Tarek BarakatBlogger and commentator
I am an Atheist! Well… maybe Agnostic since being an Atheist would require me to know something that I obviously have no ability to know. But you catch my drift. I believe that all religions, no matter how much truth they hold, are man made. Therefore the questions at hand are difficult for me to answer based on personal principals. Since Agnostics/Atheists want to see less religion and places of worship everywhere. That said I am a firm believer that just as one must not be coerced into a certain religion they shouldn’t be coerced out of it either.
The Ground Zero Mosque debacle speaks much less about how Americans view Islam as much as it does about their vulnerability to be coerced into fearing it, or anything else for that matter that an opposition party in an election year can use to gain seats. But if we are to take this mosque as an example let’s point out a few facts. First, IT IS NOT A MOSQUE!!! It’s a community center with a gym, a restaurant, and an auditorium which also includes a prayer area. People who are familiar with Middle Eastern culture, and specifically with the Gulf region, would know that prayer areas exist in most public spaces, for example in offices, malls and even parks. This is distinctly different from a full structure dedicated to being a mosque (i.e. with minarets, dome, etc.). Moreover, as mentioned by many, more capable, commentators (i.e. bloggers, journalists & pundits etc…), this whole debate would have been a non-issue had it been January 2011, a non-election year. There are several other reasons varied in validity on why the development of this project should continue. But the most important one is that US law protects it, period.
Which leads to the key question at hand; to what degree should governments interfere in the size, height and location of religious minorities’ worship centers and to what extent should the state be able to impose regulations on religious clerics and institutions to ensure adherence to local values and laws? In a democracy the answer is relatively simple, as much as they see fit. National judiciaries always supersede other legal institutions, even when you take into consideration basic international human rights. Even in countries governed by religious law, it is still technically a judiciary system that rules. But what about absolute monarchies, dictatorships, authoritarian regimes and other similar lovely forms of government? The answer in my humble opinion is, for better or worse, as much as these governments see fit too.
Democratic governments have to answer to their people on a cyclical basis during elections. But in between elections, governments are supposed to, and should, uphold the rule of law and govern the country based on what has been deemed best for its citizens. They do not govern on the basis of what citizens might “feel” about a particular subject. If the public stands adamantly against a government decision, for instance the decision to go to war, there are ways (demonstrations, lobbying, public campaigning, etc…) to voice disapproval or even overturn the decision. But, more often than not, it has been the case that governments have forcefully introduced laws protecting minorities against the wishes of public opinion at the time. Ending slavery and providing equal rights to ethnic and religious minorities as well as women are but a few examples.
Obviously we don’t live in an ideal world. Clashes on political, religious and cultural ideologies are a fact not only between nations but within them as well. These clashes are not only an outcome of differences but a necessary evil in the evolutionary process of nation building. In a way, it is an unpleasant yet healthy phenomenon. This rosy viewpoint may, however, be difficult to defend when discussing oppressive forms of government. One may give several examples of oppressive regimes utilizing animosity toward minorities to gain public support. Nazi Germany is one such example. Their fear mongering toward Jews, Gypsies, gays and other minority groups began as small ‘regulatory actions’ but latter snowballed and was used to garner massive support to push their political agenda to catastrophic results. Even today, politicians in several democratic nations (for example Geert Wilders in The Netherlands or The Nationalist Swiss People’s Party) use anti-minority and populist rhetoric to gain votes in the polls, often to great success. So in such scenarios, and as the saying goes, who watches the watchmen? I personally don’t see myself capable of answering such a question and instead will take the easy way out by using a generic categorizations that MOST undemocratic nations’ leaders still know what is ‘right’ more than their citizens might. (With the exception of a handful of nations that have total psychopaths for leaders.) Because these governments’ survival is, more likely than not, based on suppressing certain information and rights from the public which means even more so, citizens are unable to make the right decision with the limited information provided to them. Besides, chances are the public in these countries have more vital rights suppressed to worry about than sermons of minority religions.
Finally I don’t believe having a uniformed international set of rules should be agreed upon for several reasons. Religious & cultural diversity is exactly that and different nations have to deal with completely different set of challenges than others might face and therefore it will be a struggle to draft an agreement with an international consensus. But mainly because you might as well be asking for world peace and end of hunger, it simply will never happen. I also believe that while an international agreement might stop oppression in some countries it will also suppress the evolution of religious diversity and coexistence in other more progressive cultures. Progressiveness that Agnostic & Atheists like myself exclusively rely on in hope of others finding ‘the light’.
Bio: Tarek Barakat is a Syrian & Dutch National, living and working in Dubai as marketeer in the fashion industry. Amature blogger and commentator with interest in International and Middle Eastern Affairs.