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Otmar Oehring {*}

Does Now an Arabian Summer Arrive?

Especially the Road to Religious Freedom is Still Long


From: Herder Korrespondenz, /2011, P. 443-448
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Nobody can already say for sure how the revolutionary upheavals in the Arab world will proceed, i.e. whether secular or Islamist states will emerge? The example of Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria shows how difficult it is to create preconditions which make freedom of religion possible at all.


This year, spring began early in the Arab world; it was not an ordinary spring. And it is not yet really foreseeable whether the hopeful spring will become a warm summer, a golden autumn or only a cold winter. What hopefully began raises meanwhile many question marks.

Those who have triggered the Arab Spring feel marginalized. Islamist groups, which were mentioned in the past by the dictators (and also by the churches) as justification for the "necessary" suppression, form everywhere new political parties - often even several. Even if they everywhere pretend that they do not want to take over the power, e.g. that they do not want to nominate a presidential candidate and even advocate a secular state, yet many people do not trust them an inch.



What then were the reasons for the revolutionary upheavals in the Arab world, and what did the protagonists of the Arab Spring want to achieve with it? In the West one refers to the longing for freedom and democracy. Freedom for sure! But what primarily mattered to the protagonists were the future prospects: a better life, jobs, income, the opportunity to rent or buy an apartment, to marry and raise a family - just a predictable and acceptable future.

And then of course democracy, too. Here one may certainly assume that the majority in the Arab-Islamic countries where we currently observe revolutionary upheavals - and these are not only Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen - has no real idea of what is meant by liberty and democracy as we understand them.

Just as one can sometimes get the impression that some politicians or clergymen in the West have no clear idea of what now in the Arab world happens, especially of what one may expect in future. This especially applies when religious freedom is demanded in these countries. Of course, this claim is in principle correct, not least, because all the countries concerned have signed and ratified the "International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights" (ICCPR), where Article 18 postulates freedom of religion.

Religious freedom in the sense of Art.18 ICCPR is the right to have or have not a religion or belief, to adopt or to change it, and to manifest either individually or in community the respective religion or belief (Art. 18, 1). When choosing or changing a religion or belief, no one shall be subject to coercion (Art. 18, 2). Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others (Art. 18, 3). The liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions is guaranteed (Art. 18, 4).

However, one must doubt that religious freedom in the sense of Art.18 ICCPR is the primary goal of the protagonists of the Arab Spring. In fact, many of them argue for the secular state and want to see that the separation of religion and state is implemented. However, they here first of all seek to end the dominance of Islam in all spheres of public and social life. But it is doubtful how much influence the protagonists of the Arab Spring still have on the further progress of this spring. It remains therefore unclear what significance the commitment to a secular state, to separation of religion and state still has.


Indicator of Religious Freedom are the Themes Apostasy and Conversion

Morocco is admittedly not the country where the Arab Spring began but one where it seethed for years. This prompted eventually the king to hold out the prospect of a new constitution. In a referendum, this new constitution has meanwhile been submitted to the vote of the people and has been adopted by an overwhelming majority. Quite significant changes to the Constitution refer to the king's partial relinquishment of power in favor of Parliament. To date, the king was not only omnipotent; thanks to his position as head of the (Muslim) believers he is also sacrosanct. Even though in the run-up to the constitutional referendum in the press a discussion on the future role of the king took place, and one gave definitely thought to a reorganization of Morocco as a secular or even laicistic state, such an expectation is rather not realistic. How should it be possible that a king to whom the maintenance of Islam as it were is inherent does not only call one of the foundations of Islam, namely the unity of state and religion into question but even sacrifices it to secularism?

A look at the constitution of the Kingdom of Morocco of 10 October 1996 and the new constitution of 1 July 2011 makes clear that with regard to the question of religious freedom in Morocco there are not only no essential but even no changes at all.

