There is no religious freedom in the wider Middle East region. There is instead a tyranny of the majority over the minority in all walks of life, be it the religious, political, social, cultural, or economic sphere.

It is claimed, however, that religion and belief in God are synonymous with morality and living the good life or the virtuous one. History, human experience, and scientific experiments beg to differ. “Morality,” wrote psychologist J. Anderson Thomson, “which some see as imposed by gods or religion on savage humans, science sees as yet another adaptive strategy handed down to us by natural selection.”

If that were the case, moreover, the moral imperative would have compelled the believer to respect and advance the religious freedom of others. The contrary is the norm. The opposite has been the pattern in most of the Middle East for centuries.

Why is the concept of freedom is so fleeting in that part of the globe? To a considerable degree, it comes down to the very definition of freedom. One of the most troubling aspects of the Arab Middle East in general is a cultural misunderstanding of the word “freedom.” In most countries the word “freedom” is seen as synonymous with sexual prevalence, decadence, teen pregnancy, porn, divorce, child abuse and the breakdown of the family unit, etc. To most in this cultural milieu it also signals willingness to criticize and disobey religious values and religious authorities, and to instillin the young generations new values that are at variance with the established norms—resulting in undesired change or disrespect for authority. Thus, the confusion and the stultifying consequences for people’s lives and their liberty.

Meat of the Matter

In my book Hostage to History: The Cultural Collapse of the 21st Century Arab World, I wrote the following in the introduction: “On June 2, 2015, while sitting at a café in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, I decided to check the news from the Middle East by reading the Washington Post online. The Post reported the following story. ‘Videos posted on social media accounts allied with the Islamic State showed the group in control of checkpoints in the small town of Sawran.’ One image showed four decapitated heads tossed into the back of a truck. I added to link this story to a wider scheme that was evident throughout history. Similar headlines had dominated newspapers over the past year, and they have been dominating them ever since. The merchants of death are advancing. The barbaric squad is sowing fear and tyranny. The savagery of blind belief is spreading its venom. Minorities are being slaughtered like sheep. Sectarian strife is raging like a brushfire and the Arab world is collapsing, sucked into a black hole of cosmic dimensions.”

The decapitated heads, most likely, came from Shia or Christian inhabitants of that tortured land. So much for freedom of religion!

Religion in the Arab Middle East is not just about identity, a belief system, or an instrument used for solidarity and social cohesion. Neither is it a response to states’ or societies’ failure to deliver services in modern times. It is viewed as the only prism through which one ought to view the world and our place in it. One’s religion, sect, or affiliation is a window that colors one’s station and understanding of time and place. “What both the believers and the critics often miss,” wrote author Reza Aslan, “is that religion is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices. The phrase ‘I am a Muslim,’ ‘I am a Christian,’ ‘I am a Jew,’ and the like is, often, not so much a description of what a person believes or what rituals he or she follows, as a simple statement of identity, of how the speaker views her or his place in the world.”

This may be true in many or most countries and cultures around the world, but the exceptionalism of the Arab world in this regard is striking.

I was born in a place where the dominance of religious narrative and competing faith systems are a prime example of the total cultural hegemony of religion over society. Lebanon, my birthplace, is a country in which organized religion was, and still is, the substitute for air, water, food, and the social contract. (In fact, the “Lebanonization” of the Arab world, after the failure of the revolts and the Arab Spring, is now a given.) Look at Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and other Middle Eastern states, and you will discover that religious divisions run deep, and most social, political, and even economic issues are colored and dominated by religious discourse. A person’s identity, social status, employment, marriage, education, indeed, his or her very future and most of his or her decisions in life, are controlled by the religious sect into which that person was born or the environment in which he or she happens to be living. Nothing escapes the gravity of the religious pull in that part of the world.

In addition to that, religion is used to control, victimize, and abuse others who don’t share the same theology. A tacit contract has been established between the authoritarian regimes and the religious establishment to divide the pie and extend a helping hand to each other, obstructing social change, liberal policies, and democratic development.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, the royal family’s contract with the ultraconservative Wahabi version of Islam is a well-known fact. The governing royal family gets its legitimacy from the Islamic establishment in exchange for adhering to its orthodoxy and conservative notions and interpretations of Islam and modern questions of cultural issues.

In Lebanon, as mentioned above, religious infighting and discrimination knows no limits. Witness this penis-cutting story that was reported by The Daily Star newspaper on July 17, 2013. The Staris a prominent English-language daily newspaper in the Middle East, published in Lebanon:

Man’s Member Severed Over Interfaith Marriage

By Dahlia Nehme, Meris Lutz

Beirut—A Sunni man from Akkar had his penis severed during a brutal attack by his wife’s Druze family, who opposed the interfaith union. Rabih Ahmad, 39, was brought to Al-Shohar al-Gharbi Hospital in the Chouf late Monday night where he was stabilized and has since been transported to the Rafik Hariri Hospital in Beirut Wednesday. Ahmad, who hails from the Akhar town of Ahrar, and Rudayna Melaab, 19, from Baysour in the Chouf, eloped two weeks ago in the presence of a Sunni sheikh. According to local residents and officials, the couple had lied to the woman’s family and told them Ahmad was a Druze from the Abu Daib family in Jahilieh, another town in the Chouf.

Melaab’s family discovered the deception only after the two were married and reportedly ensconced in a chalet in Tabarja. After expressing their outrage, Melaab’s family then called and invited the newlyweds to dinner in Baysour under the pretense of reconciliation and honoring the marriage.

Instead, the woman’s relatives, led by her brother, who is reportedly a soldier in the Lebanese Army, kidnapped Melaab and dragged Ahmad to the main square of Baysour, where they beat him and cut off his penis. According to local news reports, Ahmad arrived at the hospital in critical condition, his penis missing and his testicles ruptured.

