Issues & Articles
Religious Freedom in the Middle East for Non-Muslims 19 Dec 2011

In the Name of God Whom We All Worship

Your Excellency, Speaker of the Jordanian House of Representatives

Your Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, Patriarch of the Holy City

Your Excellencies

Venerable Fathers

Distinguished Guests

May I salute you with an Arab Christian Greeting,

One of the most difficult things for any politician is to speak about an important and sensitive issue just like the theme of this conference. I wish to thank the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy and its International Office, where I was honoured to serve for two years, for organizing this symposium at this critical political juncture.

There is an important question to ask. Is there religious freedom in the Middle East for non-Muslims? The answer is a clear yes if religious freedom means free practice of religious rituals. There is complete freedom in this regard. But if the question implies the full rights of citizenship, the answer is certainly no. Do all States deal with the issue of free exercise of rituals in the same way? The answer is also no. Many examples can be cited but, in the interest of time, I will not go into details. However, I would be willing to clarify any points which may be raised during the discussion, such as, but not limited to, teaching of the Christian religion, change of religion, building churches, inheritance, discrimination on the basis of faith, independence of ecumenical decision, true representation of believers and finally respect and official recognition of religious holidays.

Ladies and Gentlemen

I shall address one issue in detail only, being honored to have this event today in the house of the Jordanian people, the House of Representatives of Jordan, which unfortunately could not, through the constitutional amendments passed this year and published in the Official Gazette on 1/10/2011, give Christians in Jordan their constitutional rights by allowing them to apply their own laws with regard to personal status, a commitment which Jordan as a state has already made. This was evident in Jordan's signature on 28/5/1975 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly Resolution No. 2200 A (d -21) on 16/12/1966 which entered into force on 23/3/1976 and published in the Jordanian Official Gazette No. 4764 on 15/6/2006 without any reservations. The texts are available for those who wish to have a look at them.

Jordan has also reiterated its commitment and enforcement of the Covenant in the report submitted by the Jordanian Foreign Ministry on 12.3.2009 to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights in accordance with the provisions of Article 40 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The report reads in Article 18 item 84 as follows:

The Constitution guarantees freedom of belief, religion and opinion to all Jordanians (Article 14) ... etc.

The report also reads in Article 27, item 133:

The Constitution also guarantees the right of all religious communities to establish their own religious courts to hear personal status cases (family cases). The report adds that there are legal provisions which guarantee the right of these communities to establish their own courts which can hear marriage, divorce and inheritance cases under their own laws therein, and thus the Islamic Shari'a laws are not applicable to Christians, where each Christian denomination has its own law .... etc.

This report is misleading and contradicts reality. The Royal Committee on Constitutional Review or the Government of Jordan should have approved the proposed amendments submitted by some Christian activists, but unfortunately this did not happen. All that has changed is Article 119 of the Constitution only, a very insignificant step except for providing conditions for the appointment of judges of Christian courts. Hence, I voiced my objection to the statements made by some heads of churches in Jordan who blessed and commended this achievement and claimed that it gave the Christians all their rights, a mere compliment rather than a political position, noting that Jordan does not have heads of churches but representatives of heads of churches since all heads of Churches in Jordan live in Palestine.

Ladies and Gentlemen

I will move now to the political part of my intervention, namely the situation of Christians in the Arab world after the so-called revolutions of the Arab Spring in the region, particularly in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq and focus on the attacks carried out against churches and Christian sites such as "Our Lady of Deliverance Church" in Iraq , the "Soul" and "Imbaba" Churches and monasteries, the Church of al-Qiddissin (Saints) in Alexandria and the Maspero massacre in Cairo. I will also address the threat posed by the proliferation of the Islamic extreme religious movements and the impact of this on the migration of thousands of Christians out of the Arab region and the future of Christians in the context of religious extremism.

Further, I will offer some solutions and suggestions. First, church leaders should abandon their negative role and call for the rights of Christians through the achievement of citizenship rights rather than through their support of dictatorships. They should also abandon any disputes among the churches and the various denominations in the Arab region. Moreover, they should work together to form a high coordinating body from Christian activists in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Sudan. Further, they should promote communication with the Islamic moderate forces and liberal movements rather than develop fears of them with a view to expanding the base of participation in order to break the religious siege imposed by the extremist groups. I also urge church leaders to work together to stop the on-going Christian migration abroad; otherwise the number of Christians in the Orient will diminish and decline as is the case in Palestine and Iraq, or the Arab region will be divided into small Christian and Islamic states as what happened in Sudan when its south was separated from the north.

