Should religious minorities be concerned about the rise of Islamist governments?

August, 2012

Katherine Lanpher discusses the issue with two professors, Saba Mahmood of the University of California, Berkeley, and Aomar Boum, of the University of Arizona.

Listen to full interview here.

Read full text below:

Aomar Boum is an assistant professor at the School of Middle Eastern and North African studies at the University of Arizona and Saba Mahmood is an associate professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Katherine Lanpher (KL): Let’s start by looking at the current political situation in the Middle East, what the casual observer knows as “Arab Spring” or the series of uprisings that we’ve seen across the region. What has that meant for religious minorities?

Saba Mahmood (SM): I think it differs from country to country. Let’s take the example of Christians in Egypt. The Coptic Christians are the dominant Christian population. They’ve refused European protection historically and said: “We are Muslim by country and only Christian by religion.” They have suffered a series of discriminations which only escalated under the Mubarak regime. Now you have the Muslim Brotherhood that won the presidential election and it’s often touted in the press as being very negative. My studies in the last 20 years shows that the question is really open. We do not know how Coptic Christians will be treated. The Mubarak regime itself was very discriminatory against Copts when sectarian violence began to erupt against them.

Aomar Boum (AB): If you look at Morocco and Tunisia, for instance, the Tunisian case is still uncertain despite the fact that the government has promised to protect the rights of Jews, given the fact that there is the rise of Salafis in Tunisia. If you look at the main religious minority in North Africa, they still are Jews. There are less than a thousand Jews who live in Tunisia. Between 3,000 and 5,000 Jews live in Morocco. Their situation is much better than other minorities in other parts of the Middle East. Algeria is a different case because we really don’t know the exact number of religious minorities. They are not as visible as much as in Morocco and Tunisia.

KL: What concerns do you have about Islamist parties coming to power in the Middle East?

AB: I think when you look at the Islamic parties, their vision of a state and nation is largely described in terms of religious identity. Overall, what you see in the case of Tunisia and Morocco, for instance. There is some trend for accommodation. The first gesture of the Islamist prime minister nominated by the Moroccan king was to meet the head of the Jewish community of Morocco the next day after he was elected. That was a gesture that was very important not only for the community, but also for the outside world. The Islamists are very meticulous in trying to make sure that they do the right thing because their image to the outside world is also very important.

KL: There are those I know who are still suspicious – that these are merely gestures and that behind them there isn’t going to be any real enforcement or backup.

SM: That is genuine and I think they have to start with that and recognize it. But at the same time, we’ll also have to see what the open-ended political process is and what it’s going to look like. If we just simply say that by virtue of the fact that these are Islamic groups coming into power, therefore the democratic nature of these elections should be annulled. There’s an open possibility that the military government in Egypt will use precisely this kind of language to say that [they] should continue to remain in power. That would be a very unfortunate outcome. If you remember in 1992 in Algeria, a very similar kind of argument was made when Islamists came into power. Their elections were annulled. The military dictatorship took over and then there was a civil war. It’s unclear how it’s going to go. It’s going to be determined through civil and political participation. It is actually going to be good for the minorities because they will be able to come out and actually argue on the basis of civil and political rights, rather than some internal deals they cut with the military authoritarian governments that have been in place in the region.

KL: I want talk about how religious minorities: Jews, Christians and other Muslim sects, are portrayed in the Muslim world in media like TV or movies. What kind of image is projected out to the mainstream Muslim world?

AB: This is an interesting question. Actually, this is part of the research I am doing in Morocco – looking at four generations of Muslims and how they perceive Jews. Basically you see that there is a huge shift as far as perception. Because of the absence of daily interactions these days between Jews and Muslims, you tend to see more negative attitudes compared to the older generation that lived with Jews or Christians that had daily interactions, not only at the level of neighborhoods, but also throughout the city. In this age of media, even the minority of Jews and Christians that are left these days in Middle Eastern countries, you don’t see that much interaction going on…

SM: If I may just also add that I think we have to really think about what we mean by minorities in the Middle East. We also have to think of the Shiite minority. The persecution of Shiite minorities in the Middle East has only risen in the last 20 years. For example, in Iraq where the main line of fracture is between Shia and Sunni. Similarly in Lebanon, the mainline of fracture is between Shiites and Sunnis. The Maronite Christian community, which is a very important political demographic in Lebanon is actually divided. Saudi Arabia, which is a very important U.S. ally and one of the most totalitarian monarchies in the region, has treated its Shiite minority very poorly. The Kingdom of Bahrain, which is right next to Saudi Arabia, actually has a tiny Sunni elite minority that rules the country and a majority Shiite population who are very poorly treated [based] on the model of Saudi Arabia. When they rose up for civil and political rights – following examples in Tunisia and Egypt – the monarchy in Bahrain, with the help of the Saudi monarchy, brutally put down that uprising.

KL: This also raises the question if there any laws or regulations that protect religious minorities in Middle Eastern countries? What are they? How effective are they?

SM: There is a huge variety of models. Lebanon is one of the most religiously diverse societies in the Middle East. Lebanon has over 17 recognized religious sects. The primary ones are Christian and Muslim, but within the Christians there is a huge diversity: there is the Maronite Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church and so on. What’s interesting is that the parliament and the economic structure gives a disproportionate representation to all the different religious sects. The office of the president always goes to a Maronite Christian. The prime minister has to be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament is a Shia Muslim. The national legislature itself is divided equally between Christians and Muslims.

AB: I think we have to distinguish between not only countries in what we call North Africa and the heartland of the Middle East. Saba is completely right as far as that point. There are rights that are written not only through the constitution of these states, but also through civil courts. The enforcement of these rights is what remains to be done I think.

KL: What role, if any, should the United States take to promote religious freedom in countries with Islamist governments?

SM: I think one of the most important things to remember is that the U.S. should play a role not in regard to Islamist governments, but also with the non-Islamist governments that have violated the freedoms of both ethnic and religious minorities. Saudi Arabia, technically, is a monarchy. You do not think of it as an Islamist state, but it is one of the biggest violators of all forms of religious freedom. One of the things that the United States must do is show these governments that are its allies to do something about religious freedom. The sanctions that should come against Saudi Arabia are consistently waived because of oil and economic interests, whereas Iran continues to be under sanctions and Sudan continues to be under sanctions. I think there are double standards. If the U.S. is going to do anything, the first thing it will have to do is resolve to be consistent.

AB: I’ve seen some mutual collaboration between different governments. There are a lot of things going on through the State Department to create a dialogue about the importance of accepting diversity within these societies, but it has to be nurtured. It starts at the level of schools. To me, that is a key point because you can create laws and you can put all kinds of legal institutions, but I think if you don’t have a civil society where kids learn at an early-stage to respect a Christian or a Jew or a Baha’i or Shia or a Sunni within the classroom, you are going to have major problems.


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