Human Rights

What the UK can do to advance religious freedom worldwide

Published by

29 October 2014

The developments in the Middle East over the last three years have brought home the points which many experts and practitioners have been making: persecution on the basis of religious belief and affiliation is increasing in the world. It is affecting every faith community and those with no faith,  fuelling a wide range of interrelated problems from radicalisation to violent conflict, with direct impact on UK domestic concerns such as increasing numbers of asylum applications and faith community relations.

Now, articles calling for an immediate UK response to religious freedom can be seen emerging from all corners of the political and social spectrum. Whilst these articles stem from good intentions, they suffer similar shortcomings.

Often they start from domestic political and religious positions with a wide range of unspoken anxieties about particular religions or the overall place of religion in today’s world. Most of the time they lack a grounded understanding of local contexts in which religious persecution happens, and lapse into reductionism, seeing a particular religion as the root cause of all that we see unfolding before us.

They also lack awareness of global trends and mirror-image developments in Africa, Asia, and even Europe, that make such reductions of the issue down to a single religion rather shallow. Most worryingly, such articles often ascribe no agency whatsoever to persecuted communities themselves and what they can do and how they can respond in the short and long term to address factors leading to persecution.

One can easily list the causes behind these failures; very few academics actually study religious freedom and religious persecution in the UK, let alone teach it as a course. Hardly any British think-tank has ever conducted a proper study and developed a thought-through policy proposal for the Government besides the myopia of countering violent extremism.

Religious freedom advocacy groups also play their part in this failure: the vast majority are mono-faith organisations, primarily working to advance the rights of their own co-religionists, which is ultimately counter-productive and fraught with ethical shortcomings.

Most importantly, their work is primarily reactionary. They document, lobby and raise the profile of cases of persecution with little reflection provided on the very modus operandi of religious freedom advocacy and its future. One can forgive this shortcoming due to the simple fact of limited resources, and, most importantly, chronic ignorance over these issues for decades by mainstream human rights groups, with notable exceptions such as the Minority Rights Group.

The truth is, long before ISIS brought the conversation onto centre stage, increased attention was already being given to the topic within the FCO and British Parliament. The FCO’s human rights team has increased its reporting on these issues and provided training opportunities to British diplomats on religious freedom. At the parliamentary level, the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom has silently achieved what has never before happened in the UK: it brought a wide range of political figures from different faith and belief backgrounds to raise the issue within the UK political establishment.

Yet this is not enough. While there is merit in the calls for the appointment of an Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, inspired by the US model, experience from that same model shows how ineffectual this can be. Similarly, given that the US diplomatic machinery produces two sets of excellent reports every year on the situation of religious freedom in most countries in the world, there is no reason for the UK to re-invent the wheel and increase its own reporting.

What the UK government can do, and must do, is to carry the religious freedom conversation forward at home, in the EU and the wider international community. The unique contribution the UK government can make to this end is to focus its attention on the proactive aspects of religious freedom advocacy.

First of all, the religious freedom issue must be taken together with all of its interrelated aspects, from conflict to stabilization, good governance, human rights and humanitarian crises and public diplomacy. This would mean that religious freedom would not continue to be simply a conversation between the FCO and concerned Members of Parliament, but it would directly involve DFID, the Home Office and the Prime Minister’s office.

Secondly, this is a truly complicated issue that demands a wide range of expertise, ranging from specific country and issue experts, to human rights advocates, programming and foreign policy specialists. This is not simply an issue of gathering faith-based NGOs and clergymen to express goodwill. The UK must have its own mechanism in which ongoing issues are analysed and pro-active policy proposals are developed and synchronised across UK government structures.

Thirdly, the UK government must genuinely put its weight behind such a mechanism by directly allocating funds that can be deployed for strategic programmes across the world, and to enable direct access to high-level policy makers across UK state structures. Otherwise, sadly, all these well-intentioned calls for a response, and the clearly-expressed desire of the Government to increase its attention to this issue will be included in the increasingly long list of superficial conversations, when the stakes have never been higher.

Turkey: The Great Media Puzzle

The chronic troubles of Turkish media became visible once more during the initial days of Gezi protests when mainstream television channels chose not to broadcast the developments.

This led to an avalanche of opinion editorials, full of metaphors and personal anecdotes, declaring that there is no freedom of expression and media in Turkey.

Such blanket conclusions seemed to be supported by recent global rankings produced by various groups on freedom of press, in most of which Turkey scored worse than Jordan, Russia, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Iraq, and Algeria. The catchy phrase “Turkey jails more journalists than Iran, China, Eritrea and Syria” became a common feature.

