Dictatorships always fall – sooner or later. The Arab world consists of various kinds of dictatorships, where Islam is a basis in the legal systems.
The desire for freedom is shared by all people, regardless of race, religion or gender. Therefore, it is no wonder that we now witness demonstrations and revolts in non-free Muslim countries. It is our responsibility to support people and movements who fight for human rights and freedoms, also in the Arab world and other Muslim countries.
But the overthrow of a dictatorship does not necessarily lead to democracy and human rights. We know that from both the French Revolution a few hundred years ago and the Iranian revolution a few decades ago.
A Saddam Hussein might be overthrown and the Taliban may be driven out from the corridors of power, but what comes next? In Iraq there was a democratic and free election, but the constitution is based on Islam. The same applies to Afghanistan. Thus, you can pick a president, but you may end up in prison and risk being killed if you leave Islam.
The process of democratization is much more than allowing political parties and holding general elections. It’s also about an independent judiciary, free press and freedom of religion.
Religious freedom may sometimes be guaranteed in a constitution, but contradicted by other laws and regulations. In Muslim countries religious freedom is subject to Sharia law which in practice means no or very limited religious freedom.
Democratic principles must also be practiced by families, clans, neighborhoods and communities. This is the big problem in the Muslim world, even in secular Turkey.
How many of the Egyptian protesters – who rightfully are demanding freedom – are ready to permit sons, daughters, neighbors and others to leave Islam without fear of intimidation, harassment and persecution?
Religious freedom is often a litmus test of democracy and human rights. In a true democracy media, neighbors and authorities allow people to express unpopular opinions. But they should also accommodate the right to practice a different religion, to express it in public with others, and the right to change religion. Since 95 percent or so of the world’s population adhere to some form of religious belief, this right is not peripheral but absolutely central.
Furthermore, democracy and peaceful relations within and between states rely on respect for other religions and the respect for other peoples and states to exist. There may be free elections in Tunisia and Egypt, and other Arab regimes may introduce some reforms, but will they accept Israel’s right to exist? Will Egyptian television continue with its blatant anti-Semitic propaganda? Will Coptic Christians be permitted to build and renovate churches? Will those who have left Islam have the right to change religion on their identity cards?
The overthrow of a dictator does not create democracy. General elections are no guarantee of human rights. Free access to the Internet is not the same as the protection of minorities and religious freedom for all.
Both Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton have publicly expressed a limited definition of religious freedom – the right to worship, which is not the same as the more extensive rights included in freedom of religion. Freedom of worship is prevalent in Muslim countries, freedom of religion is not. This does not bode well for the long term fight for freedom in the Arab world.
The peoples of the Arab world have a right to democracy and religious freedom, but we must not be naive about the long road that lies ahead.