Joseph Helou

Research Assistant / Carnegie MEC

The events of 9/11, and their ensuing impact on international relations, changed the face of west-east relations for almost a decade. The Islamic identity of all the 9/11 hijackers, President Bush’s announcement of a “Crusade”, the past administration’s use of ideologically charged language such as “regime Change”, and the American-led wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, thrust the world into a Huntington-style ‘clash of civilizations’. In the conflict as portrayed in the western media, the Western citizen is valorized as law-abiding and freedom-loving  and the Muslim is demonized as rejecting all the basic tenets of western democracy and civility. Armed with this conceptual framework, the U.S.A waged its war against terrorism with the cooperation of the “Moderate Powers”.

The End of an Era
All eyes turned westwards on the eve of November 4, 2008, with hope that the American elections would usher in an era of change. The Presidential victory of Barak Hussein Obama evoked mixed global public opinion. To the arab and Islamic world, Obama’s victory opened a new page in West-East relations; one devoid of the ideological language that characterized the Bush Era. Obama’s adroit cultural diplomacy began unfolding in the Cairo address of 2008 and overtures to previous foes.

Missing the Point
By focusing on disentangling the U.S. from the ‘clash of civilizations’, the current administration continues to emphasize the religious component of the tenseWest-East relations. But ironically, the U.S., and other Western allies, coordinate Middle Eastern interests with States which they call ‘moderate’, such as Egypt and Saudi arabia, but which actually score very low on human rights and freedom indexes. Regarding religious tolerance, the former systematically obstructs the issuance of permits for restoring churches, let alone the construction of new ones, while the latter regards the debate over building none-Islamic edifices a taboo. On the other hand, Syria and Iran’s malperformence in extending individual rights to its citizens excludes the vast array of religious rights providing religious minorities the latitude to bourgeon and thrive within the framework of the state. In 2007, Syria granted Christians the right to adopt their own personal status laws. By the same token, a considerable Jewish minority comfortably populates the Persian state, a phenomenon unmatched in most Arab and Islamic countries with the exception of Morocco and Tunisia. By extension, Gulf States, the likes of the U.A.E and Qatar, managed the preservation of their Islamic identity and accommodate for other religious beliefs such as Seekhs, Hindus, etc

Policy Formation
if the U.S.A has decidedly returned to the defense of Human Rights on a global scale, it may have dug a larger hole than initially thought. In the nation predicated on the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, an encroachment on any individual right is repudiated by society which operates in a wide political and cultural space. However, many of the U.S.A’s allies across the globe provide little to no space for the expression of beliefs. As influential powers, the U.S.A and its Western allies should dissuade their counterparts, both allies and foes alike, from the discrimination against minorities and human rights violations.

In order to achieve this promising goal, resorting to the use of Carrots and Sticks becomes in order. The U.S.A and others could place even more conditionalities on the official development assistance they provision and tie them to the level of the freedom of belief enjoyed by citizens of the host state. Furthermore, states which do not comply with international human rights benchmarks and covenants should be berated. Scenarios aside, policy formation should consider the nature of the political system it aims to reform and promote gradual change; for the Arab and Islamic World is all but a unitary body with a homogeneous population.

Clandestine Agendas
The religious institution is a blunt double edged sword. On one side, it shapes a benevolent society and on the other it may be morphed with malicious tendencies to serve larger security plots. Therefore, it remains incumbent upon religious institutions in the West to conform to the laws of the de jure government and negotiate with it if any laws directly infringe on the right of the religious group to practice their beliefs within legal boundaries. The confusion and intersection of the political and religious space in the Eastern state often renders the institution of worship a hub for political activity, let alone protest movements. The only way states could metamorphose this reality is by redressing poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment which characterize the societies of the Eastern world.

The total separation of church and state should be affected worldwide. Religious groups that display a politically charged agenda- I.E Australian Moslems calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in Australia-should be reminded of the nature of the system they are subsumed in. Events of the kind force states to investigate, with redoubled vigilance, the source of religious funding. If the funding seeks to build a Sikh temple for the considerable Indian Diaspora populating the Gulf countries, the act is comprehensible. Nonetheless, if the funding is coupled with a set of political deeds that the group should execute, contrary to the will of the host state, the state holds the right to take imperative measures to prevent or limit the damage.

The issue of religious freedoms is a human rights matter par excellence. Sinking back into reality, the U.S.A and its Western allies is unlikely to snuggle back into the human rights corner anytime soon. Its global security commitments, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and sensitive economy requires it to coordinate matters with states which have a shameful track record in the human rights field. Hence, defending freedoms at the expense of their alliances is a very costly venture at the moment. Yet, the Western states will not allow the mushrooming of religious institutions with a politically intertwined agenda. The increasing role Islamic religious institutions play in failed states such as Afghanistan and the threat they pose to states like Pakistan jeopardize Western interests; thus states would most likely have to censor, and censure if need be, any religious institution with a dubious agenda. Although the conflict, at heart, is not a religious one, religious groups, harmonious and contentious alike, do suffer the consequences of living in an unsafe world. Hopefully, the day will come when all states could live side-by-side in harmony and altruism and allow the individual, on a global scale, to practice and believe freely in what they may!! Will that day ever come?

Joseph Helou is Research Assistant at the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut. He holds graduate and undergraduate degrees in International Relations and Economics. In addition to his research interests, Joseph is an active member of Civil Society Initiatives that promote transnational and Cross-cultural dialog.