Combined with the never ending global panic attacks on 'Islamism' in Turkey, a picture of Turkey became dominant in the international media: under an Islamist government that is finally showing its true colors, Turkey has become worse than ever before.

It has been difficult to agree with such problematic and often political conclusions. While on the one hand the facts of what happened in Turkey last few weeks are clear to see, when put in their context it is also clear that both the Turkish democracy and freedom of media are in a much better place than where they were in 1980s, 1990s and even early 2000s.

Sadly, before we had 'Islamists' in power and Turkey was ruled by 'modern secular Turks', Turkey produced more than 900,000 internally displaced persons between 1980s and 1990s, according to a report by Hacettepe University released in 2007. These were mostly Kurds fleeing from brutal state campaigns to evacuate thousands of villages in Eastern Turkey. They have faced gross human rights abuses with no mention in the Turkish press.

Similarly, discrimination conservative Muslims suffered at the hands of aggressive state intervention in their lifestyles in 1990s and early 2000s never really hit the mainstream media. Thousands of young girls were denied education or forced to remove their headscarves.

In fact, as someone who grew up in Izmir, citadel of 'secular Turks', my entire life was sheltered from knowing what was happening in Eastern Turkey or to conservative Muslims, or why and how Armenians and Greeks disappeared from the city of my childhood.

Just 5 years ago, we could still not mention '1915' in our writings and conversations without a fear of state and widespread public reaction. Now, one can see the word 'genocide' used in articles and book titles.

Until very recently, Turkey saw extrajudicial murders of journalists. Military officials have regularly called journalists into 'briefings', passing out written statements and threatening and intimidating anyone who did not abide by army's redlines.

Between 2002-2008, Turkish media was the battleground for a well orchestrated 'psychological warfare' to topple the AKP government, with daily dose of false and sensational fear mongering. Not a small number of voices who are still in media today were willing and active voices for truly undemocratic calls and attempts then.

Today, even though it is clear that the Turkish government and state wish to influence and coerce press reports and some media outlets willingly or often unwillingly oblige, Turkish media is still full of extremely critical reports on the government.

Any group that is said to be too powerful to criticise, such as the Hizmet movement, are pretty much criticised everyday in all forms of media. In fact, even though television channels did not initially air Gezi protests live, print media was seeing harsh debates and a full range of views on what was happening.

Yet, stating the facts that Turkey has come a long way in the last decade, and that it actually is by and large free, does not mean that where the media is today is acceptable. Turkish media is suffering from a mixture of old and new problems that urgently need to be addressed.

First of these is the strong state tradition. Turkey is a modern nation state, with all the troubles that come with that, including an all powerful state that sees itself as the guardian of the nation, even if and when the nation does not want to be guarded.

Thanks to the privatization policies of Turgut Ozal, Turkey started seeing a break away from the ban on private broadcasting in 1990. Yet, the strong state tradition in Turkey showed itself again with the creation of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) in 1994, which sought to ensure that the newly freed media was kept under control through regulations, fines and pressure.

In 2011, AKP government repealed the restrictive RTUK law and adopted a new broadcasting law in line with the EU accession criteria. However, from 2011 and onwards, Turkey also saw AKP government lapsing back to strong state policies.

With historic vote rates, dazzling economic and diplomatic expansion, weakening presence of the military and old elite in politics and state, the loss of EU’s carrot-stick role and utter failures of Turkish opposition parties, AKP found itself as the unchallenged power in the land. This meant that the Prime Minister and the party could pursue any policy and project they want.

Since then, media outlets have found themselves increasingly under pressure to abide within sensitivities of the government. RTUK, has a different political and social outlook and list of ‘red lines’ now compared to restrictive 'secular days', but it is still the good old state stick to keep rowdy media in line.

In issues of national security and potentially risky incidents, the state handling of the fallout continues to be restrictive. The courts have recently issued injunctions to stop broadcasters and media from reporting developments. The most recent two examples related to an incident in which Turkish jets bombed a group of young Kurdish smugglers near Uludere on Turkey-Iraq border and the car bomb attack in Reyhanli, that killed more than 50 people.

However, Turkish media is still loosely divided between fiercely anti or fiercely pro government views and is unhealthily polarised like the rest of Turkish society. This, and impossibility of any government fully controlling media in the age of internet, limit the historic tendencies of strong state policies to filter information, which AKP seems happy to utilise.

