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No President Is a Pyramid

Nina Shea

Nina Shea talked to National Review Online’s Kathryn Lopez about President Obama’s Mideast trip and Thursday speech in Egypt.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is the president right when he says, as he did in a BBC interview this week, The danger, I think, is when the United States, or any country, thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture?

NINA SHEA: The president was speaking of democracy and human rights when he said this, and not only do I disagree with it, but he has shown in Cairo that he does as well. Fundamental freedoms and human rights are inalienable and universal. That is America’s cherished belief, and it is what all member states of the United Nations agree to in signing the U.N. Charter. So freedom of religion and speech, equal treatment under law for minorities and women, rule of law, justice, and democratic governance are for all people. It is both appropriate and necessary for American foreign policy to promote these fundamental values. Not only is it not a danger to raise these issues in our foreign policy, it would be a danger not to they are essential to peace in today’s globalized world.

Using American aid programs and diplomacy for this end is crucial to national security. In Egypt, President Obama seemed to contradict his prior statement when he said that America and Islam . . . share common principles principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings. From there he raised a host of human-rights concerns, including religious freedom for Copts and other Christians in the Middle East and women’s rights. Unfortunately, he did so weakly, without detail or texture, and by undermining their significance through the drawing of moral equivalencies between the United States and the Muslim Middle East, where there are stark differences in observing these rights. For example, in speaking about religious freedom, the president criticized U.S. restrictions on Muslim charitable giving, but failed to explain that the restricted Muslim charities were found by courts and U.S. Treasury officials to be supporting Hamas and other Islamist terrorist groups. Moreover, Muslims—like all Americans—have many opportunities to donate to charity, including through religious organizations.

LOPEZ: Is Egypt worse than other countries in its region when it comes to religious freedom?

SHEA: Egypt has the largest non-Muslim population in the Muslim Middle East between 6 and 10 million Christian Copts and because religious freedom is restricted, as well as other human rights, many problems arise: the arrest and torture of those who convert to Christianity; the suppression of building or even restoring Coptic churches; the denial of justice to Copts attacked and robbed by Muslims; the exclusion of Copts from many governmental positions; rampant anti-Semitism in the state media; the harassment of the Muslim Koranist group and the denial of Baha’is right to acknowledge their faith; and the punishment of perceived blasphemers and apostates from Islam, among other issues. Egypt also is in the lead of the effort to universalize Islamic blasphemy laws through the U.N. It has given rise to terrorists like Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy of al-Qaeda. It is on the Watch List of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government agency on which I serve as a commissioner.

Egypt is not considered as egregious a persecutor of religious freedom as, for example, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Iraq, all of which are considered by USCIRF as Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act for denying religious freedom. In Saudi Arabia, to give one example, no churches or other non-Muslim houses of worship are allowed, and apostates are to be killed as matter of law.

LOPEZ: How are political dissenters treated in Egypt?

SHEA: Deplorably. The right to political dissent, like speech generally, is not protected. Even democratic and peaceful dissenters, like human-rights advocates Saad Ibrahim, Ayman Nour, and the young bloggers Karim Suleiman and Reda Abdelarahman Ali (all of whom have spoken up for religious minorities) have suffered years of imprisonment and other harsh treatment for their principled dissent. 

LOPEZ: Who is Ayman Nour?

SHEA: Nour is a leading human-rights advocate, lawyer, and former independent parliamentarian (19952005) in Egypt. He founded the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and al Ghad (Tomorrow) liberal political party in 2004. He was first arrested and jailed in early 2005, prompting Secretary Rice to abruptly postpone a visit to Egypt and EU leaders to pressure Egypt. Within months of these international protests, President Mubarak opened the 2005 presidential elections to other candidates and freed Nour. Nour ran for president in 2005 as the al Ghad candidate, and came in second with 8 percent of the vote to Mubarak’s 89 percent. He was jailed again in late 2005, drawing further protest from the Bush administration. He was released abruptly in February for health reasons, though it was believed to be in response to American and European pressure.