It seems as if the Arab Spring has revived the religious movement in the Arab politics. This is particularly the case in the Egyptian model, where the Muslim Brotherhood has made many gains which have put the group in the heart of the political process. This made other movements seek its support and satisfaction as it appeared to be the most organized faction in the political street and the most qualified candidate to win the next election, just as what happened in Tunisia, where the Islamic-rooted Nahda (Renaissance) Party won a majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly elections. The Muslim Brotherhood has formed a main party, beside which other smaller parties may emerge due to divisions within the various generations of the group. The Salafi movement, which has stood for a long time at a distance from the concept of politics itself, refusing to deal with it in principle, and maintaining alliance with the former regime for a long period of time, has begun to abandon its original principles. Further, they entered into the political arena through two main parties, with the likelihood that other parties will emerge. Even the Islamic Group (al-Jama'a al-Islamiyyah), the most jihadist, rejectionist of politics and violent faction, who judged the former regime as non-Islamic, seems to be on the verge of the political scene after having founded a new party already, with the possibility that other parties will emerge as a result of some splits and divisions.

Perhaps the greatest challenge posed by this movement with all its different spectrums resides in the extent to which it respects the civil state and its genuine democratic character which is based on the principle of citizenship and the will of the nation rather than on religious creed and divine rule. Apparently, the Muslim Brotherhood is the closest among the Islamists to call for a civil state, while the Salafis and the Jihadis are the farthest. However, the Muslim Brotherhood's call is rather vague, particularly its demand that such a state should have an Islamic frame of reference, which makes this position open to different interpretations. The Salafis and the Jihadis are more persistent and explicit in their call for an "Islamic state" which will be established after a period of time during which the people will be re-educated to apply the limits (hudud) set forth in the Islamic Shari'a. On the other hand, the progressive "liberal" and national left forces combined their efforts calling for a civil state and seeking a consensus on the governing principles of the constitution which emphasize its civil identity and safeguard the principle of citizenship therein and prevent any possible retreat from the principle of alternation of power in the future. These forces do not deny the principle or the fact that "Islam is universal" and thus covers all walks of life, a point agreed upon by all Muslims. However, the religious current and the liberal current are in serious disagreement with each other as to what universality of Islam actually means.

- The religious current emphasizes the political dimension and calls for Shar'ia rule up to claiming that the state is one of the basics of Shari'a imposed by the universality of religion, an understanding that opens the door wide to the religious state and restores old premises regarding the sacred divine right to rule the people.

- The liberal current subscribes to another meaning of the universality of Islam which combines together the integrative and the positive outlooks of Islam. The integrative perspective stipulates that Islam has the ability to establish a form of life that is neither wholly earthly saturated with secularism, nor wholly heavenly and ideal. Rather, it reconciles both. The positive perspective of Islam means its realism in understanding human existence in addition to its determination to influence the movement of history, rather than withdraw from it or feel helplessness in the encounter, as has been shown by mere religions. These two perspectives turn Islam into a truly universal religion, where universality becomes an existential necessity rather than a political end. Thus, it can be claimed that universality of Islam is viewed as a reference for the divine value system underlying the entirety of our human existence. In this sense, universality does not necessitate a particular form of political power; the existence of a Muslim society does not entail the establishment of a distinctive political power with sacred features, inconsiderate to history, as claimed by the Salafi groups. While we oppose this, I think that there are two alternatives only.

1. Theoretical: Man remains religious, even if one lives alone because faith is individualistic by nature. As long as religion is free of priesthood, it will be able to survive in the absence of any authority and this is an Islamic virtue. If we can imagine an ideal community where people are controlled by their own conscience only, there will be no need for power. Power is required to regulate the movement of society and enforce law so as to give rise to chaos. Power is not required to exercise censorship on the conscience of believers, nor is it needed to impose faith on deniers. In effect, many religious minorities have maintained their faith under the rule of authorities affiliated with a different religion. Moreover, believers often become more committed to their creed if they are subjected to persecution. Muslims themselves in the Meccan stage before the establishment of the "civil state" community were not an exception.