The second reason behind the troubles of media in Turkey today is the problematic laws relating to terrorism and procedural weaknesses of Turkish courts. While the exact current number of journalists in jail is not clear, a recent report by Turkish opposition party CHP, “Detained Journalists Report; Turkey, World's Largest Jail of Journalists,” claimed that there are currently 71 journalists in prison.

According to the report, two thirds are arrested under accusations of being members of outlawed Kurdish organizations, and the rest, being members of terror organizations, such as DHKP-C, or members of the organization 'Ergenekon', which allegedly was behind the coup attempts to topple the government.

The extraordinary numbers of arrests last 4 years signal to a larger problem, rather than a mere clampdown on media. Whether in the issue of Kurdish organizations, that saw arrests of more than 3,000 people and not just journalists working for certain Kurdish outlets, or the on-going court cases against coup plotters, we see major problems in terror laws that criminalize expression of non-violent opinions and the wholesale and prolonged detention of suspects throughout the legal procedures.

Turkish journalists also regularly face legal troubles in reporting on-going court cases. Loosely written laws to 'protect' the judiciary from 'influence' in reaching a decision results in accusations brought against journalists reporting courtroom dramas.

These reflect some harsh truths about the state of the rule of law in Turkey. While recent reform packages brought by the government addressed some of these issues and large numbers are now being released from prisons, Turkey desperately needs a thorough judicial reform and a complete revision of terror laws.

The third reason behind the state of media is the dark side of privatisation. While television channels can be a good revenue generating investment, print media is not. The main return of newspapers is the power, influence and chances it grants owners in their other business and personal interests.

A recent report on media freedom, “Caught in the Wheels of Power”, released by leading research organization TESEV in Istanbul in 2012, highlighted the gap in Turkey's economic competition regulations on media ownership.

One key recommendation on this is to address the issue of owners of media companies bidding for public tenders and receiving large contracts from the state, which automatically creates an unhealthy relationship with the state.

The immense economic interests of media bosses put their staff into a precarious position and fear of losing their jobs. Thus, regulations and bodies that can protect journalists from such pressure must be strengthened at once.

Fourthly, the media sector itself has issues to address. Turkish press products are dominated by unhealthy numbers of columns but not investigative journalism. Payments received by these columnists in leading papers can reach shocking levels, while reporters are paid very low wages.

It is not uncommon to see columnists and media members settling personal scores with personal accusations and sleazy attacks on opponents. Looked from international standards, at times, what passes as journalism, reporting and commentary in Turkey seems amateurish and feeble, with notable exceptions trying to do their best.

Current polarization of media as part of the overall conditions in the country means that both pro or anti government media amplify or minimize news and developments according to their own stands.

Lastly, a substantial reason behind the sad state of media in Turkey is the Turkish public herself. Our weak democratic culture and worryingly low expectations from media outlets fuel media malfunctioning.

For example, on any given day, one can see more than a dozen erotic and half naked pictures on the home page of the website of one of Turkey's leading newspapers Milliyet, which scatters news in between spaces left from those pictures.

Given that the level of public discussion, and the parameters of the respectful exchange of views and analytical thinking are rather low in Turkey, most circulated opinion editorials in social media and read online tend to be poor quality quick attacks and polemics against opponents.

These point to a difficult conclusion on the state of media in Turkey. As Turkey is changing and it is becoming difficult for the state to simply control media and flow of information, and as the Turkish public is becoming more aware and demanding of their rights, the Turkish media is still suffering from a wide range of external and internal failures.

Yet, Turkey is not an authoritarian state and does not have the authoritarian control over media that we see in a wide range of countries that score 'better' than Turkey on recent media freedom charts due to variables and data used.

The never before seen widespread condemnation of mainstream media outlets by the Turkish public points not so much to a deteriorating democracy in Turkey, but when put in its context quite the opposite: Turkey is advancing and she does not want to lapse back to where things once were.

What is clear is that Turkey desperately needs a robust and fully free media if it wants to continue its historic leaps forward. The responsibility for this lies with the government to undertake structural reforms and face some bitter truths about its attempts to coerce media.

But, the responsibility also lies with the media outlets themselves to be self critical, and ultimately with the Turkish public to demand more and not settle for mediocre columnists and sensationalism driven products in the market.

The Danger with Faith-Based Humanitarianism

Published by Today's Zaman, 21 January 2013

Without a doubt, one of the least acknowledged heroes of global efforts to eradicate poverty and diseases, respond to emergencies and advance human rights and welfare are faith-based organizations and initiatives.

