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Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East

  • Saba Mahmood (a1)

The right to religious freedom is widely regarded as a crowning achievement of secular-liberal democracies, one that guarantees the peaceful coexistence of religiously diverse populations. Enshrined in national constitutions and international laws and treaties, the right to religious liberty promises to ensure two stable goods: (1) the ability to choose one's religion freely without coercion by the state, church, or other institutions; and (2) the creation of a polity in which one's economic, civil, legal, or political status is unaffected by one's religious beliefs. While all members of a polity are supposed to be protected by this right, modern wisdom has it that religious minorities are its greatest beneficiaries and their ability to practice their traditions without fear of discrimination is a critical marker of a tolerant and civilized polity. The right to religious freedom marks an important distinction between liberal secularism and the kind practiced in authoritarian states (such as China, Syria, or the former Soviet Union): while the latter abide by the separation of religion and state (a central principle of political secularism), they also regularly abrogate religious freedoms of their minority and majority populations. Despite claims to religious neutrality, liberal secular states frequently regulate religious affairs but they do so in accord with a strong concern for protecting the individual's right to practice his or her religion freely, without coercion or state intervention.

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1 Strictly speaking, neither the principle of nonintervention in sovereign states nor the idea of individual religious liberty, as we know them today, were institutionalized at the time of the Peace of Westphalia. What the treaty ensured was the right of the prince to determine the religion of his state (limited at the time to Lutheranism, Catholicism and Calvinism), a notion substantially expanded by John Locke almost forty years later that is closer in meaning to how it is used today. The term “Westphalian sovereignty” is somewhat of a misnomer in this sense but persists nonetheless. On this point see Krasner Stephen, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 20.

2 Evans Malcolm, Religious Liberty and International Law in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), see especially ch. 2.

3 For example, under the capitulations granted to the French in 1604, all the monks who served in the Holy Places came under the protection of France. Eventually, “Traders, missionaries, Western citizens living in the empire, and soon Eastern Christians too, all found themselves placed under the protection of French kings,” and over time France came to stand in as the protector of Christians of the Ottoman Empire. Maila Joseph, “The Arab Christians: From the Eastern Question to the Recent Political Situation of the Minorities,” in Pacini Andrea, ed., Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East: The Challenge of the Future (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 35.

4 Evans, Religious Liberty, 61–62.

5 Bruce Masters lists some of the key elements of Hatt-i Hümayun: the guarantee of freedom of religion; abolition of distinction based upon language, race, or religion; the replacement of shari'a courts with mixed courts for commercial and criminal suits involving Muslims and non-Muslims; and the dropping of the terms ahl al-dhimma or reaya in favor of gayrimüslimler (other than Muslims). See Masters, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 138.

6 Ibid., 137.

7 Quartet Donald, The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 65.

8 Deringil Selim, The Well Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire 1876–1909 (New York: I. B. Taurus, 1998), 115.

9 Among others, this was required of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Greece.

10 Preece Jennifer Jackson, “Minority Rights in Europe: From Westphalia to Helsinki,” Review of International Studies 23 (1997): 7592.

11 See Preece Jennifer Jackson, National Minorities and the European Nation-States System (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1430.

12 Cowan Jane, “Selective Scrutiny: Supranational Engagement with Minority Protection and Rights in Europe,” in von Benda-Beckmann Franz, von Benda-Beckmann Keebet, and Griffiths Anne, eds., The Power of Law in a Transnational World: Anthropological Enquiries (New York: Berghahn Press, 2009), 91.

13 Preece, “Minority Rights,” 82.

14 Arendt Hannah, “Decline of Nation-State; End of Rights of Man,” in The Origins of Totalitarianism (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1979), 275.

15 For distinctions and overlaps between the terms taifa and millet, see Masters, Christians and Jews, 61–65.

16 Ariel Salzman, commenting on this period in Ottoman history, remarks: “The Hamidian regime … was guided by a new demographic reality. Stripped of large Christian populations in Europe with the exception of Albania, Thrace, and Macedonia, the problem of religious pluralism had ceased and the question of ethnic minorities had begun.” “Citizens in Search of a State: The Limits of Political Participation in the Late Ottoman Empire,” in Hanagan Michael and Tilly Charles, eds., Extending Citizenship, Reconfiguring States (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers), 50.

