FREEDOM of thought and belief can flourish only if there is an atmosphere of tolerance, and in the Middle East tolerance is in short supply. While non-believers in the west can usually criticise religion without risk of arrest or imprisonment, Arab non-believers face a situation which compels them to engage in two separate but related struggles simultaneously. One is their core activity of questioning God and religion, and the other a struggle for acceptance of their fundamental right to question.
Arguing the case for atheism may be a lonely struggle but on the broader issue of rights and liberties non-believers share a common goal with many others, including political dissidents and opposition movements, plus – rather tantalisingly – persecuted religious elements. Despite the differences among these groups, all seek the right to express their thoughts and beliefs freely in a region where tolerance and diversity are often viewed as precursors to social strife. Together, these disparate minorities add up to a much more significant group than atheists alone – which raises the question of whether they might ever become allies in the struggle for rights.
But while collaboration might seem attractive in principle, there are several difficulties. One is that atheism tends to be regarded – even among other kinds of dissenters – as the most extreme form of dissent. Together with popular ideas linking atheism to immorality and social disintegration (not supported by evidence from elsewhere) this puts atheists and their right to free expression beyond the bounds of acceptability in the eyes of many. Some also fear that being seen to associate themselves with atheists will damage the credibility of their own campaigning.
A similar situation has arisen in connection with LGBT rights, which Arab human rights activists have often been unwilling to support. In some cases this is because they fear that associating themselves with gay rights will damage their reputation; in others it results from an abhorrence of homosexuality. During the notorious Queen Boat trial in Egypt, where 52 allegedly gay men were accused of “debauchery”, the most prominent local human rights organisation refused to speak out on their behalf, saying that espousal of gay rights could jeopardise their other work and the government would use the issue to discredit them. The picture is not always so bleak, however: a lot depends on local conditions, and in Lebanon LGBT activists have had some success in finding allies among others who work on sexual and reproductive rights, human rights, and so on, plus support from some sympathetic professionals such as lawyers, doctors and teachers.
Besides the right to free expression, another potential area for collaboration between atheists and others is in calling for secularism. In order to free themselves from religion, non-believers need a secular state, and secularism can also enhance the freedom of believers by preventing the state from imposing specific religious doctrines and practices. Again, though, there are difficulties because in Arab countries the concept of a secular state is widely misunderstood and is often wrongly equated with an atheist state. To make progress in that area it would be necessary to convince people that secularism is not a backdoor route to atheism but a route to freedom for believers and non-believers alike.
Resistance to secularism also comes from Arab governments – and they have their own reasons for that. Embracing religion and posing as guardians of morality compensates for a lack of legitimacy in other areas, while claiming support from the Almighty (if not necessarily from the public) makes it easier to impose their will. That, of course, is not a uniquely Arab phenomenon: Europe was ruled for centuries by kings who claimed a “divine right” to their thrones.
Governing with religious credentials can have negative results too, however. The Saudi regime’s pact with Wahhabism has certainly helped to keep it in power but also made it beholden to reactionary Islamic scholars who became a major impediment to progress.
Where freedom of thought and belief is concerned, the effect of having a state religion varies from country to country, and in some countries it may not amount to very much in practice. At the very least, though, it signals an official preference for one particular kind of faith and, by implication, a lesser status for others. The effects become far more obtrusive when governments rely on state religion as an aid to legitimacy – in which case the state religion has to be actively supported and policed. This, in turn, de-legitimises other belief systems and legitimises intolerance and discrimination directed against them. It also politicises religion unnecessarily with the result that anyone who happens to disagree with the government’s theological position must either conform or risk becoming not only a religious dissident but a political one too.
Atheism as extremism
EQUATING religious conformity with loyalty to the state allows Arab governments to label non-conformists not merely as dissidents but extremists. This in turn provides an excuse for suppressing them, as has been seen in Egypt with the Sisi regime’s campaign against atheism and in Saudi Arabia where “promotion of atheist thought” became officially classified as terrorism.
Absurd as it might seem to place atheists in the same category as terrorists and jihadists, the issue hinges on how “extremism” is defined: extreme in relation to what? Violent and intolerant extremism is a global phenomenon but confusion arises when governments try to define it by reference to national or culture-specific values.
Arab states are not the only offenders in this respect, though. They have been assisted by western governments defining “extremism” in a similar way – as rejection of a specific national culture rather than rejection of universal rights and international norms.
In its effort to prevent radicalisation of students, for example, the British government defined extremism as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”. Also in the context of eradicating extremism, the education minister talked about actively promoting “British values” in schools. Approaching the problem in this way invites other countries to do likewise – even if their own national and cultural values would be considered extreme in relation to universal rights and international norms. Thus, Saudis can justifiably claim that atheism is contrary to fundamental Saudi values. Furthermore, the British minister’s idea of instilling British values into British schoolchildren is not very different in principle from “instilling the Islamic faith” in young Saudis – which the kingdom’s Basic Law stipulates as one of the main goals of education.