Faith-based groups are able to raise funds and mobilize effectively both in their home countries and internationally. Often, their workers are seen in some of the most dangerous places on earth, taking serious risks to their lives, trying to help people in places that traditional organizations or international bodies fail to reach. There is much to applaud in their work. However, just as the work of traditional mainstream charities has often unintended negative side effects, faith-based humanitarianism too has its demons.

While this is increasingly changing, most of the time, faith-based initiatives tend to bring help to and raise awareness of the suffering of their own co-religionists. Thus, Christian groups in the developed world seek to address the persecution of Christians abroad and often send aid to their co-religionists. This applies to all faith-groups, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish.

This is not necessarily wrong and truly understandable. None of us can address every issue in the world, and all of us choose issues and concerns that we are related to or have an interest in. Writers who support the concerns of writers in other countries, or academics seeking to protect scholars at risk, or feminist groups working on women's rights abroad all emerge from the same human starting point.
However, unless it is balanced and self-reflexive, faith-based initiatives that emerge from a single tradition and only seek to address the suffering of their own co-religionists can undermine not only the welfare of their own brethren abroad in the long run but also the entire sprit of humanitarianism.

For example, the last 10 years have seen an immense increase in persecution of Christians globally. A plethora of Christian groups that promote religious freedom abroad emerged, and almost all of them only address the suffering of Christians in the countries for which they advocate. Yet, all of the problems faced by Christians in a given country are only part of a larger problem that persecutes other minorities too, and only with a holistic approach can their suffering be ultimately addressed. By only raising the suffering of Christians, say in Iran, Christians de facto turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, for example, Baha'is in Iran who suffer much more than Christians. This poses some serious ethical questions about their work.

Most importantly, faith-based activism can easily contribute to the imagined “clash of civilizations” narratives and cement increasing prejudice among faith groups in the world. Take the example of the Turkish discovery of the suffering of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The Turkish public has only recently really heard about them and, by and large, only recently learned where the country is on the world map. When the depth of the suffering of Rohingyas became known, thanks to the efforts of the Turkish government, the Turkish public was rightfully outraged and Turkey rightfully has been working hard to help Muslims in Myanmar. 

All of this is noble and valuable.However, in the process of this interest and response, calls to help Rohingya Muslims repeated all of the fundamental mistakes of faith-based humanitarianism. In Myanmar, not only the Muslims but other ethno-religious minorities too continue to face ethnic cleansing, famine and serious human rights abuses. Christian peoples of Chin, Kachin and Karen fill up refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. Yet, none of the appeals for Myanmar in Turkey raised the issue of their suffering alongside the suffering of the Muslims.

More worryingly, the Rohingya issue often became portrayed in the “when Muslims suffer, the world is silent” narrative. In this case, it can be empirically proven wrong. For more than a decade, I have witnessed first-hand the work of a wide range of groups working on suffering of ethno-religious minorities in Myanmar, most of which were either Western or non-Muslim or were formed by other ethnic exiles from Myanmar. The UNHCR has campaigned for years to address the treatment of Rohingya refugees.

While it was tempting to slip into the usual “evil West” syndrome, hardly any Turkish commentator asked the painful question: Why is it that the Muslims of the world have only discovered the Rohingya now? Similarly, in almost all articles I have read in the Turkish press that lapsed into this “no one cares about Muslims” narrative, none really mentioned that one of the worst expressions of suffering of Rohingyas today is in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

Such confused representations are often caused by a lack of knowledge of complex issues and awareness of the efforts of so many groups trying to do something. Yet, when faith-based humanitarianism slips into working only for their own brethren and into the narrative of “the world is against us,” it fuels dangerous misperceptions and prejudices. This does not help the suffering of their co-religionists in the long run, and empties their humanitarianism by reducing it to partisanship carried on the global stage.

The solution to this vulnerability of faith-based initiatives does not lie in secular humanism, but in faith traditions themselves. In all religions, we see strong theological mandates to love one's neighbor and help those in need, even when they are utter strangers. Thus, the problem with faith groups today is that they are often not faithful enough. They are vulnerable to give in to the all-too-human sentiments to care for “one of us” when they should be fixing their eyes on their Lord, who teaches them to love and help every human being, no matter who he or she is.

New Essay: International Religious Freedom Advocacy in the Field

A new essay where I survey how religious freedom advocacy is done today, how and where it differs from regular human rights advocacy work, what challenges it faces and its future.

