The politics of religious freedom as seen from Egypt and the USA

Two thoughtful articles published today highlight the clash between ideals of religious freedom and other aspects of human rights.

Egyptian Streets published the piece by Ayman S Ashour; below that is an essay by Jacob Lupfer headed The Politics of Religious Freedom Under the Trump Administration, published by Religion and Politics

Beyond the Niqab: Liberal Muslims Stand Against Freedom of Religion

Hala Shiha, a well-known retired Egyptian actress, announced last week that she is taking off the niqab and veil and returning to acting. Shiha was considered a heroine and a role model in many Salafi Islam and Islamist circles after she shunned a successful career as a movie star and moved to Alberta, Canada adopting the ‘role’ of a modest Muslim woman.

Shiha’s first public pictures without any face or hair covering has led to a frenzied reaction from Islamists ranging from appeals for repentance to denunciations and lamentations. Anti-Islamist reaction was no less frenzied, hailing Shiha as the latest to escape Salafi mind control and subjugation.

The Islamists and the anti-Islamists claim to represent freedom of choice, and both compete in arguing that the veil and niqab are symbols of freedom and oppression respectively. While former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson faces intense pressure over disparaging remarks on the niqab, self-proclaimed Muslim liberals in the west speak forcefully in favor of banning the niqab on grounds of liberating women, as well as resolving security fears.

At the heart of the Islamists’ belief in veiling of various types is the concept of “awrah” or (عورة) in Islam. Awrah is defined as the intimate or indecent parts of the body that must not be exposed. Liberal Muslims have viewed awrah for men or women to be the parts that a typical swimsuit would cover, while more conservative Muslims have interpretations of awrah for women expand to the necessity of long sleeves and covering the legs below the knees, nearly to the ankles. Salafi and Islamist Islam goes further, viewing women’s hands, feet, even voice to be awrah and also requiring the outer outline of a fully covered woman’s body to be non-distinguishable. As such, depending on the interpretation, a woman’s hair and face can be perceived as awrah.

Islamists argue that veiling affords women freedoms, and a woman can then use the powers of her soul and mind rather than being perceived as a mere commodity that men desire for her sexuality. Anti- Islamists view the arguments for covering as patriarchal subjugation of women and accuse the Islamists of objectifying women to the point that their existence and freedoms don’t matter.

Some tribes in pre-Islamic Arabia practiced infanticide of girls; newborn baby girls were buried alive for fear that they may ultimately dishonor their families. Islam prohibited this abhorrent practice, yet an awrah definition that keeps the woman alive, but hidden away and isolated for fear of dishonor, may be a throwback to similar concepts. Keeping women alive would have the advantage of using their services in endless chores including sexuality and reproduction.

Other ancient people held similar misogynic views that treated women as a fundamentally lower form of human beings. The resurgent Roman Empire under Augustus, over 2000 years ago, saw the introduction of a body of laws focusing on the purity of women. Before the Romans, the ancient Greeks saw women as lesser creatures perhaps best exemplified in the myth of Pandora “a bringer of unhappiness and vices”.

Islam and Christianity are essentially the two remaining monotheistic religions in Egypt where Hala Shiha hails from. Both rely on a broad body of religious sacred texts and doctrines formed over hundreds of years; both traditions have been heavily influenced by the cultural environments from which they emerged. Both also offer texts that speak of absolute and total equality between men and women yet both also have texts that reduce women to an unequal subjugated status.

In the Bible under 1 Timothy 2:11-15 we find clear direction of the submissive subservient role of women, yet in the West, such texts have largely been ignored and side stepped with many historians arguing that both 1 and 2 Timothy in their entirety are not authentic. Some churches and some Western Christians adhere to these texts and believe that Bible is inerrant, yet other Churches ordain women as priests and bishops. In the West, these are issues of freedom of religion and freedom of worship, but each person has the right to choose their own way.

The massive divide between Islamists and anti Islamists is the result of a similar disagreement over the authenticity of certain texts and the interpretation of other texts. It is a disagreement where each side claims total monopoly on what is true Islam and what is heretical and should be fought and banned. Both sides of the dispute deny the other the right to hold differing beliefs; consequently, the battle lines resemble those over abortion and divorce laws in the West with some important differences.