LOPEZ: What can the president of the United States do to help Egyptians?

SHEA: He can push for freedom of religion and speech, and he can champion those who are oppressed for peaceful dissent by discussing their cases by name. Giving $2 billion in aid annually, the U.S. is a major investor in the Egyptian government. At a minimum, he must ensure that our funds are not used to repress pro-American rights activists, foment anti-Semitism in the media and educational system, and persecute religious minorities.

LOPEZ: Did Obama do that Thursday morning?

SHEA: His mention of religious tolerance and the Copts was important, because, even though they are the ancient Egyptians and speak the Egyptian language (Copt means Egypt in Greek), they are often treated as a fifth column in Egypt because they never converted to Islam. However, he was not specific about their problems and in fact gave more details about alleged religious-freedom transgressions in the U.S. involving Muslims (for example, restricting Muslim charities). He also pointed to dialogue instead of the need for Egypt and the Arab Muslim world to comply with basic norms on human rights. This is a big disappointment.

LOPEZ: Did any good come out of his time in Saudi Arabia?

SHEA: No. As the president was meeting King Abdullah, I was meeting with Saudi government educators. They spent their time denouncing Israel, attacking President Bush and the U.S. for launching a crusade in Iraq, and denying that their own textbooks which are available on the Saudi government’s website instruct students to murder apostates, Jews, and polytheists. Until the president ensures that Saudi education and worldwide support for an ideology that preaches hatred of the religious other is changed, we will continue to be threatened by suicide bombers and other terror in the name of Islam.

LOPEZ: If you had some control over how news shows covered this presidential trip, how would you frame it? Whom would you make sure audiences met?

SHEA: The media should have highlighted and interviewed members of the Coptic community, leaders of Muslim minorities, such as Shiites and Koranists, and human-rights activists. It should have visited Egypt’s synagogues, which are now shuttered or turned into museums. It should have visited Abu Fana, a Coptic monastery that was attacked and where monks were tortured last year by fanatical mobs without any justice rendered in the case. It should have investigated the hundreds of unanswered Coptic petitions to repair their crumbling churches and the state policies that are accountable for this form of repression. It should have traced some of the $2 billion in U.S. aid this year and taken a serious look at how it may contributing to intolerance, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism. It should have also objectively analyzed the Muslim Brotherhood, a formidable opposition force in Egypt, and its stated mission that, on its face, is exclusive and intolerant of non-Muslims.

On the positive side, it should have featured the culture of the Copts, who are the Middle East’s largest non-Muslim minority: Coptic art, architecture, music, and ancient history in Egypt, and their unique language which is banned from being taught in Egypt’s public schools even while German and French are taught.

It could have reported on the pivotal struggle taking place in Egypt today between forces of tolerance and intolerance over Egyptian identification documents and Islam. In 2003, the state-funded Islamic Research Center of Al Azhar University which co-sponsored President Obama’s speech—issued a fatwa condemning Baha’is as apostates, calling them a lethal spiritual epidemic and calling on the state to annihilate it. Until this spring Baha’is have not been allowed to acquire identification documents, without which they cannot open a bank account, start a business, send a child to school, obtain a passport, or even be caught by police walking in public. Despite the religious establishments qualms, on March 16, 2009, a Supreme Administrative Court decision, not subject to appeal, upheld a right to a legal identification document that excludes religious identification. This change signals an important step toward a more inclusive conception of what it means to be Egyptian. However, the government still denies official recognition to the Baha’i community. The latest development took place in April, when the Joint Commission on Defense, National Security, Arab Affairs, and Religious Endowments demanded a new law declaring Baha’ism illegal. Commission head Umar Hashim said Baha’is pose a greater threat to national security than extremists and terrorists because they are a product of Zionism. Such a bill is now being discussed by Egyptian parliamentarians.