17 Eissenstat Howard, “Metaphors of Race and Discourse of Nation: Racial Theory and State Nationalism in the First Decades of the Turkish Republic,” in Spickard Paul, ed., Race and Nation: Ethnic Systems in the Modern World (New York: Routledge), 250–51.

18 Ibid., 253.

19 For an excellent analysis of these different trends in modern Egypt, see Sedra Paul, “Class Cleavages and Ethnic Conflict: Coptic Christian Communities in Modern Egyptian Politics,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 10, 2 (1999): 219–35. Also see Reid Donald, Whose Pharaohs? Archeology, Museums, and National Identity from Napoleon to World War I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

20 See Preece's discussion of this issue in National Minorities, especially ch. 2.

21 Laponce, an important voice in this debate, proclaimed for example, “A minority is a group of people who, because of a common racial, linguistic or national heritage which singles them out from the politically dominant cultural group, fear that they may either be prevented from integrating themselves in the national community of their choice or be obliged to do so at the expense of their identity” (quoted in Preece, National Minorities, 24).

22 In one of the earliest studies of the emergence of national minorities on the world stage, Inis Claude defined the problem in this way: “The fundamentally subjective nature of the concept of the nation prevents a precise statement of the scope of our problem…. We can only say that a national minority exists when a group of people within a state exhibits the conviction that it constitutes a nation, or a part of a nation, which is distinct from the national body to which the majority of the population of that state belongs, or when the majority element of the population of a state feels that it possesses a national character in which minority groups do not, and perhaps, cannot share. The problem of national minorities arises when such a situation exists within the conceptual framework of the national state.” In National Minorities: An International Problem (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955), 3.

23 See, for example, Rehman Javed, “Minority Rights in International Law: Raising the Conceptual Issues,” Australian Law Journal 72, 8 (1998): 615–34.

24 Quoted in Danchin Peter, “The Emergence and Structure of Religious Freedom in International Law Reconsidered,” Journal of Law and Religion 23 (2008), 527.

25 Quoted in Danchin (ibid.: 528) from the record of the Seventy-Third Meeting, in 1948, of UN ESCOR, Committee on Human Rights.

26 For an analysis of European institutions and legal instruments to monitor and regulate the situation of minorities since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, see Preece, “Minority Rights,” 88–91.

27 Article 27 reads: “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”

28 Berman Nathaniel, “The International Law of Nationalism,” in Wippman David, ed., International Law and Ethnic Conflict (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 40.

29 Estimates of the Coptic population vary considerably. Results of the last, 1976 census were widely contested by Copts: while government figures put their population at 6 percent, the Coptic community in Egypt claimed 20 percent. For a discussion of this ongoing struggle, see Pennington J. D., “The Copts in Modern Egypt,” Middle Eastern Studies 18, 2 (1982): 158–79.

30 Berger Maurits, “Secularizing Interreligious Law in Egypt,” Islamic Law and Society 12, 3 (2005): 398–99.

31 Hamilton Alastair, Copts and the West, 1439–1822: The European Discovery of the Egyptian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 276–77.

32 The Coptic Orthodox Church is a member of the family of Oriental Orthodox Churches (distinct from the Eastern Orthodox Churches). The Oriental Orthodox Churches include the Syriac Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (in India), and the Armenian Apostolic Church.

33 For example, when the Byzantine emperor tried to impose his monophysite views on the Coptic Church, the Copts rebelled and suffered brutal persecution at the hands of the Byzantines. Against this backdrop, some historians have suggested that the Copts supported Arab armies against the Byzantines at Babylon in 641, while others think the Coptic reception of Arab invasions may have been more varied. On this point, see Davis Stephen, The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity (Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, 2004), 122–27.