In the West, anti-Islamist Egyptians and others have been supportive of the niqab ban in France and actively advocate for similar bans in the UK, USA and elsewhere. Part of the argument they use is security but, in the process, they ignore important western values such as the rights to privacy and anonymity, the right to be let be.

There are certain transactions where people are expected to disclose their identities, in exchange for certain benefits (e.g. a lower price) in return. For example a woman in niqab who wants a monthly bus or metro pass will have to agree to show her face or use a fingerprint reader to confirm that she’s not using someone else’s pass. This is exactly what happens with ski resort season passes where users in ski masks maybe required to prove their identity. Although, users of the more expensive one day ski lift passes are not required to show proof of who they are and can proceed with ski masks on.

In the US, courts have held that transport authorities may not keep track of who is using the electronic road tolls even though these are tied to credit cards. Tolls authorities have had to devise methods to grant anonymity to the users. Yet, anti-Islamists in the West wish to ban women from wearing the niqab in the name of freedom and, failing that, in the name of security.

While I abhor the niqab and what it stands for, I cherish the freedom of choice and the rights to privacy and anonymity. The niqab in the West must be a matter of personal choice and personal freedom for adult women, the power of the law must be there to protect children and to ensure that no woman in the West is forced to wear the niqab against her will. The case of Hala Shiha demonstrates that a well-educated woman, for whatever reason, can elect to defy her family and to wear the niqab and she must have the freedom to do so. While women in the West have more freedom as to how to exercise and express their religion, that is not the case in countries like Egypt and most Islamic countries.

I hope that, over time, the anti-Islamist camp will transform itself into a truly liberal camp, so that when defending freedom of religion and choice and standing up for women rights, it does not deny others freedom of religion and freedom of choice.

An all-out war for what is true Islam has been raging and there is a heavy price to be paid by the losers. In Iran for example, all women have been forced to wear a head covering. In Afghanistan and various Dashlands, women were forced to wear the niqab, freedom of choice was not on the menu. In a country like Egypt, there has been no law requiring the head veil, but it has become a societal norm, reversing decades of “liberalization” in the middle of the last century. In today’s Egypt, non-veiled women appearing before a judge must be veiled; it is unclear if this has become a custom or is actually a legal requirement. The niqab has become widespread in some parts of the Egyptian society and women who are not in a niqab can face heavy social pressure.

So, while I take a strong stance in protecting the rights of women in the West to wear a niqab, if they so choose, I have a lot of sympathy for efforts to outlaw the niqab in Egypt and in other Muslim majority countries. Countries like Egypt have one official Islam that is recognized by the state and the scope of deviation from what is officially sanctioned is rather limited.

I hope that, over time, the anti-Islamist camp will transform itself into a truly liberal camp, so that when defending freedom of religion and choice and standing up for women rights, it does not deny others freedom of religion and freedom of choice. Muslim anti-Islamists in the West in particular, would benefit from looking at how battles for freedoms in the West have been won: they have never been won through denying others the right to make their own choices.

The Politics of Religious Freedom Under the Trump Administration

Last month in Washington, advocates for religious freedom witnessed two high-level, government-sponsored events designed to highlight and clarify the Trump administration’s commitment to protecting religious freedom in the United States and around the world. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo convened a State Department ministerial that included hundreds of stakeholders, including religious and civil society leaders, foreign ministers, and international organization representatives. Less than a week later, the Justice Department hosted a Religious Liberty Summit, at which Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a Religious Liberty Task Force that will streamline and enforce the DOJ’s handling of religious freedom cases, claims, and policies.

The ministerial featured a keynote address from Vice President Mike Pence, and top billing was also given to survivors of religious persecution and violence, whose personal stories across religious traditions testified to the urgency of the task at hand. The next week’s religious liberty event at the Department of Justice had a tone that was more deliberately messaged to conservative evangelicals’ concerns. In his speech, Attorney General Sessions touted President Trump’s support of people of faith: “He declared we would say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” He referenced the baker at the center of a recent Supreme Court case who declined to serve a same-sex couple for their wedding, and he noted DOJ’s amicus brief on the baker’s behalf: “We’ve all seen the ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips.”

