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.