Leave room for the unbelievers


As Islamists continue to gain ground in post-dictatorship Arab societies, alarming signs are emerging that real freedom of religion may not be among the dividends of the uprisings.

Even in Tunisia—the Arab society furthest along in transforming from dictatorship to a constitutional system, and which has a large secular constituency and tradition—severe attacks on religious dissidents are being carried out by the new government.

Two young bloggers, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, were both sentenced to an astonishing seven years in prison “for violation of morality and disturbing public order.” Their offense was to post images of a naked Prophet Mohamed on Facebook. Mejri is in jail, while Beji has reportedly fled the country. Meanwhile, the head of the Nessma television station is awaiting trial for “blasphemy” for airing the animated film “Persepolis,” which includes an image of God.

The situation in neighboring Egypt isn’t any more encouraging. In early April, a 17-year-old Coptic youth, Gamal Abdou Massoud, was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting Islam and its Prophet,” again through Facebook caricatures.

Islamists, especially those now touring Western capitals, never tire of professing a deep commitment to freedom, equality and democratic values. But at the same time, they insist that Islam must be the basis of all of these freedoms and that there is no contradiction between equal citizenship rights for every individual and the essential teachings of Islam as they interpret them.

The prosecutions in Tunisia and Egypt strongly suggest otherwise. What they indicate, instead, is a determination to intensify the use of religious intolerance as a tool of state power and social control.

Islamists, trying to portray themselves as moderates, speak in broad terms about tolerance, pluralism and the rights of individual citizens. But there are many areas in which their professed and long-established ideologies contradict these values, not least when it comes to preserving equal rights for women and religious minorities.

But these are not the most elemental test cases of their commitment to real equality. The issue of women’s rights can be negotiated or even finessed in many ways. There are many contemporary Arab Islamists who are far less invested in upholding traditional and oppressive gender roles than some of their older or more conservative comrades.

At the same time, since Islam traditionally regards Judaism and Christianity as legitimate, though imprecise, monotheistic faiths, it is not hard to imagine an Islamist-influenced Arab political order protecting the religious and civic rights of these relatively small minorities, even if the most extreme Islamists won’t want to do this. The question of political representation is important, but in most Arab countries also essentially symbolic, since members of minorities are unlikely to aspire to national power by winning, for example, a presidency.

What is most disturbing is that it is almost impossible to imagine an Islamist-influenced system protecting the religious rights of skeptics, agnostics and atheists. Blasphemy, satire, independent scholarly investigation of early Islamic history, or merely a profession of fundamental skepticism about faith in general (and not simply Islam) are all likely to remain criminal offenses. Protection for apostasy and conversion are another key test of real religious freedom.

Religious freedom was not generally well protected by the old dictatorships, and all the evidence suggests that the policing of independent thinking will intensify in the new systems. This means that there is a whole class of citizens virtually guaranteed of being denied its fundamental rights, and of being persecuted by Islamist-influenced regimes: agnostics, atheists, apostates and skeptics. Unless, of course, these individuals keep their mouths shut.

Professed commitment by Islamists to pluralism and tolerance is almost always framed in terms of faith. It seems beyond the scope of their imagination that, while people may belong to various religions, any sane person would question the very notion of religious belief, and view all religious claims with rational skepticism.

Yet without genuine religious freedom and pluralism, real freedom and equal citizenship will be illusory. What Islamists, and many other Arabs, have yet to accept is that in order for freedom of religion to be genuine, it must allow the freedom to reject faith entirely and to promote non-religious perspectives. Islamists might win broad popular support—and not just from Muslim but also Christian voters—in the name of the rule of a devout majority to deny  individuals the right to profess and promote religious skepticism.

The new Arab regimes may not be Islamic theocracies, but there’s every reason to fear that they will intensify the suppression of skeptical opinion and thereby fail to protect genuine religious freedom. This must include the freedom to reject religion entirely.