Perhaps predictably, religious conservatives eagerly welcomed this flurry of government activity, while progressives, including many progressive people of faith, greeted the events with skepticism. The politicization of religious freedom debates accelerated swiftly during the Obama years. Administration officials carried out the work diligently, but few Democratic politicians championed the cause. The current administration and numerous Republican politicians are speaking out in favor of the government’s religious freedom advocacy, but the bipartisan consensus that long undergirded domestic, and especially international, religious freedom policy seems to be coming apart.

Social conservatives have invoked religious liberty as a safeguard against being compelled to accept LGBT rights. Liberals contend that the promotion of religious liberty is primarily a license to discriminate for conservatives.

A fundamental question involves how the government’s treatment of international religious freedom differs from past administrations. A particularly contentious debate surrounds the question of whether the Trump administration is only advancing the religious liberty of the Christian Right. Are they privileging their white evangelical base, while paying only lip service to other faiths and commitments? Any attempt to answer these questions requires an overview of how international religious freedom advocacy has evolved over the past 20 years.

In 1998, Congress unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Act, laying out a bipartisan mandate and structure for American advocacy of this cornerstone of human liberty. The law established the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). USCIRF is a bipartisan commission whose members are appointed by the president and the leaders in Congress. The nine commissioners serve staggered terms and elect their own chair. The ambassador for religious freedom serves as an ex-officio member of the commission, and USCIRF has a professional staff of about 15. A significant part of USCIRF’s advisory role to the government is the production of an annual report that monitors instances of religious persecution and discrimination around the world.

During the commission’s early years, political and humanitarian trends at home and abroad brought international religious freedom (IRF) concerns into public view. Religion regained salience as a consequential issue in American diplomacy and international relations as the United States confronted violent extremism at home and abroad.

Even so, there has been criticism from some scholars, who contend that promoting international religious freedom is much more complex, contested, and culturally dependent than how it is often presented in policy circles. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd of Northwestern University and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan of Indiana University are the foremost exponents of this view. They argue that if advocates do not fully understand the various reasons why religious persecution exists across cultures, their zealous promotion of a single ideal of religious freedom can actually exacerbate the very problems its promotion is supposed to solve. Those critiques, combined with more recent domestic clashes between religious freedom and the expansion of LGBT civil rights, have raised questions about the purpose, efficacy, and impartiality of the government advocating for religious freedom. More broadly, liberals and conservatives have different conceptions of what religious freedom means and what it demands in the spheres of policy, advocacy, and diplomacy. Social conservatives have invoked religious liberty as a safeguard against being compelled to accept LGBT rights. Liberals contend that the promotion of religious liberty is primarily a license to discriminate for conservatives.

The 1998 bipartisan consensus that gave us a blueprint for religious freedom promotion, in short, no longer exists. Religious freedom exists on two different political tracks, one domestic and one international. Today, Republicans claim to be champions of religious freedom, yet Democrats rightly charge that Trump and other GOP leaders’ attitudes toward Islam undermine that claim. Democrats, who are less enthusiastic about the entire concept of promoting religious freedom, struggle to accept social conservatives’ conscience claims on LGBT issues in the United States, and thus view the IRF project with some skepticism.

Beset by growing pains and occasional conflicts in the decade after it was established, USCIRF distinguished itself in Barack Obama’s second term. Appointees from both parties had considerable expertise in IRF issues. Though members as different as conservative Princeton professor Robert P. George and progressive Jesuit priest Thomas Reese surely had wide disagreements on domestic politics, the commissioners worked well together and, significantly, articulated a unified vision of what religious freedom is and why it is important. Commissioners traveled together to conflict zones and assured victims of persecution and religious minorities that the United States would advocate for them. GOP-appointed commissioners consistently praised Obama’s IRF Ambassador David Saperstein. Democratic commissioners cheered the leadership of Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, the fiercest IRF advocate in Congress until he left office in 2015.