In Egypt, one person punished for holding “extremist” views was TV presenter Islam el-Beheiry who discussed controversial religious topics in his programme for a privately-owned channel, Al-Qahera wal Nas (“Cairo and the people”). Examples of Beheiry’s supposed extremism included calling for Islam to be modernised and asserting that no beliefs were beyond questioning. He also disputed the authenticity of some sayings attributed to the Prophet and maintained that not everything in the Quran could be applied to contemporary life. At al-Azhar’s behest Beheiry’s programme was taken off the air and he was eventually given a one-year prison sentence for blasphemy.
Beheiry’s ideas were not particularly new or original – President Sisi himself had previously called for reform of Islam – but they brought him in to conflict with Egypt’s highest religious authority. One reason was that he had disputed some alleged sayings of the Prophet which al-Azhar regarded as authentic, and al-Azhar accused him of deliberately making people question “what is certain in religion”. More significantly, though, Beheiry was not a member of the religious establishment but an interloper who threatened to undermine al-Azhar’s position as the supreme arbiter for religious matters in Egypt.
Although theoretically independent of government, al-Azhar had been assigned a specific role in the 2014 constitution as “the main reference for religious sciences and Islamic affairs”, and the constitution also required the state to provide it with enough funds to “achieve its purposes”. Al-Azhar, of course, was important to the Sisi regime which was relying on it to promote a “moderate” version of Islam and thus counter the Muslim Brotherhood – a process which couldn’t be managed effectively if outsiders were allowed to challenge its authority.
Viewed in that light, independent-minded questioning of traditional beliefs could be construed as a security issue and, according to the dean of sciences at al-Azhar, Beheiry deserved to go to prison because he had endangered Egypt’s “faith security”. Elaborating on this concept, Amna Noseir, a professor of Islamic philosophy at al-Azhar told an Egyptian news website:
“What I believe – which is a centuries-old inheritance, and which deserves to be believed and respected – should not be questioned. We have a significant legacy that’s engraved in our belief system, and Islam al-Beheiry has recklessly assaulted this.”
Another professor at al-Azhar, Ahmed Koreima – who had earlier issued a fatwa against watching Beheiry’s TV programme – told the website that discussion of core Islamic principles was not a matter for society but the exclusive realm of religious scholars. The website’s report added that rather than talking about “faith security”, Koreima preferred the term “Islamic cultural security”, which he said “encompasses the realms of faith, Islamic law and morals” and entails “protecting the core of Islam … which includes its roots, its core values and its legislative sources, and everything that guarantees protection from aggressors and slanderers”.
These ideas have a parallel in what might seem an unlikely place: Russia, where the term used is “spiritual security” (dukhovnaya bezopasnost) and the Russian Orthodox Church has played a similar role to al-Azhar in Sisi’s Egypt. A section in the Russian National Security Concept, adopted in 2000, states:
“Assurance of the Russian Federation’s national security also includes protecting the cultural and spiritual-moral legacy and the historical traditions and standards of public life ... There must be a state policy to maintain the population’s spiritual and moral welfare ... and counter the adverse impact of foreign religious organisations and missionaries.”
The historical background to that appears to have been moral panic about an alleged flood of foreign missionaries waging a “war for souls” in Russia after the collapse of the old Soviet Union. This was accompanied by dire warnings about “spiritual colonisers” and “totalitarian sects”. Russia’s “spiritual security” effort has not attracted much attention in the west but within Russia, Julie Elkner writes, it is “increasingly being invoked by a range of political actors in a range of contexts”:
“The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church makes frequent reference to the concept, and the Russian Orthodox University’s Law Faculty has instituted a course in ‘Spiritual Security’.
“Spiritual security has become an academic buzzword, presumably useful for securing the allocation of state funding for related research, and it has been the subject of discussions of school curriculum policy.
“Paradoxically enough, the Communist Party has also taken up the notion of spiritual security as part of its ideological arsenal - in June 2003, for example, it was a Communist Party initiative that led to Russian parliamentary hearings being held on spiritual security.
“The new ideologues of spiritual security are also taking their cue from the Kremlin. Spiritual security is treated as an important subset of national security in a number of official policy documents adopted by Putin ...”
Linking religion to security provides a rationale for authoritarian control of religious discourse and makes it easier to overcome objections on human rights grounds that it is restricting people’s freedom of thought and belief. Of course, some interpretations of religion do pose a real security threat but when non-believers and others whose beliefs do not meet with government approval can be characterised as extremists or fundamentalists there is obviously something wrong with the way “extremism” and “fundamentalism” are conceived.
Karima Bennoune, a law professor at the University of California, addressed this in a report for the UN Human Rights Council in 2017, arguing that “the heart” of both fundamentalism and extremism is their rejection of equality and the universality of human rights.
Extremism and fundamentalism are in many ways similar, she said, though there are also significant differences between them – the main one being that fundamentalism usually claims some religious basis. Recognising that “extremism” can be a problematic term, Bennoune continued:
Extremism is a broader and more fluid concept than fundamentalism but also more vague and liable to abuse. Hence, the term ‘fundamentalism’ should be used instead, where appropriate, reserving the term ‘extremism’ for more limited circumstances ... Fundamentalism is a form of extremism and any meaningful effort to combat extremism must include a focus on fundamentalism.