2 . Historical: This refers to the various manifestations that exemplified the meaning of State in the early Islamic experience. None of these can be viewed as the right one. The State of Medina illustrated a historical context which combined prophecy and government. It was led by a Messenger inspired by divine revelation who directed and reproached him, and this required the believers to obey him. This, of course, has never been the case with any other state. This unique state had come to an end with the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him, who was more of a messenger, a judge and a guide rather than a ruler. On his death, there were no traditions of government systems and selection of successors. Thus, the Caliphs led the state in perplexed circumstances, each came to power in a way different from his predecessor. Abu Bakr came through Baya in the shed (saqifa), Omar came through nomination, while Othman and Ali came through shura. The caliphate turned into a strong monarchy at the hands of Muawiyah, but the complete and stormy transition towards a hereditary monarchy was made by Yazid.

Muslims have lost the ideal model of Islamic rule which prevailed in the era of Abu Bakr and Umar, which led to confusion among some people as to what they consider as an Islamic state. The rulers' ability to illustrate this ideal model of government has deteriorated over the years and the people are still waiting for someone to make this a reality. What is important in Islam is not the form of the state as this is a historical matter, but the ideal model which is not constrained by history, though always inspired by it.

Consequently, the main difference between power as a historical product of the human community as viewed by the liberals and the Islamic state as a model as perceived by the Salafi movement lies in the source of legitimacy. Is it the nation (people) as a human entity that is mature enough to decide its fate in history? Or is it the Shari'a itself? This controversy will be resolved if the nation becomes a legitimate source for the Islamic community just like any other human community, while the Shari'a remains as a source and frame of reference for values. In this context, Muslims can establish their state with its historical reference provided that the State is based on the main purposes of Shari'a. This enables Islam to achieve its religious and secular universality. But if Shari'a is perceived as the source of legitimacy, this will automatically open the door wide after a step or two for the religious state, simply because Shari'a cannot be exercised but by humans. This will give rise to a political priesthood through abrupt interpretations, which will sacrifice the interests of the State on the altar of Shari'a, and if this happens, it will sacrifice the interests of Islam, as Islam, at the end of the day, is nothing but Muslims themselves.

Therefore, this dual manifestation of Islam as "religion and state" must be negated. The conjunction “and” does not imply a union between the two constituents but it separates them. Islam is a religiosity characterized with its holiness over the state whose affairs are known to us as the noble prophet said. Hence, the difference between Islam as religion and Islam as state is in the interest of the nation that shapes history but without abusing the Shari'a, even if people tend to err in selecting their rulers. On this interpretation, Islam remains sacred and cannot be blamed for our lack of wisdom; moreover, God’s will remains superior to our corruption. Consequently, the legitimacy of the sacred can not be used as a cover to the sins of history.

Sociologists have identified common features for all fundamentalist (Usuli) movements. A recent research study conducted in the Sociology department at Chicago University investigated 21 currently active movements and groups which have a fundamentalist background; 7 Islamic, 6 Christian, 5 Jewish and 3 from South East Asia. Not only was the term Fundamentalism (Usulism) used to describe the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia, the Haredi Jews in Israel and the National Union of Hindu Volunteers but also to the Union and Liberation, a faction loyal to Monsignor Livery and the American Evangelicals.

Fundamentalism, in its narrow sense, is a recent phenomenon, being a new form of defense against a new threat, the most serious threat which religion has encountered in the entire human history. It is the threat that modernity has brought about through its perception of the world. In this context, some scholars talk about the birth of one strong religion that may lead to "a new battle for the sake of God," a worldwide battle against Secularism and the hegemony of technology. Such a battle is a real revival of all the sacred all over the world.

The political background of these movements and groups is wide and diverse; some of them have emerged from political parties and organizations, some have included revolutionary groups and some have been part of the majority and opposition coalitions (in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Pakistan Italy and the USA). Finally, they have formed fanatic groups involved in guerrilla warfare or terror (Al-Qaida, the Sikh extremists, the Algerian Fundamental Coalition, the Underground Jews, the revolutionary groups in Chechnya and Dagestan and the American Christians who are responsible for the war in Iraq and who stand against women activists).

The study concluded that these groups, cultural and religious origins aside, have five features in common: purity of faith, elitism, strict practice of rituals, rituals of the past and missionary objectives.

1. Purity of faith. This is attributed to the feeling of disaster and fear of the threat posed by man's rebellion against God and his teachings as stated in the Torah, the Bible and the Quran. The fundamentalists describe themselves as the “Survivors”, the “Saviors” or the “Zealots”, the followers of a Jewish fanatic movement who leave no doubt that they are responsible for keeping the teachings of religion as a mandatory requirement. In a press interview in “Israel”, a strict Jew was asked: “Why are the Haredi Jews different from all others?” He replied: “Why are others different from us?