According to the Constitution of 1996, the "Kingdom of Morocco" was a "sovereign Muslim state" (Preamble). Its state religion is Islam and it guarantees "freedom of worship for all" (Article 6). It furthermore stated, "The King, Al Amir Mouminine (Commander of the Faithful), (...) is the Defender of Islam and the Constitution, he is the protector of the rights and liberties of citizens, social groups and organisations" (Article 18).

In the constitution of 1 July 2011, the Kingdom of Morocco is now described as "a sovereign Muslim state." Its "unity is characterized by the interplay of its Arab-Islamic (....) components" and has been nurtured and enriched "by (...) Hebrew influences."



In the preamble (paragraph 4) of the new Constitution it furthermore says that "the primacy which is granted to the Muslim religion in this national reference system (= the Constitution) is associated with the attachment of the Moroccan people to the values of openness, balance, tolerance and dialogue, mutual understanding between all cultures and civilizations in the world." Article 3 of this Constitution states, "Islam is the state religion; it guarantees everybody the free exercise of religion." In Article 41 of the Constitution of 2011 it eventually says, "the king, Al Amir Mouminine (Commander of the Faithful), is the defender of Islam. He is the guarantor of the free exercise of every cult."

What has newly been introduced into the Constitution of the Kingdom of Morocco is the explicit reference to the supremacy granted to Islam, which of course de facto existed already. Also a reference to the cultural diversity of the country has been incorporated into the Constitution. With respect to the issue of religious freedom, the reference to Hebrew influences is here of importance, although it remains virtually without consequences.

An important indicator of religious freedom is here always the topic of apostasy / conversion: a very delicate issue with regard to states and societies of the Muslim world. That applied and applies also to Morocco. Article 18.2 of the ICCPR states, "No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice." From it follows that everyone has the right to choose freely his religion / belief - even to have no religion - and to convert from one religion to another. The possibility of turning away from a religion (apostasy) or of choosing a different religion (conversion) are important indicators of religious freedom.

The only religion which, apart from the Sunni Islam, today plays a certain role is Judaism. However, after the founding of the state Israel and particularly in connection with the wars between the Arab world and Israel and the from them resulting temporarily massive pressure on the Moroccan Jews it has experienced an enormous bloodletting. Regardless of this, Judaism in Morocco admittedly plays with regard to Islam a subordinate but at least official role, which finds not least expression also in the preamble to the new Moroccan constitution.

In the societal perception, there are Sunni Muslims in Morocco as well as a Jewish minority. A Moroccan may therefore be a Muslim, occasionally even a Jew but never a Christian. There are nevertheless in Morocco Moroccan Christians whose ancestors converted from Islam to Christianity and who are Christians in the second or third generation. They are seen and also accepted as Christians in their social environment. In everyday life there are normally no problems caused by the religious affiliation of this numerically very small group.

The Moroccan law is not clearly defined with regard to the topics mission, conversion and apostasy. The relevant Article 220 of the Moroccan Penal Code reads:

"(1) Whoever by force or threat attempts to stop one or more persons from the exercise of their religious beliefs or from attendance at religious services shall be punished by imprisonment of six months up to three years and a fine of 500 dirhams. (2) The same penalty will be imposed on anyone who employs incitements to shake the faith of a Muslim or to convert him to another religion, be it by taking advantage of his weakness or his needs, be it by using educational institutions, health care, shelters or orphanages for this purpose. If convicted, the closure of the facility that was used to commit the offense may be ordered, either permanently or for a period not exceeding three years. This admittedly means clearly that the one who proselytized is prosecuted and facilities that are used for missionary activity can be closed. What remains unanswered, however, is the question of the legal consequences with which the one who converted has to reckon. As in other Islamic countries, converts possibly have to reckon with social ostracism in their family and social environment, for example in their job, at worst even with a grave danger to life and limb. Apostasy and conversion, in case they come to light, may therefore amount to social suicide.


Is Tunisia, too, threatened by Islamization?

Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began on 4 January 2011, caused by the self-immolation of the greengrocer Mohammed Bouazizi, has still to go the way to a new constitution. It was actually planned to elect the Constituent Assembly already on the 24th July. But the election was postponed and it has not yet been decided when it will actually take place. In any case, the drafting of a new constitution is a major challenge, not least, because it is necessary to preserve what has already been codified in the days of former president Habib Bourguiba in the sixties in the Constitution and the laws on personal status. Article 1 of the previous Constitution reads: Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Its religion is Islam. Although you can read this as if Islam is the state religion in Tunisia, the former President Bourguiba is quoted as saying that the country is Islamic but not the state, and the quoted passage of the constitution must accordingly be understood in this sense.



In practice, however, what is of far greater importance are those legal norms which postulated the equality of men and women before the law. Parts of civil society and the newly established political parties campaigned for it that the secular state is enshrined and the equality of men and women is guaranteed in the new Constitution. The Islamists - not only those of the an-Nanda-movement and its environment - do not openly oppose the above described achievements of the era Bourguiba. But critical observers do not believe them, and rather consider it likely that, if they get the opportunity for it, they will actually advocate the Islamization of the state and possibly even an Islamic state.

It remains to be seen which party will in the end dominate the Constituent Assembly. Whether in Tunisia further steps will be taken as regards religious freedom will also depend on it. Freedom of conscience (liberte de conscience) was already guaranteed. And in the discourse of the elites, also religious freedom is partly subsumed in it. Even apostasy and conversion are then no longer a problem. In legal terms, this was already the case in Tunesia: nobody had to stand trial because of his conversion. But the social sanctions and often the de facto sanctions from the authorities - for example the withdrawal of ration cards and the like - induced potential converts more than once to consider whether the intended step, e.g. the open declaration of belief in Christianity, was a too large step.


Previously Suppressed Muslim Brothers Show Clearly Their Presence in Egypt

Egypt was the second country that has been touched by the Arab Spring (see HK, May 2011, 242 ff.) As in Tunisia, it was also here about the future prospects of a population that is predominantly young and without any prospects. Already at an early stage of the "revolution", in Egypt began also the discussion on the future character of the state. Particularly since the previously massively suppressed Muslim Brotherhood made its presence felt, at least since it became clear that the era of Mubarak and the suppression associated with it came to an end. Although banned and massively and brutally persecuted for decades by the authorities, the Muslim Brotherhood was always present and drew repeatedly the attention to itself.



This was especially so when, in connection with natural disasters or other calamities, the help of the state was required - but it remained inactive. The Muslim Brothers were there, helped the people, and won their sympathy. They try now to build on it, and seek to portray themselves as reformed and modest - open even to a secular state.

There was the possibility that the constitutional referendum of 19 March 2011 became a first step on the road to a secular state of Egypt. In it the Egyptians voted on some amendments to the Constitution, particularly regarding the next presidential election. It was recommended to vote "no" in the referendum by those parts of the Egyptian civil society who campaign for a secular state, but also by the churches, which - unlike to the Maghreb countries - are definitely still of a certain importance in Egypt. Through the "no", the constitutional amendments should be rejected in order to prepare the path to developing a completely new constitution. Their hope mainly focused on the opportunity to give Egypt a different basic orientation: away from Islam as state religion and sharia as the main source of inspiration for legislation - as postulated by article 2 of the current Constitution.

This fundamental change, it was feared, would be made impossible by a "yes" to the constitutional referendum. Presidential and parliamentary elections would then be held close to each other. They would only result in the victory of the National Party of Hosni Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood, because in such a short time it is impossible both to found other liberal secular parties and to make them known to the public. But the people voted for the constitutional amendments. And the worst fears failed to materialize, since a concrete date for the presidential and parliamentary elections has not yet been scheduled. And so it remains an open question whether in the end the Muslim Brotherhood and its numerous offsprings will win or the proponents of a secular state.

In June 2011, the ruling military council has published a draft law on the construction of places of worship, which is controversially discussed by the religious communities. While individual representatives of Christian churches emphasize that for the first time the same rights are granted to all religious communities as regards the construction of places of worship, the Muslim Brothers criticize harshly that the law provides to build only one place of worship per one square kilometer, which is a clear discrimination of the Muslim majority. Yet there is only a draft law, and it is still completely unclear whether this text will unchanged ever become law.