The man spoke to Al-Jadeed TV Tuesday, identifying his assailants as his bride’s father and brother. “They cut it off to set an example,” the victim said.

“The Druze are a religious minority in Lebanon known for being fiercely protective of their community. The Druze religion does not recognize converts, making marriage outside the faith even less acceptable than it is among other religions.”

This sectarian mentality and practice are still alive and well in the Middle East, even in Lebanon!

In Egypt the Christian minority was and is being persecuted to appease the religious establishment and the conservative section of the Egyptian population, now nearing about 100 million.

In Iran, furthermore, the religious freedom of minorities is virtually nonexistent. On August 30, 2019, the Baha’i National Center, quoted the report that was submitted to the UN General Assembly by the special rapporteur which outlined the series of human rights violations against the Baha’i community of Iran and other ethnic and religious minorities.

The special rapporteur says: “The absence of constitutional and legal recognition for non-recognized minorities entails denials of fundamental human rights for their followers. Left outside the national legal framework, unrecognized minority religious groups such as the Baha’is, Christian converts, [and] Sufis . . . are the targets of discriminatory legislation and practices.”

The report adds: “Given that the Baha’i faith is regarded as a ‘misguided sect’ and Baha’i worship and religious practices are deemed heresy, they frequently face changes such as ‘breaching national security,’ ‘propaganda against the holy regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran’ or ‘propaganda activities against the regime in the interests of the Baha’i sect.’ ”

Some facts by numbers: “A total of 95 Baha’i were reportedly arrested in 2018, compared with at least 84 in 2017 and 81 in 2016. This suggests that, while the number of such arbitrary arrests each year may fluctuate, the persecution is not subsiding.”

In fact, the absence of any notion of the separation of mosque/church and state/politics in the wider Arab world–including Iran, which is not an Arab country, as it controls these days the politics of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and much of Yemen–has created a combustible mixture of religious powder that has resulted in a renewed (hot and cold) civil war between Sunni and Shia sects, between Christian minorities and Muslim majorities, that led to the persecution and slaughter of other religious minorities scattered across the Arab lands. Witness the ethnic cleansing and killings of the Yazidis in Iraq and other minorities in Syria at the hands of ISIS in 2014 and beyond.

Historical Context

Professor Ahmad F. Yousif, from the International Islamic University of Malaysia, wrote about the Islamic perspective regarding religious freedom, arguing that: “The concept of separation between sacred and profane, or religious and secular, is completely nonexistent in Islam, which is based on the recognition of the unity of the Creator and the submission of the individual’s will to Him. Furthermore, Islam is not a religion in the Western sense of the word, confining its scope to the private life of the individual, but instead, provides guidance for all walks of life–individual and social, material and moral, economic and political, legal and cultural, national and international.”

Yousif goes on to argue that comparing the Western system and the Islamic system in terms of religion’s role in society is like comparing apples to oranges. “As we have seen, the liberal democratic state considers religion for the most part as a personal, private matter, just one of many spheres of life and distinct from the more important ‘rational’ aspects of life. Conversely, from the Islamic perspective, religion is viewed as an integrated whole. As the individual submits his/her will to the will of God and carries out activities for the sake of God, all aspects of life become spiritualized and indeed acts of worship.”

Religious freedom in this context is virtually impossible to obtain. The majority is bound to argue that it is fulfilling the will of God as it understands that will by interpreting the texts at hand. On the other hand, the religious minorities are hostages to the prevailing state system, which is acting in concert with the religious establishment for mutual interests, thus perpetuating a culture of persecution and silence.

The freedom famine must end. A culture that does not respect and revere freedom in its fundamental features is bound to remain anemic and malnourished. Freedom is what makes the individual, the society, and the state function equitably and smoothly. Freedom, properly practiced, rejects the destructive cultural practices of authority worship, persecution of religious minorities, and blind adherence to traditional values—even if they are proven wrong or misguided in the modern age.

Robert D. Putnam, a prominent American political scientist, wrote in the New York Times on June 12, 2012: “The most certain prediction that we can make about almost any modern society is that it will be more diverse a generation from now than it is today. Therefore, diversity, respect for minority rights, and accommodation of other groups, be it religious or social, are, and will continue to be, the defining features of our times.”

The Arab world–and Iran– is lacking miserably on this front, and the current state of warfare within and without these states is telling and tragic.

Finally, the view that the truth is the domain of authority has been the hallmark of Arab political culture for centuries. Michael P. Lynch wrote brilliantly: “Consider the idea that the real essence of truth is Authority–that is, what is true is whatever God, or the King or the Party commands or accepts, that is a reductive definition, one that still lurks in the background of many people’s worldview. It has also been used over the centuries to stifle dissent and change.”

In fact, this view of authority applies to the Arab world, and the wider Middle East region, like no other culture on earth–which is a catastrophe. Witness, as we see daily, the religious persecution of ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and noncitizens as evidence of what happens when religious authorities and authoritarian regimes practice together this scheme of discrimination in real life.

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Sources: Elie Mikhael Nasrallah, “Hostage to History: The Cultural Collapse of the 21st Century Arab World”; Ahmad F. Yousif, “Revisiting Religious Freedom, Minorities, and Islam”; Reza Aslan, “Bill Maher Isn’t the Only One Who Misunderstands Religion”; the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.


Article Author: ​Elie Mikhael Nasrallah

Elie Mikhael Nasrallah, born in Lebanon, graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa, with an honours degree in political science. He has written three books: “My Arab Spring, My Canada,” 2012, “None of the Above,” 2014, “Hostage to History,” 2016. He writes from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.