From Religious Freedoms to Equal Citizenship Rights: The Middle East and Beyond

Wikimedia Commons The last couple of years have brought increased attention to the religious freedoms of minorities in the Middle East. The region has witnessed multiple conflicts, interventions, and uprisings, most of which did not turn out well for these minorities. The treatment of Coptic Christians at the hands of the Egyptian army after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the attacks directed at churches in Iraq since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and the threats Christian communities face in a divided Syria are among the most pressing issues that have drawn attention from human rights activists worldwide. In order to understand the challenges these minorities face, we need to take a closer look at the public theologies of citizenship in the region.

Public theology is a religiously informed perspective that is produced or publicly advocated by a political or religious institution or authority. It is expressed by a group of people who distinguish their practice and perspective from other existing traditions and inform public discussion through political opposition, violent or non-violent protest, and publications. Public theology considers how religious understandings are manifested and shaped in the public sphere, rather than the particular content of a religious tradition. When talking about Middle Eastern politics, for example, it is not helpful to treat Islam as a monolithic entity. Discussions about whether Islam and democracy are compatible are futile at best. Public theology, on the other hand, takes religion seriously without reducing it to one political manifestation when evaluating human rights and governance.

Every polity is based on a specific public theology. As Saba Mahmood states, “nation states have had to act as de facto theologians” in order to transform the religious domain, creating new allegiances without abandoning the religious premises that formed pre-modern communities. The question of who is to be included as a legitimate member of this polity has been defined by this public theology of citizenship. The Turkish Republic, for example, has historically been based on state-managed Sunni Islam with a Directorate that funds religious institutions in the Sunni tradition and recognizes religious minorities as an extension of the Ottoman Millets. Despite the country’s democratic and secular outlook, this establishment narrative prevented Christian and Jewish citizens of Turkey from enjoying equal treatment for decades.

The legacy of the Ottoman Millet system significantly influenced the public theologies of contemporary citizenship in other countries like Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. As long as religious minorities recognized the “superiority” of their rulers, they maintained physical safety. If they ever demanded full equality or engaged in any political activity, however, they were labeled as traitors whose primary allegiance was to external powers. The colonial experience made the Muslim populations of the Middle East even more wary of their non-Muslim minority populations. Therefore, the public theology of citizenship has never been inclusive of these religious communities. As a result, state machinery has kept—and will keep—turning against its own minority groups, compounding the dangers these communities face from extremist organizations.

Public theologies cannot be amended by new legislation or changes in governance. They are ingrained in collective political culture. For similar reasons, China has had difficulty embracing its Christian and Muslim populations and European countries have yet to come to grips with their immigrant communities. In the Middle East and everywhere else, each country needs to both face its own public theology and modify it to become more inclusive. Textbooks need to be revised and raison d'êtres reimagined. Rather than securitizing religious freedoms, activists and policymakers should place their focus on equal citizenship rights, which are less threatening for already insecure political leaders. Admittedly, such a structural change is no small feat. However, religious freedoms will always be threatened, and religious minorities will continue to be persecuted, if the defining parameters of contemporary citizenship are not carefully reconstructed.