This dispute, however, shows that in Egypt even more violent discussions - if not conflicts - are to be expected when a new constitution will be drafted and debated, which at best could actually plan a secular state. One can easily comprehend that in Egypt such discussions require a lot of discretion when one hears from church circles that in the respective debates words such as "secular" or even "laicistic" are absolutely taboo. Similar to other countries that have been touched by the Arab Spring, also in Egypt the term of "civilian" state is therefore preferred. Moreover, it would not be sufficient in the constitution to postulate a secular state and at the same time to stick to the regulations of Islamic law - for example with regard to polygamy.


Will the Freedom of the Churches now Become a Problem?

In the case of Syria the question about the freedom of religion is quite different from that in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Of course, sanctions are also here imposed on conversion, as in other countries of the Arab-Islamic world. Otherwise, the established Christian churches were able to develop in such freedom as it was given, apart from Lebanon, only in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. This could now - as in Iraq - become an existential problem for the churches. It will in the end be irrelevant whether the Christians have voluntarily supported the regime of the Assad family or were forced to do so. The recent expressions of sympathy with the Assad regime by ecclesiastical dignitaries, the tendency of which often appears to be strange, are only understandable against this background.

The Catholic churches, for instance, owe the so-called "Catholic law" to the still existing situation: for members of the Catholic Church it deals with all relevant questions of family and inheritance law, but also of adoption. This law goes back to the exchange between the Catholic Church and state power since the mid-nineties. When other churches - such as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Damascus - claimed the same right for themselves, the conditions had already deteriorated so far that there was no longer room for discussions concerning this matter. In the last two or three years, the changed political circumstances have also threatened the continued existence of the Catholic Law, but they could not derail it. Whether this will also apply to the future remains to be seen.

It is always appropriate and important to stand up for religious freedom, whether as a politician or church representative. But the example of Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria shows how difficult it sometimes is to create or maintain the conditions which make religious freedom possible - no matter how limited it is. It is also important to note that in many countries of the Arab-Islamic world freedom of religion or at least limited freedom of religion is understood or claimed also with regard to a group. The Christian churches expect of course religious freedom for themselves.



But the precondition of the demanded religious freedom, namely that it must - as it is also the case with us - apply to everybody, is sometimes confirmed only after a repeated inquiry. Indeed, it turns out that in all Arab-Muslim states the degree of realization of religious freedom is very different with regard to the various groups. Apart from the law on apostasy or conversion, it is largely realized for Islam. There are of course also Islamic groups that would deny this, too. With regard to the Christians on the other hand, you notice even greater restrictions. The established churches are able to move somewhat freely and to handle their affairs, despite some even harsh harassments. The problems vary from country to country. In one country there are e.g. problems with church building, in another with the issuance of visas for church personnel.

Many Protestant Free Churches are confronted with partly massive restrictions in the countries of the Arab-Islamic world. This especially applies to those Protestant Free Churches which are not willing to submit to the Code of Conduct for Mission, which was signed by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Council of Churches, together with the World Evangelical Alliance in June 2011. In most Arab-Islamic states the situation for new(er) religious communities is even more difficult. For example the Baha'i community: As an after-Islamic religious community it is accused of heresy, and the right to exist is simply denied it.

For all these religious communities and their followers the Arab Spring is not only a glimmer of hope with regard to a better future with better material and political perspectives but, let's hope so, also as regards religious freedom. But it will still take a long time until the objective is achieved.


    {*} Dr. Otmar Oehring (born in 1955) is since 2001 Head of the Human Rights Office of Missio in Aachen. Since late 1983 he has been in the foreign department of missio, the Pontifical Mission Society in Aachen, where he was initially Desk Officer for the Islamic countries. Oehring, who has lived in Turkey for years is inter alia a member of the Advisory Board of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).


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