Acton Commentary

The Arab Spring's Forgotten Freedom


For at least one group of Middle-Easterners, the Arab Spring is turning out to be a decidedly wintery affair. And if confirmation was ever needed, just consider the escalation of naked violence against Christians throughout the region. The recent instance of Egyptian army vehicles crushing and killing Coptic Christians protesting against a church burning was merely one of numerous incidents that must make Middle-Eastern Christians wonder about their future under the emerging new regimes.

Syrian Christians, for instance, are regularly taunted and harassed because of their hesitations about joining the anti-Assad uprising (as if the choice between Bashar al-Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood is a simple one). Then there are the ongoing brutal attacks on Iraqi Christians: so much so that two-thirds of Iraq's pre-2003 Christian population has fled the country.

More broadly, these trends appear to confirm that despite all the current freedom-and-democracy talk, much of the Islamic world continues to suffer from one particularly severe blind spot when it comes to human liberty. And that concerns the acceptance and protection of authentic religious freedom.

In 1900, about one in every five Middle-Easterners was Christian. Over the past century, that figure has shrunk dramatically. In 1948, for example, Bethlehem was 85 per cent Christian. Today it's less than 12 per cent. Since 1970, Jordan and Syria's Christian populations have halved.

In some cases, the shrinkage of Christians primarily flowed from nationalist animus against particular ethnic groups. This largely explains, for instance, the expulsion of Greek Christians from post-World War I Turkey. Other Middle-East Christians left because they realized the limited scope for their seemingly genetically-ingrained entrepreneurial skills inside the socialist-corporatist economies established by nationalist caudillos such as Atatürk and Nasser.

Nonetheless, it's also true that despite many Middle-Eastern governments' long-standing formal commitments to religious liberty, their willingness to protect non-Muslims' religious freedom has always been limited. This ranges from acquiescing in the use of bureaucratic regulations to inhibit 2,000-year-old Christian communities from repairing their churches, failures to stop Christian women from being cajoled into marrying Muslims, ignoring cases of forced conversions, to a barely-disguised reluctance to stop anti-Christian violence.

One suspects this owes something to politicians seeking to appease or co-opt hard-line Muslim sentiment within these societies. But there's surely no question that the general Islamic view of religious liberty is part of the problem. Certainly there are variations of Islamic thought about this issue. Nevertheless, Islam has a long history of unreasonably restricting the religious liberty of non-Muslims in Muslim-dominated societies.

Of course, other religions have imposed and enforced analogous restrictions at different times. But Islam confronts two specific dilemmas that raise questions about its ability to accept a robust conception of religious liberty.

First, from its very beginning, Islam was intimately associated with political power. That's one reason why there is no church-state distinction in Islam that limits (at least theoretically) the state's capacity to coerce religious belief or unreasonably inhibit religious-shaped choices.

Second, since approximately the 13th century, the dominant theological understanding of God's nature within Islam has been one of Voluntas (Divine Will) rather than Logos (Divine Reason). And this matters because if you believe in a God that can, on a mere whim, act unreasonably, then it isn't so problematic for such a Divinity's adherents to engage in plainly unreasonable practices such as killing apostates.

If, however, God is Logos, the case for religious liberty is much easier to make insofar as a reasonable God would never demand compulsion in religion. Why? Because as St. Augustine wrote long ago, "If there is no assent, there is no faith, for without assent one does not really believe."

In recent years, we've seen some pious Muslims emerge who understand that Islam must wrestle with these deeper theological questions if it is accommodate itself to life in free societies. That's a central message of a new book, Islam Without Extremes, authored by the Turkish Muslim journalist Mustafa Akyol. The same message underlies Akyol's courageous condemnation of the recent death sentence meted out to Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani by an Iranian court because of this ex-Muslim's choice to embrace Christianity.

Akyol, incidentally, is no religious relativist or covert-secularist. He firmly believes in Islam's truth-claims. But he also recognizes that the integrity of one's faith depends upon one's free assent to that religion.

Unfortunately, Akyol is presently a minority voice within Islam. But perhaps even more disturbing is how little much of the West understands the importance of addressing such theological matters if robust religious liberty protections are to be secured in Islamic countries.

European religious figures such as Benedict XVI and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow have regularly condemned anti-Christian violence throughout the Middle East. The comparative silence, however, from most secular Western intellectuals and governments is deafening and, frankly, disgraceful.

This may reflect the latent Christophobia often encountered in these circles. But it's probably more indicative of that intellectually lazy, historically ignorant modern tendency to treat all religions as the same, to regard all religious traditions as infinitely adaptable sociological phenomena, and, in some cases, to imagine that religion will just "go away" once the unenlightened masses grasp that the universe just somehow spontaneously evolved out of nothingness.

But in the end, non-Muslims can't resolve Islam's religious liberty challenge. Only theologically educated, historically informed and believing Muslims can do that. In the meantime, those reading the Arab Spring as a uniformly-positive event might like to consider that it appears to be doing little to secure the freedom, if not the very existence, of ancient Christian churches, many of which were founded by people who in all likelihood knew Christ or his first disciples. The loss of such a civilizational and religious heritage would be immeasurable -- and not just for Christianity, but for the future of liberty within the Islamic world itself.

This column first appeared on the American Spectator.