Similarly, no Muslim-born convert to Christianity has won the right to have his new religion recognized. One person who has been trying is Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy. Shortly after converting to Christianity in 1998, he was tortured by the police for three days and held again for ten weeks in 2002 in conditions he likens to a concentration camp. On August 2, 2007, when his wife was expecting a baby who would be required to be raised as a Muslim he brought a court case challenging the refusal of the government to recognize his conversion. Two Al Azhar academics demanded the death penalty for Hegazy’s apostasy, and the minister for religious endowments publicly affirmed the legality of the death penalty for converts. Hegazy’s lawyer withdrew from the case after receiving death threats and being told by the Egyptian State Security that he might be killed. Hegazy himself was forced into hiding.

At a January 15, 2008, hearing, sympathetic Islamist lawyers filed a complaint against the government, making an argument on constitutional grounds against the criminalization of apostasy. A dozen other lawyers tried to attack Hegazy’s attorneys, who managed to escape. On January 29, 2008, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that Hegazy could not have his conversion to Christianity recognized since monotheistic religions were sent by God in chronological order and therefore one cannot convert to an older religion. Hegazy remains in hiding. He would like to flee the country but is unable to get a passport.

LOPEZ: Is there an Arab world approach to religious freedom?

SHEA: None of the Arab countries is ranked as free in the Center for Religious Freedom survey, though the degree of repression varies. Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are the worst, while Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, and Oman are relatively better. All restrict minorities in varying degrees, and virtually all officially sponsor anti-Semitism. And all are intolerant of and punish apostates, heretics, blasphemers, and those who insult Islam. This has resulted in repressing converts from and critics of Islam as well as writers, scholars, artists, journalists, democracy activists, reformers, women’s rights proponents, and others who exercise the right to free speech. This has contributed to the political, intellectual, and economic stagnation of this part of the world, as observed in the U.N.‘s Arab Development Report.

LOPEZ: Has our presence in Iraq helped or hurt religious freedom?

SHEA: When the U.S. went into Iraq, it was blind to the religious dimensions of the problems there. This was first manifested in the Sunni Shiite sectarian war. To this day there are no specific U.S. policies to protect or help the Christians and other non-Muslim minorities who have no militias of their own and who face targeted persecution by Islamic extremists. As a result, half of Iraq’s ancient Christian community has been forced to leave since 2003, as have a reported 90 percent of the Mandeans and about half of the Yazidis. Iraq is being religiously cleansed of its non-Muslim populations on our watch, that is despite the presence of our military and the influence that our development aid brings. In 2008, for the first time since the Hussein era, the USCIRF recommended Iraq for CPC status largely because of the Iraqi government’s neglect of these minorities as they face persecution.

LOPEZ: What is the future of Christianity in this part of the world? And that of Judaism will we see at least an end to blood libel?

SHEA: The Middle East—the cradle of Christianity—is now seeing its Christian populations dwindle at an accelerating rate. Unless religious tolerance is soon embraced by these governments, the Middle East’s ancient Christian churches will no longer exist and their populations will lack all influence. Individual or tiny communities of Christians will remain, but they will be isolated or hidden, as in Saudi Arabia today. Until 50 years ago, Middle East Christians were moderators and mediators between East and West. For example, one of the main drafters of the religious freedom provision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the Lebanese Christian Charles Malik. The same can be said for other non-Muslim minorities, such as the Jews, Baha’is, Mandeans, Yazidis, and Zoroastrians. All are disappearing, and at an alarming rate. Only eight Jews remain in Baghdad. Jews in Cairo number in the double digits. These cities had large Jewish populations a few generations ago. At the same time, government sponsorship of the publication of the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other blood libels against the Jews is widespread in the Middle East. The Saudis even teach that there were Protocols as historical fact in their high-school textbook on the sayings of Muhammad.

This growing religious intolerance poses a geopolitical problem. The old experience of religious pluralism in the Middle East is being lost. This does not bode well for the Muslim Middle East’s ability to coexist peacefully with the West.

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