The best description of the fundamentalists' stand towards the age of secular Human Sciences is arrogance for the Sunni Islamists and Haredi Jews. This is a Manichaeistic language based on the conflict between good and evil; a heritage provided under siege. They view themselves as the “light which scatters the darkness”, and their party is God’s party which stands against the devil's party. Therefore, the secular thought is perceived as a threat to religious identity at the private and public levels, and is used as an agent tool by the secular states. This explains why the attack on secularism is based on different considerations. For example, in Europe and America, the fundamentalists fight secularism on the ground of being viewed as an unfavorable form of development within the community. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is considered the arm of colonial powers. It is also described as “westernization”, “fever of imitating the other” or “Western mania by the educated elite”.

2. The second feature is their awareness of being a minority and isolated. This is similar to the feeling of the older groups. They know that their attempts are hopeless and thus should not stop throwing the seed which will inevitably grow and restore the central status of religion. Hence, we find the Jews resort to the world of isolation. The Islamists wrote about believers in name only and described them as “geographer Muslims”, who lead a life similar to the Jahiliyya before Islam. We also find “modern paganism” among the Catholics and the writings of the “exiled Christians” among the Evangelicals. This explains why these “puritans” tend to direct their efforts and activities toward their brothers in religion, i.e. the “astray” and the “lukewarm”, more than toward the non-believers. This was attested in conflicts between the original churches, where violence was mainly directed against the apostates.

3. The third feature is an obsessive insistence on practicing religious rituals. This is also a defensive feature; it is the brake that stops the wheel of alienation because the danger of melting as well as the materialistic wave require constant vigilance. By demolishing the borders of time and place, not only does globalization liberate people from traditional obligations and destroy cultures but it also extends to marketing spiritual products such as “the kitchen of Halal packaged foods, harmonic marriage and the rental of religious sites”. Therefore, the fundamentalist groups tend to find space for themselves around the temple, the mosque, the church or the Hindu temple, where each serves as a ghetto that grows through families and interaction within walls protected by symbols of isolationism.

The rejection of all that is outside these enclaves leads to moral arming and political revival. The fundamentalists do not hesitate to condemn secularism with regard to the market system associated with globalization; further, they hold secularism responsible for family disintegration, undermining the spirit of community and environmental pollution. All these claims are delivered by charismatic persons such as the sheikh, the imam, the rabbi, the bishop, the priest and the Hindu cleric.

4. The fourth feature is the nostalgia shown for the glorious past and the first founder, through symbolic rather than historical means. This takes the form of imposing a set of taboos and censorship in the fields of art and literature. This may extend to full condemnation of cinema and television. However, it is worth noting that there is a clear contradiction in the discourse of these movements, where they use advanced modern technology in their conservative propaganda "TV speeches", loudspeakers, e-mail and video cassettes. This often ends up with them being influenced largely by the secular values which they fight. This happens in India, Egypt, Israel, the United States and other countries where fundamentals are active.

5. The last and most important feature is the fundamentalism's claim that it undertakes a rescue mission to save a deteriorating community that is gradually falling into paganism. This claim excludes any compromise and takes on further dimensions of obsession, fanaticism, use of violence and sacrifice of self and others. In this regard, it is worth noting that their aggressive position is not overtly stated; rather it is disguised under the pretence of radicalism, which the fundamentalist groups always deny. Thus, we can cite examples of how the Islamists have abused the concept of “Jihad” when they used it. The same applies to the Christian extremist movements which look at war as a form of God’s wrath against evil-doers. This is also a feature of the Christian conservatives in the United States. We can also see Hindu militant groups raising the three-forked symbol of Shiva to be used as a weapon if necessary. We also witness the Jewish fanatic groups who have taken the sword of David as their symbol.

Finally, we need to know that there is a fine line between forbidding theoretically the actions of those enemies of religion and taking actual action to stop them from corrupting the community. This transition to violence often denotes a tough moral course and a tough creed and moves towards gaining a sweeping victory over the feeling of abandoning and refusing killing. I believe that extreme fundamentalism, rather than the return to the fundamentals of religion, should realize that the Great countries do not each other, that the Soviet Union had collapsed without a fight, though it was capable of blowing up the world, and that Japan has been in the lead by means of science. If the wall of Berlin before it was demolished prevented people from getting out, the walls of fundamentalism in the world do prevent people from stepping into humanity in its sublime meanings.

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Dr. Audeh Quawas
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