"International Religious Freedom Advocacy in the Field: Challenges Effective Strategies and the Road Ahead", The Review of Faith & International Affairs; Volume 10, Issue 3, 2012;

Access the essay here!

The case for privatizing religion in Turkey

Published by Today's Zaman, 9 May 2012

The recent decision by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to privatize state theaters has caused a wide stir.
While I do believe the state should provide funds for the arts, the state employment of actors and management of theaters were not about the arts but state control of the public and cultural space.
In fact, communist countries have always had a keen commitment to “supporting” the arts and to using them as an important vehicle to influence and control public imagination. Therefore, as painful it is for many in the industry who will lose their jobs, in the long run, the privatization of theaters will provide freedom and market competition necessary for better productions and performance by actors.

There is, however, an elephant in the room -- a much larger, powerful state control mechanism: state regulation of religion. It is really no surprise that the newly founded Turkish Republic saw it vital to establish the Directorate of Religious Affairs and, through it, to regulate and manage the type of Islam it sought to enforce.

The directorate still consumes a giant slice of the state budget, employs all imams in the country and by and large still dictates particular readings of Islam. In the last few years, the official enforcement of a particular creed has been widely challenged and various groups who do not fit into that creed have argued for representation and funds from the directorate. However, these acts are not enough. The directorate must be decommissioned, just like state theaters.

There are two common worries regarding the decommissioning of the directorate. The first one comes from concerned secularist circles, which fear that an end to state regulation would open the floodgates of Islamism and all sorts of problems with religious groups. The second one comes from concerned conservative circles, which fear decommissioning the directorate would mean that clergymen and mosques would not receive funding to perform their duties and thus the practice of Islam would be harmed. As convincing as these concerns sound to their respective adherers, they are both wrong.

The problem with the secularist argument

The secularist argument is fundamentally flawed in its assumptions as to the nature of Islam and the social and political aspirations of a vast majority of Muslims in the country. Again and again, numerous studies have shown how the vast majority of Muslims in the country demand democracy, economic reforms and equality as well as freedom to live according to their conscience, not Shariah law or a return to some previous century.

Those who might fit into the Islamist or fundamentalist categories already have their own religious networks outside of state reach. Rather than enabling them to unleash an Islamization plan, the fast-growing contemporary Muslim civil society in the country would in fact minimize and challenge their appeal for those who feel alienated from the state. In other words, far from it, the end of the state market monopoly and the start of equal state distance from all religions and creeds will create a competitive market that will reward those religious actors who meet what the Turkish public demands, which is clearly reform, freedom and advancement alongside traditional values and personal piety.

The same implications apply to the conservative arguments, too, over what would happen if the state were to stop managing religion. Far from harming the practice of Islam, it would in fact free Muslims to live, think and worship freely and thus increase its vibrancy. Take for example state-managed Christianity in northern Europe, where the clergy is state-employed and churches receive state funds, versus the free-market religious competitions in which Christian churches find themselves in the US.

While Christianity’s public appeal in northern Europe is in decline, this is not so in the US.
One of the key reasons behind this is that the clergy and churches in the US must work hard to provide for the needs of their congregations, as the survival of the church and the clergy depends on their congregations. They must also continually engage with social and philosophical developments and compete with other religious providers, as they cannot take the durability and public plausibility of their beliefs for granted.

In contrast, a clergyman in northern Europe will always be paid as long as he plays the sacramental role of being there and keeping the doors of the churches open, regardless of whether anyone attends the services. It is only thanks to migration and Islam in Europe that slowly northern European clergymen are finding themselves having to learn how to defend their faith and keep their role in society.

This is already observable in how energetic and increasingly influential various Islam-inspired civil society movements outside of state structures are. Obviously, the Directorate of Religious Affairs cannot simply close up shop. However, the creation of foundations that would accredit imams and allow citizens to donate money for their work would solve the problem. The process would be a long, complicated and difficult one. However, it would be the best thing to maintain both the secular nature of the country and the freedoms of Muslims and non-Muslims alike and to negotiate a healthy space for religion, politics and public life.

Shariah in Times of Political Change

Published by Today's Zaman, 24 April 2012

As calls for the adoption of Shariah grow louder across the Middle East and North Africa, many people are frightened. Yet what is frightening is not the prospect of Shariah itself, but the political immaturity of the new actors calling for it and the possibility that they might repeat certain mistakes characteristic of previous hasty reintroductions of Islamic jurisprudence.