In keeping with their theocratic visions, fundamentalisms “impose their interpretation of religious doctrine on others as law or public policy, so as to consolidate social, economic and political power in a hegemonic and coercive manner”, Bennoune wrote. Quoting a previous UN report, she added: “Fundamentalism is not simply about terrorism, extremism or even religion. It is, at bottom, a mindset based on intolerance of difference.”
Alluding to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Bennoune noted that extremists “will not be truly disarmed unless their ideology is comprehensively challenged and repudiated”. This, she said, “explains why the United Nations did not simply focus on the abuses attendant on apartheid, but sought to dislodge the idea of racial superiority itself”.
The analogy with South Africa and apartheid puts a clearer perspective on efforts to combat violent extremism in the Middle East where governments, as well as armed groups, have “a mindset based on intolerance of difference”. In Bennoune’s words: “It is unclear how governments that espouse ideologies and policies reminiscent of those advocated by violent extremist armed groups can successfully defeat those groups without undertaking significant reform, as they create fertile ground for the implantation of similar policies”.
In 2014 the emergence of the Islamic State (IS or Daesh) brought that problem into sharp focus. Aspiring to the leadership of Muslims worldwide and supposedly acting under divine guidance, IS quickly became notorious for imposing its religious rules on everyone who fell under its power, for subordinating women and cutting off people’s heads for often trivial reasons.
Among the governments most terrified by IS was that of Saudi Arabia. Aspiring – like IS – to the leadership of Muslims worldwide and supposedly acting under divine guidance, the Saudi regime had also long been notorious for imposing its religious rules on everyone who fell under its power, for subordinating women and cutting off people’s heads for often trivial reasons.
Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti denounced IS as Islam’s “enemy number one” and the kingdom promised the UN $100m to counter what officials called “an evil that affects us all”. This, though, was more about protecting the House of Saud from the political threat posed by IS than combating the oppressive ideology on which both IS and the House of Saud were based.
The involvement of Saudi Arabia against IS, along with other Arab states that practise or legitimise intolerance, undermined what might have been a principled battle against sectarian repression, turning it into a more conventional battle against a particularly brutal insurrection. While this did not rule out a military victory over IS by recapturing the territory it held, the underlying ideology had not (to use Bennoune’s phrase) been “comprehensively challenged and repudiated” – thus almost guaranteeing that IS would not be the last group of its kind.
The sudden rise of IS ought to give cause for reflection among Arab governments. Any political benefits they may derive from allying themselves with God have to be weighed against the long-term problems they create by legitimising compulsion in religion and intolerance of difference. So long as they shy away from letting everyone believe freely (but without imposing those beliefs on others), Arab governments will be part of the problem rather than the solution.
Prospects for change
THE PRIVILEGED position of religion in the Arab countries today is very similar to what it once was in Europe – as are the arguments mustered to defend it. Plato discussing punishment of those who “speak or act insolently” towards the gods of ancient Greece more than two thousand years ago sounds remarkably like some twenty-first century Saudi cleric.
Europe, though, has gradually become more secular and non-belief is now commonplace. Starting from Thomas More’s acknowledgement in the sixteenth century that punishing non-believers is pointless (since “no one can choose to believe by a mere act of will”), the journey towards accepting a right to disbelieve did not occur in isolation. The concept of religious liberty developed in parallel with political ideas about limited government, sovereignty of the people and the autonomy of individuals as well as a changing philosophical climate:
Official attacks on religious disbelief [in Europe] could not be sustained within the broader philosophical atmosphere created by the Enlightenment. The empiricism, intellectual scepticism, and scientific upheaval engendered by the Enlightenment, along with its larger social and economic context, made it increasingly difficult to sustain the strong legal protection of religious authority.
Europe’s step-by-step recognition that suppressing dissent and disbelief is not a sustainable position raises, at the very least, a possibility that Arab countries will eventually follow suit. The opening-up of public discourse during the last few years, the flow of ideas and the challenging of the status quo in the Middle East has some parallels with the European Enlightenment and may eventually have similar effects.
For now, it is a mixed picture. Saudi Arabia – the most extreme case – stands resolute against religious liberty and, short of a revolution, it is difficult to see that changing any time soon. But elsewhere cracks are showing. Arab governments do worry about their image internationally (some more than others) and feel obliged to pay some lip service to people’s rights even if they are reluctant to uphold them in practice. Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution says “the state shall protect religion, guarantee freedom of belief and conscience and religious practices”. Egypt’s 2014 constitution says “freedom of belief is absolute” and Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution says “each individual shall have the freedom of thought, conscience, and belief”. At present these may be little more than empty words for the purposes of window-dressing but the fact that governments see a need to utter them implies their virtue has been recognised and perhaps offers a ray of hope for the future.
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