34 See Hamilton's account of the history of the encounters between Coptic Christianity and Western Christendom, in particular with the Jesuits, Roman Catholics, and later the Anglicans and Presbyterians (Copts and the West, chapters 3–11).

35 Lane Edward, An Account of the Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians (Paris: Adamant Media Corporation, 2000), 551.

36 Quoted in Hamilton, Copts and the West, 283.

37 The rivalry between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches continued far into the nineteenth century. It came to an end only after Rome was able to break up the Eastern Churches by bringing some of them under its leadership (in the form of the Uniate Churches), and to establish the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem (with its claim to the custody of the Holy Places following the Treaty of Berlin). See Maila Joseph, “The Arab Christians: From the Eastern Question to the Recent Political Situation of the Minorities,” in Pacini Andrea, ed., Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East: The Challenge of the Future (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 3840.

38 Sharkey Heather, American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 3031, 37.

39 Ibid., 4.

40 Ibid., 161.

41 Ibid., 5. On Charles Watson's changing position on Christian prosleytization, see ibid., 156–62.

42 Ibid., 45.

43 Sedra Paul, “John Lieder and His Mission in Egypt: The Evangelical Ethos at Work among Nineteenth-Century Copts,” Journal of Religious History 28, 3 (2004): 219–39. The development of the “Sunday School Movement” from the 1920s–1940s was a consolidation of this trend of which the current pope, Shenouda III, was a leader. On this, see Hasan S. S., Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), chapters 4–6.

44 The Wafd Party was named after the term wafd—meaning “delegation”—which was a reference to the group of Egyptians who wanted to attend the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to demand Egyptian independence. The British rulers never allowed the group to leave Egypt but the name stuck. This is another anecdotal example of the radically distinct kinds of political aspirations that the year 1919 represented for the Europeans and Egyptians.

45 Despite the formal independence, the British retained control over Egypt's political, fiscal, and administrative affairs, and the Suez Canal that they brought under their military protection. It was only after the Free Officer's coup in 1952 that British privileges began to be slowly eroded, and the last British troops left Egypt in 1956.

46 Ibrahim Saad Eddin, Tadros Marilyn, El-Fiki Mohammed Anwar, and Soliman Soliman Shafik, The Copts of Egypt (Cairo: Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies; London: Minority Rights Group, 1996), 12. Also see Hasan, Christians versus Muslims, 38.

47 In the 1924 and 1928 elections the Copts won more seats than their share of the population and were assigned important governmental portfolios. This seemed to vindicate the Coptic refusal to accept the principal of minority proportionate representation at the time. See Hassan, Christians versus Muslims, 38–40.

48 Personal interview, 20 Apr. 2008.

49 Tadros Mariz, “Vicissitudes in the Entente between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the State in Egypt (1952–2007),” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41 (2009): 269–87.

50 Ibid.: 271.

51 Sedra, “Class Cleavages,” 228.

52 According to one of the most comprehensive studies undertaken on the social organization of religious life in Egypt, the sectarian attacks on Copts in the town of Khanaka in 1971 and later in Alexandria in 1981 marked a significant turn in Christian-Muslim relations; see al-Hala al-Diniya fi Masr (Cairo: Center for Political and Strategic Studies, 1995), 216. Later in 2000, after the perpetrators of the famous al-Kosheh incident (in which twenty Copts were killed) went unprosecuted, many Copts came to realize that the Egyptian state was unwilling to protect its Christian citizens.

53 Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Two Years of Sectarian Violence: What Happened? Where Do We Begin?, (accessed 15 Apr. 2010).

54 A large number of sectarian incidents are provoked by restrictive laws on the building of churches. These supposedly date back to Hatt-i Hümayun (passed in 1856) but are in fact a product of 1934 state emendations. See Sharkey, American Evangelicals, 59.

55 For a discussion of some of these factors, see my Sectarian Conflict and Family Law in Contemporary Egypt,” American Ethnologist 39, 1 (2012): 4957.