There has been enough scholarly work, by both Muslims and non-Muslims, to show that there is no inherent reason to think that the principles of Shariahh set out in the Quran and the life of the Prophet contradict today’s legal and political ideals. The dynamic evolution of laws and regulations across Muslim-majority countries over the last 30 years attest that Shariah is highly adaptable and capable of meeting modern legal, social and economic needs. New interpretations and applications of Shariah are enabling Muslims to live freely according to their consciences within the realities of this century.

What we need to worry about, therefore, is not Shariah but its political utilization. We saw the detrimental outcomes of emotional Shariah politics in the 20th century that harmed Muslims and non-Muslims alike and created serious conflicts and suffering.

For the vast majority of Muslims living in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, cries for Shariah are cries for equality, justice, fairness and moral values in the face of corrupt politicians and regimes. But whenever such genuine calls were used by political elites to maintain their power by purporting to uphold Islam, or used by opposition movements to achieve power with claims of being Islam’s standard-bearers, the result was often disastrous. Few if any of the problems leading to calls for Shariah were solved and, in some cases, things became much worse.

The politicization of Shariah is especially dangerous in transitional contexts where state structures are not strong or are nonexistent. As there is not a single codified and agreed upon written reference as to what the Shariah laws are, when combined with ill-educated, self-declared sheikhs and chaotic political processes, what often follows is the exact opposite of the noble principles of Shariah.

Warning signs in Nigeria
The country that serves as the most important warning sign in this regard for today’s Middle East is Nigeria, where clashes between Christians and Muslims have caused the deaths of more than 15,000 people in the last decade alone and where corruption, inequality and injustice are pandemic problems.
Just as in the Middle East, calls to expand the application of Shariah in Nigeria first emerged in the 1970s. The issue was hotly debated in the Nigerian national assembly in 1978 to no conclusion. It emerged again in 1988, when a group of assembly members from Northern Nigeria demanded Shariah be applied across the entire country. Christians, who comprise half of the population, as well as tribes who hold traditional animist beliefs, refused the imposition of Shariah outside of Muslim-majority regions.

When military rule ended in 1999 with multiparty elections, the sociopolitical and religious tensions that had been brewing surfaced once again. In 2000, the governor of the state of Zamfara, following his electoral promises to do so, unilaterally expanded the application of Shariah beyond personal status matters to all aspects of the legal system, including the criminal code. Eleven other northern states quickly followed Zamfara’s example.

The result was serious human rights abuses and inhumane, hasty punishment -- including stoning, executions and amputations. More insidiously, the change led to the creation of semi-official religious enforcers called the hisba in Shariah states, who sought to regulate minute aspects of personal morality and lifestyle with minimum accountability. These developments triggered riots in Kaduna and Jos, causing serious damage, and set the stage for the widespread ethno-religious violence and political instability that have beset the country ever since.

What is clear in the Middle East is that the years of authoritarian pressure, low levels of education, isolation from global developments and denial of political and diplomatic experiences beyond grassroots opposition have frozen the political and religious horizons of the region. Dwelling on abstract religious discourse with no clear proposals as to how collapsing economies and corrupt political, judicial and security structures will be reformed, the new groups are developing angry politics that alienate and exclude everyone who does not support them. Unless the new political groups in the Middle East catch up with the substantial economic, theological, social and legal advancements achieved by Muslims in other parts of the world, their zealotry will only result in further instability, social tensions and chaos.

Damage Caused by WikiLeaks to Human Rights Advocacy

Huffington Post, UK,  6 February 2012

The legacy of WikiLeaks on the practice of diplomacy is already clear: not much at all. Leaving aside the field day the media and civil rights groups had in bringing down the curtains on the secrets of the giant United States foreign policy machinery; in actuality, there was hardly anything that was not known by observers and the learned public. But, yes, we did have some juicy verbatim quotes about and from world leaders here and there.

All the leaks did was show that the US was more consistent in the way it pursued foreign policy than the conspirators had wanted to believe. While there have been some serious audits at the State Department and a host of other foreign ministries on how information should be gathered and sent back to base, and how and by whom it should be handled and consumed, the essential nature of diplomacy has not changed.

However, when the remaining documents were 'leaked' from WikiLeaks without deleting the names of sources, WikiLeaks tasted its own bitter medicine and risked the lives of hundreds of human rights advocates, researchers, lawyers and activists who live in precarious situations. Without much media attention, human rights activists found themselves facing intimidation and questioning and many sleepless nights.
Myself included, many professional researchers who spend their time conducting field research and documenting human rights issues around the world went through documents with the fear of seeing their names cited in cables. The fear was twofold: firstly, our research is often done under the radar, and public citations of our names as a source will likely result in our being banned from countries we work on; and secondly, our sources take tremendous risks by meeting us and providing us with information, thus leaking our names puts them in great danger.