Under President Trump, USCIRF got off to a rocky start. Several USCIRF vacancies went unfilled until a spate of appointments in May. For a time, USCIRF lacked enough commissioners to have a quorum. The office also didn’t have an ambassador for nearly a year. President Trump had nominated Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, a former U.S. senator, as IRF ambassador, but Brownback was a controversial choice for Democrats because of his past comments on Islam and his socially conservative stance on LGBT issues. His confirmation stalled, and he was re-nominated in January. The Senate vote was 49-49, with Vice President Pence breaking the tie to assure Brownback’s confirmation.

Ambassador Brownback was actively engaged in IRF issues during his time as a congressman and a senator. But Trump’s rhetoric on Islam and policies as president create problematic associations for Brownback, who of course owes his diplomatic post to Trump. Brownback has not disavowed the administration’s travel ban, for instance, which targets Muslim-majority countries. As religious freedom ambassador, he also has not denied reports that he intervened with a British ambassador on behalf of a prominent anti-Muslim activist who was recently jailed for disrupting a trial in the U.K.

So how else is the Trump Administration’s treatment of international religious freedom different from past administrations? The most obvious difference is an escalation in politicization. Perhaps this was inevitable—USCIRF commissioners and IRF ambassadors have always been political appointees—but the Trump era has eroded IRF advocacy’s bipartisan character. The USCIRF vacancies are now filled, but the process was more political than ever, with appointments going to Republican-aligned operatives and a Democratic senator’s spouse. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed Tony Perkins, the head of the socially conservative Family Research Council. The White House also appointed Gary Bauer, a longtime religious right operative, and Johnnie Moore, who came of age as an associate of Jerry Falwell Jr. at Liberty University, and now works as a consultant who connects politicians, media, and business executives to evangelical insiders.

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi re-appointed Tenzin Dorjee to another term as USCIRF commissioner. Dorjee, a professor at California State University, Fullerton, was subsequently elected as chair for the upcoming year. The unanimous vote was an important bipartisan gesture and made Dorjee the first Tibetan Buddhist to chair the commission. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer appointed Gayle Manchin, wife of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who faces a close re-election this year and has received overtures from Republicans to join their party. It was not obvious that Gayle Manchin had any prior experience in IRF issues, but she recently co-authored an op-ed with USCIRF colleague Johnnie Moore condemning the “weaponization” of religion in Pakistani politics.

Thus, USCIRF is fully staffed and operational after more than a year. That the State Department was able to stage a major ministerial —its first ever focused on religious freedom—just three months after a new secretary was confirmed is a testament to how effectively the government’s IRF apparatus can work together toward a common goal. The event also coincided with the unveiling of a new document, the Potomac Declaration, a statement affirming freedom of religion or belief to be a top advocacy and diplomatic priority.

And yet, American experts and advocates’ acceptance of religious freedom efforts are still colored by fault lines in American politics. Progressive-leaning advocates tend to be very critical of Trump’s hostility toward Islam, and conservative-leaning advocates are generally timid in criticizing Trump because they appreciate his actions on religious freedom both domestically and internationally. But they wonder how progressives will join them in advocating for religious freedom around the world if they cannot even abide the conscience claims of, for instance, socially conservative wedding vendors here at home.

Jennifer Bryson, a political scientist who works for the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, told me it is problematic that “new critics” of religious freedom do not offer much of an alternative. “They criticize ‘religious freedom’ without offering a practical framework of how to live with our deepest differences.” I recall hearing Rabbi David Saperstein, who served as IRF ambassador in the last years of Obama’s presidency, say on multiple occasions that he wishes every country’s greatest religious freedom problem was whether a baker had to make a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding. Viewed alongside incidences of religious persecution and violence, Americans’ debates seem less important than the fact that millions of people around the world today cannot practice their faith openly.

For now, the two-track religious freedom focus will continue in the United States. In law and domestic politics, religious liberty will be a political rallying cry for Republicans, even as Democrats view it skeptically. Democrats will, in turn, scrutinize conservatives’ claims and demand consistency. As for the government’s IRF advocacy, it seems likely that the project will continue with conditional bipartisan support. And yet, there’s no doubt that for the foreseeable future, politics and controversy will accompany the United States’ push for religious freedom.