56 As to how far the discourse on minorities has come since the first conference on minority rights, organized by the activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim in 1994, was widely attacked for infidelity to the nation, see Makari Peter, Conflict and Cooperation: Christian-Muslim Relations in Contemporary Egypt (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007), 162–69.

57 Magdi Khalil, “al-dimuqratiyya wa huquq al-‘aqaliyat…al-aqbat namuzaj,” (accessed 19 Apr. 2010).

58 Murqus is often compared to the early Coptic nationalists such as William Soliman Kelada, Milad Hanna, and Yunan Labib Rizk.

59 Murqus Samir, Al-himaya wa al-a‘qab: al-gharb wa al-mas'ala al-diniya fi al-sharq al-awsat; min al-qanun al-ri'aya al-madhabiya lil qanun al-hurriya al-diniya (Cairo: Merit, 2000), 78. All translations from Arabic are mine.

60 Arendt, “Decline,” 291.

61 Ibid., 297.

62 On the text of the Bill, see (accessed 28 Apr. 2010).

63 See McAlister Melani, “Politics of Persecution,” Middle East Research and Information Project 249, 39 (2008): 1827; and Castelli Elizabeth, “Praying for the Persecuted Church: US Christian Activism in the Global Arena,” Journal of Human Rights 4 (2005): 321–51.

64 Green Joshua, “God's Foreign Policy,” Washington Monthly, Nov. 2001, (accessed 28 Apr. 2010).

65 Castelli, “Praying for the Persecuted Church.”

66 Sam Moyn, “From Antisecularism to Secularism: Reflections on the History of Religious Freedom,” MS presented at the European Inter-University Center for Human Rights, Venice, July 2011, 21.

67 On the role these figures have played in the passage of the IRFA and their evangelical mobilization, see McAlister, “Politics of Persecution”; and Castelli, “Praying for the Persecuted Church.” Also see Gunn Jeremy, “Religion after 9-11: When Our Allies Persecute,” Religion in the News 4, 3 (Fall 2001), (accessed 28 Apr. 2010).

69 One of the first associations to be formed was the American Coptic Association in 1972 by Shawky Karas. There are now over twenty organizations that are active on behalf of Egyptian Copts, most of them based in the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Switzerland, and Australia. See Ziyan Muhammed, Aqbat al-mahgar: suda' fi damagh Masr (Cairo: Dar al-Kutb al-Masriya, 2008).

70 See, for example, (accessed 28 Apr. 2010), for an account of a major conference hosted by the U.S. Copts Association attended by Nina Shea and Frank Wolf (architects of the IRFA), in Washington, D.C., in November 2005.

71 Jeremy Gunn, “Religion after 9–11.” The Wolf-Specter bill was later combined with the Nickles-Lieberman bill to give the IRFA a somewhat broader scope in its concern for religious minorities.

72 See Meunir's testimony to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, headed by Representative Frank Wolf (May 2007), which was followed by the U.S. Copts Association holding an international conference on Coptic rights: (accessed 28 Apr. 2010).

73 Samir Murqus, Al-himaya wa al-a‘qab: al-gharb wa al-mas'ala al-diniya fi al-sharq al-awsat; min al-qanun al-ri'aya, al-madhabiya lil qanun al-hurriya al-diniya (Cairo: Merit, 2000). All translations from Arabic are mine.

74 Ibid., 76.

75 See “Event Transcript: Coptic Bishop Thomas on Egypt's Christians: The Experience of the Middle East's Largest Christian Community during a Time of Rising Islamization,” 18 July 2008, (accessed 6 May 2010).

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Charles Hirschkind and Peter Danchin for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay; Behnaz Raufi for her research assistance; and Andrew Shryock, the editor of CSSH, as well as the anonymous reviewers for CSSH for their thoughtful suggestions. I am particularly grateful to Kabir Tambar for pushing me on my discussion of the late Ottoman Empire. The research for this paper was supported by grants from the Carnegie Scholars Program, and the American Council of Learned Societies' Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship.

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