In contrast to the shallow apologies and comments made by supporters of WikiLeaks on the documents posted online without editing out names and details of sources, the US has silently lived up to its responsibility. Away from the eyes of self-righteous crusaders of 'liberty', the US has provided legal advice and support, and in some cases has offered to relocate people who were facing danger.

So now, some researchers are wondering how many years of the careful process of conducting research, developing networks and gaining the trust of persecuted people have been damaged by the reckless and self-indulgent bravado of a few people living comfortably in the West. Contacts in the field worryingly joke about dreams of seeing their own names popping up in a cable online. Both diplomats and researchers say that people are more reluctant to speak, and some irreplaceable relations have been broken.

While protests in Western capitals or clicks on Facebook and retweets on Twitter might give some cases high profile attention, most specific cases of suffering are handled quietly behind closed doors, and with relationships based on trust and good rapport. Sensitive data about a person facing torture in country X is passed to a contact working for a country or body Y that has influence on country X, and country Y is urged to approach country X silently on that case. The reason is that by the time specific cases become international media sensations, it is often the very last attempt to help the person. Often widespread international media attention hardens the stance of the persecuting country and is therefore the last resort. Now, all of that process is disrupted.

So for some, WikiLeaks might have brought fame and a show on a shady Russian television channel, amid sympathetic cheers of courage to advance civil liberties in the West. For those who actually live in the world's most difficult places, and risk their lives to change the situation in their countries; and for those international actors, most of whose names are almost never cited or used in media reports, and with good reason - WikiLeaks brought nothing but damage and concern.

Iran, Armenia and Armenians

Published by the Commentator, 10 January 2012..  To read the article in Russian; Иран, армяне и Армения

The news that the Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar will be visiting Armenia mid-January might come as a surprise to some. Yet, Iran has always seen its Armenian population as well as its links with Armenia as an important asset.
Armenians are the most favoured and relatively privileged of all non-Muslim communities in Iran today. It is tricky to establish the exact number of ethno-religious minorities in the country since the official numbers are politically shaped and minority communities guard such details and often are not clear themselves.
However, various sources estimate that there are around 300,000 Baha'is, 110,000 Armenian Orthodox, 13,000Asyrian, Greek and Armenian Catholics as well as 10,000 Greek and Assyrian Orthodox Christians. In addition, there are somewhere from 10,000 to 20,000 Protestants and Evangelicals, most of whom are first generation Muslim converts to Christian faith. While Iran regularly speaks of a sizeable Jewish community of more than 10,000, in actuality, their numbers are now thought to be in hundreds and they live their lives in shadows.
The largest non-Muslim community in the country, Baha'is, face an aggressive policy of extinction. Iran denies them every human right imaginable from denial of education and economic opportunities to denial of holding religious services and regularly detains and imprisons community leaders and activists on fatal charges of espionage and national security.
Similarly, Muslim-background Christians are regularly detained and threatened with the death penalty and often released after paying hefty bails and turning over the deeds of their houses.
In contrast, Armenians are allowed to live relatively untouched. They have full freedom of worship and can consume alcohol and hold social events in designated clubs. They have schools for their children and by and large have not been the victims of the brutal regime. There are two seats reserved for Armenians at the Iranian Parliament.
However, just because Armenians do not suffer the same level of abuse as other religious minorities does not mean that their lives are a sunny walk in the park.
Throughout the years, Armenian clubs have been raided, Armenian businessmen and families have been threatened by police and members of Basij seeking to get extortionate bribes. In Armenian schools, they are not allowed to teach Armenian culture, religion or language at adequate levels and schools include Muslim directors and staff members.
Most disturbingly, the text books that are used in the religious education classes are written by the Iranian ministry of education and rather than enabling Armenian children learn about their faith, they are coerced into Islamic thought by text books citing the Qur'an and Prophet Muhammed without ever stating what the Holy Book or who the Prophet that is being cited are.
Ironically, Ahmedinejad has allowed more hours of Armenian language teaching and granted significant state funds to enable Iranian Armenians to partake in international cultural exchanges and especially with Armenia.
But receiving Ahmedinejad's blessings have a price tag, of course. Helping Armenians is seen as a public diplomacy tool which enables a good word about his regime in Latin America, France and US. Ahmedinejad regularly uses the state of their welfare to bolster his image as a benevolent and tolerant leader.
Good treatment of Armenians in Iran also opens the door for economic engagement with the diaspora’s homeland. As sanctions hit Iran more and more, it desperately needs partners that can be a market for Iranian products but most importantly can supply Iran with needed goods and be a middle-man for some not-so-straightforward financial transactions.
Armenia too, suffering from the blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey, needs a way out of the over dependence to the Georgian border and the taxes and vulnerabilities that come with it.
So when the Iranian minister arrives in Yerevan, he will be cautiously but warmly welcomed. What is at stake for Armenians is the vulnerable lives of more than 100,000 compatriots living in the country and the desperate needs of the Armenian economy.
While Iran loves to play the card of the strong and mighty benefactor who should not be crossed. In fact, it is vulnerable and desperate for any friendship it can have.

