Sunday, April 22, 2012

Religious Freedom in the Arab World: Shades of Black

Religious freedom in the Arab world cannot be gained without dealing with the broader political, cultural and economic constraints. After the Arab Spring, countries like Egypt and Tunisia are experiencing a new wave of religious freedom as religiously oriented political parties are allowed to form and now control parliaments in both countries. However, on the individual level, freedom to worship and freedom of religious affiliation mostly remain "not free" and are expected to deteriorate due to the Islamists empowerment. In Egypt the limitations on religious freedom will be worse than Tunisia due to the country's background (Unlike Tunisia, Egypt doesn't have a recent history of secular values) and the Islamists' nature (The Muslim Brotherhood is the radical and bitter version of Tunisia's Ennahda). 

Arab countries that did not go through an "Arab Spring" such as Saudi Arabia have been continuing their tradition of oppressing religious freedom. In the past it was easier for Saudi officials to hide those who dared to question the status quo in prisons or keep them marginalized and voiceless. With social media came access and the young generation has a desire to connect with other Saudis and Arabs. A new wave is gathering force but unlike the sudden tsunami in Egypt and Tunisia, the Saudi wave will be gradual but in the end as powerful. Young Saudis are starting to question religious rules, not in the Quran or Hadith, but imposed on them to justify a certain way of living and keeping certain quarters of the society relevant. The youths are demanding more rights and showing lack of fear that is unprecedented.

Waleed Abu Alkhair is a human rights activist in Saudi Arabia who dared to speak and as a result is banned from leaving the Kingdom for "security reasons". He will not be able to attend a fellowship program in the United States but he shared his story in the Washington Post for the whole world to read and in the process, more pressure will be added on the Saudi regime to allow more freedoms. Of course Abu Alkhair is fully aware of the possible consequences on him and his family because of his act of courage but, like many Saudis, he had enough. Excerpt from his article below:
Much has changed in Saudi society in the past decade. For a brief time, Saudi human rights activists had hoped that religious conservatives could agree with us on a general framework of human rights, including the demand for a constitutional monarchy, the release of prisoners of conscience, the fight against official corruption and civil rights for all. Many thousands of activists from across the political spectrum signed petitions for reform, most notably the 2011 statement “A State of Rights and Institutions.” Unfortunately, just because some people signed petitions does not mean that they genuinely believed in a system of human rights.
In the past, Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes tried to restrict the rights of the Islamists and in the end they failed. Will the Islamists learn a lesson from those fallen dictators (i.e., repressing your people doesn't work on the long-run) and avoid a confrontation by allowing a reasonable level of religious freedom? Will Arab countries tackle the broader political, cultural and economic constraints that limit religious freedom and other freedoms such as freedom of expression, women rights, etc.? Will the Islamists in Egypt move toward a more moderate form of Islam that tolerates dissent? I have no idea but, as the cliche goes, time will tell.

Image: Crystal Clover