Freedom in Muslim Countries: An Endangered Species

 
 

Encouraging peaceful, reformist Muslims requires freedom of speech and religion. Yet U.S. policies in Egypt and elsewhere support governments which actively work against Muslim reformist efforts.

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U.S. policy toward supposedly “allied” authoritarian Muslim governments in the Middle East is backward. This month Reporters Without Borders, an international organization supporting press freedom, issued its 2009 “Internet Enemies” report surveying government generated obstacles to the free flow of information online. Dominating the list are Muslim-majority countries, all but one of which are “friends” of the U.S. Internet freedom is an essential tool of civil society and pro-democracy Muslim reformers. We are feeding the hand that bites us by supporting regimes which block online and other media freedoms for these Muslim reformers.

Approximately 20% of the world’s population is Muslim, yet according to Reporters Without Borders, 58% of the “Internet Enemies” are Muslim-majority countries. These are Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (alongside Burma, China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam). As if this were not enough, 45% of the eleven countries listed as secondary level offenders, “Under Surveillance,” are either Muslim-majority—Bahrain, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen—or, in the case of Eritrea, about half Muslim.

As for “friends” of the U.S. on this list, the 2009 “Internet Enemies” report identifies Egyptian bloggers as “among the most hounded in the world” and “since the beginning of 2007, the government of Egypt has stepped up its surveillance of the web.” Tunisia “is one of the most draconian on the Internet.” In Turkmenistan, “the Internet remains one of the areas that the new government keeps under tightest control.” Uzbekistan maintains “very tight control over the Internet” and has a media law which makes way for “extensive and abusive censorship.” Also the state of Internet freedom in U.A.E., Bahrain, Yemen, Malaysia, and Eritrea is nothing to cheer about.

Meanwhile, in the most recent (2008) annual Department of State Report on International Religious Freedom 62% of the “Countries of Particular Concern” (the most egregious offenders) are Muslim-majority—Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan—with, again, Eritrea being about half Muslim (alongside Burma, China, North Korea).

Egypt’s starring role among the world’s “Internet Enemies” goes along with a religious freedom record that, while not one of the absolute worst, is still deeply problematic. These facts are particularly disconcerting because Egypt used to be a major intellectual and artistic hub in the Muslim world and now is supposedly a close U.S. ally. One would hope that a country in such a position would be a center for peaceful, reformist Islam.

There are two key misperceptions about anti-freedom measures in these Muslim majority countries, and both apply to Egypt. The first is that we Americans need to allow these countries great leeway in anti-freedom-of-speech and anti-religious-freedom policies because they use such policies only to fight against violent extremists. The second is that the only significant violations of religious freedom these countries perpetrate are against relatively small minorities such as Christians and Bahai.

In reality, “allies” of the U.S. such as Egypt use suppression of freedom of speech (on the Internet and in other media) and deny freedom of religion in order to block efforts by moderate and progressive Muslim reformers.

Consider just two examples of this problem in Egypt, the cases of Al-Azhar student Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman (known as “Kareem Amer”) and writer Dr. Muhammad Futuh. These are peaceful, pro-democracy Muslims who chose to be publicly engaged because they care about the future of Islam.

Amer now sits in an Egyptian prison for calling attention to abuses by the Mubarak government and challenging the status quo at Al-Azhar, an influential Islamic university in Egypt increasingly known for rising fundamentalism. On his website, Amer wrote that he wants to open a law firm to protect the rights of Muslim and Arab women. This is an example of the type of “threat” he poses. The Egyptian government imprisoned him for two years for “insulting the president” and one year for “incitement to hatred of Islam.” A campaign for his release continues.

Futuh published a collection of essays calling for critical thinking, education reform, government accountability, poverty reduction, and, not least of all, openness and rationality in public discussions of Islam. His book, Modern Sheikhs and the Manufacture of Religious Extremism, did not see the light of day for more than a few hours when it appeared in Egypt in 2006. The Islamic Research Academy of Al-Azhar, granted authority by the Egyptian government to determine what is “religiously acceptable,” deemed Futuh’s book “insulting” to Islam. Police stormed the bookstore and confiscated the books. (The book was written in Arabic; an English translation is expected later this year.) Mind you, Futuh is a Muslim. If he were anti-Muslim he would be fighting against himself. He’s not. But Egypt will not allow a space for moderate voices like Futuh’s in public discussions about Islam.

When Muslim-majority regimes such as Egypt’s claim they need censorship of Muslims to “protect Islam,” they are not “protecting” the Islam of the Muslims they censor, intimidate, and imprison. Rather, such regimes are harming fellow Muslims in order to “protect” specific interpretations of Islam which serve their own power. Censoring Muslims in order to centralize power in the hands of Egyptian President Mubarak, autocrat-for-life, and Al-Azhar University is an act of power-hoarding, not protection of a religion. When we Americans show deference to the Egyptian government’s censorship of Muslims out of supposed “respect for Islam,” we err.

Keep in mind that Egypt is one of the very largest recipients in the world of U.S. foreign assistance—annually over 800 million dollars in development assistance, and over a billion dollars, each year, for military hardware. We might want to re-evaluate whether this is an effective investment of U.S. money.

Consider the irony. When a congressional committee held a hearing on “Strategic Communication and Countering Ideological Support for Terrorism,” (CIST) a Public Diplomacy official informed Congress that cornerstones of Department of State’s CIST efforts include use of the Internet and empowering moderate Muslims. While these are laudable efforts, one wonders what the point of them is when simultaneously the very same U.S. government is using large amounts of taxpayer money to support one of the world’s greatest “Internet Enemies” as it censors, harasses, and imprisons moderate Muslims. We are feeding the hand that bites us.

Today, opening freedom of speech and freedom of religion in Muslim-majority countries, including Egypt, is more than a moral nicety. It is a strategic necessity.

One can only hope that President Obama will apply the level of interest he shows in protecting polar bears to protecting freedom of speech and freedom of religion, particularly in the strategically significant realms of Muslim-majority countries.

Please don’t get me wrong. I like polar bears, and even if I didn’t like them I would still argue that as creatures of this planet they deserve protection from extinction. Yet in prioritizing limited resources, it is worth noting that polar bears are not establishing sleeper cells in Europe or the U.S., trying to kill us and our way of life. Violent extremists in Muslim communities are.

Meanwhile, President Obama quickly filled the post of EPA Administrator and has established an executive level Council on Environmental Quality. Yet President Obama has not even so much as nominated an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, the U.S. government lead for engaging foreign audiences, and our gung-ho support for Egypt the Internet Enemy continues unabated.

It seems surreal, and more than a little dangerous, that we apply our resources with alacrity and vigor to support polar bears and governments hostile to progressive reformist Muslims, while neglecting public diplomacy and protection of the freedoms of speech and religion which are essential for growth of reformist Muslim movements.

Jennifer S. Bryson is the director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Islam and Civil Society Project. She is a contributor to Public Discourse.

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