to any other religion. There are still Muslim countries where that’s essentially impossible. In some cases it’s the government – as in Saudi Arabia. In others, it’s popular opinion. You really risk your life if you are “outted” as someone who converted from Islam to Christianity. That’s going to be an issue between us and some of these governments but not all.
The leader of the Ennahda Party, which is now the governing party of Tunisia, has said when he was here in Washington, that he is absolutely firm on the view that there can be no compulsion when it comes to religion – that people have an absolute right to convert out of Islam. Unfortunately, that is not a universally held view. I think we can predict it’s going to become an issue.
The second issue I would point to is the blasphemy question: what is it that you can say that is going to land you in trouble? Under legal codes, you can be arrested and worse.
KL: I want to concentrate for one moment on Saudi Arabia. I think it is a key example of the challenges you have when a major ally who we have put on the list – Countries of Particular Concern is the wording that comes from the [United States Commission on International Religious Freedom]… when you're talking about countries where we are really worried about religious freedom. It is still a problem there and we still need them.
EA: It's a huge problem. There is no freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia. The total number of churches in Saudi Arabia is zero. This is a country where they have about a million and a half Christians, many of them Philippinos, who are working in Saudi Arabia and have no access to the sacraments even though they are Catholics. It is an issue that we’ve talked to the Saudis about. I guess you'd say that under several presidents of both parties we've said our peace and we’ve essentially disagreed to disagree about it.
KL: For national security concerns, correct?
EA: National security and economic security. The Saudis are the largest supplier of oil to the world.
KL: Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “Lasting change, when it comes to promoting religious freedom in other countries, is more likely to come through persuasion than making blunt demands.” What is the distinction between countries where persuasion works and countries where you might need something stronger?
EA: We can’t really make blunt demands in many of these cases. You’re talking about something that is really woven into the culture of a country. The only place where you can make a demand is in a particular case. For example, I can remember a case in Pakistan where there was someone who converted to Christianity and he was in jail. We could ask them let him out of jail and let him emmigrate. That’s the kind of thing where you can make a demand. If you are talking about the situation in Saudi Arabia for example… If we were to demand of them: “You have until August 1st to allow churches to be built and allow complete freedom of religion…” It’s not going to happen. I think Secretary Albright was right in saying that in most cases and on the most serious issues, our best bet is to continue to raise the issue – continue to try to persuade – and hope that over time the situation ameliorates.
KL: How has your own faith affected the work that you’ve been doing in this area?
EA: I’m not sure of the answer to that... I’m a Jew and it may simply be that in Jewish history, particularly Europe, a small community can really be subjected to horrendous persecution and even death. When I look at a community like the Baha’i in Iran – a community of pretty well-educated middle-class people being subjected to this terrible discrimination, not only in Iran but particularly in Iran – it brings back some reflections to me on the history of those small and defenseless Jewish communities.