The true test of democracy in the Middle East

Published by Today's Zaman, 1 November 2011

As the sociopolitical changes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) continue to dazzle and excite, analysts are trying to decode what the word “democracy” means for the new actors in the region and how the democratization process may or may not unfold.

Unlike popular perceptions, the measure of things to come is not whether fair and free elections are held, but whether or not religious freedom will be upheld.

A Western ambassador once told me with great excitement that Saudi Arabia was undertaking slow but major reforms to improve its legal system. There were improvements in all human rights concerns. When I asked him about religious freedom issues, he said that would never change. He spoke of how he had urged a leading prince to allow a church to open in the country. The prince replied, “Just as there are no mosques in the Vatican, there can never be a church in Saudi Arabia, the holy land of Islam.”
The states in the region see regulation of religion as an important aspect of forming national narratives and maintaining power. Thus, even Muslims who do not fit into the officially endorsed versions of Islam are denied their rights to live freely according to their own beliefs. Non-Muslims from traditional ethnic communities are often allowed to dwell in their ghettos, granted they do not demand equal rights or opportunities.

Even that limited understanding of tolerance disappears when Muslims leave Islam for another religion. While the United Arab Emirates publishes yearly a proud official list of people converting to Islam and the al-Azhar University in Egypt ensures that new converts to Islam change their ID cards and civil registration within 24 hours, the reverse is not possible. Those who leave Islam face life-threatening conditions, both from their governments and their own communities.

When I conducted field research across the region for the writing of the report “No Place to Call Home: Experiences of Apostates from Islam and Failures of the International Community,” I saw with my own eyes the brutal reality of how even the most liberal Muslim voices can react to news of a Muslim leaving Islam. Ironically, the same voices would urge me to continue promoting religious freedom so that they can be free to live as they want to without ever realizing that either all human beings have a right to freedom of religion, belief, conscience and thought, or none of us do.

 Will things change as the democracy fever spreads across the region? Sadly, I do not think so. The democratic transition pretty much meant the end of Christianity in Iraq. Christian communities were forced out of their historical dwellings by Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds alike. Since they had no militias and were seen as American proxies, they were easy prey for terrorist groups. The Iraq experience proved that fair and free elections and elected governments do not mean that every human being will be treated equally, protected and given a voice over the future of their country.

While discourses on democracy and human rights float lavishly in MENA today, the brutal handling of Coptic protests in Cairo by the Egyptian army and numerous attacks on Coptic Christians and Sufi Muslims in Egypt since January point to serious discrepancies. Even among “liberal” and democracy-promoting, conservative circles and media, the victims were declared the inciters, and rather than addressing the problems, the blame was once again laid on “foreign powers.”

The fact is Christianity is slowly but clearly disappearing across MENA. With the exception of Lebanon, even sizable Christian communities -- such as the 10-million strong Copts of Egypt -- live as excluded, second-class citizens. Most Muslims, Europeans and Americans seem shocked to hear that Christianity is actually a Middle Eastern religion and belongs to these lands.

The same fate awaits other communities, too. With the exception of Turkey, the chances of meeting a Jew anywhere in the Middle East and North Africa are as slim as meeting a famous rock star. Followers of Bahaism, which originated in Iran, suffer serious abuse and are denied almost every socioeconomic right across the region. Yet, no emerging Arab democrats -- even the most liberal ones -- talk about the fate of the millions of marginalized people among them. For now, democracy in MENA seems to be in its most naked and simple form: the rule of the majority for the majority’s interests.

So, if you want to take measure of how close MENA is getting to the ideals of democracy and human rights, look at where religious freedom in its countries is heading. Simply put, the extent to which a country grants religious freedom is the extent to which all other rights will be protected and democracy will mature and be sincere.