October 31, 2007 Special Dispatch No. 1752

Egyptian Columnist Criticizes Lack of Tolerance in the Arab World

October 31, 2007
Special Dispatch No. 1752

In an article titled "Why Don't We Live As Free People?" in the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the director of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies of the Al-Ahram publishing house, 'Abd Al-Mun'im Sa'id, criticized the Arab world's silence in the face of the oppression of religious and ethnic minorities such as the Baha'i in Egypt and the Kurds and the Yazidis in Iraq. The absence of protest against ethnic intolerance, he said, is one of the reasons for the absence of freedoms in the Arab world.

The following are excerpts from 'Abd Al-Mun'im's article:

"In All Arab States, We Have All Failed the Test of Freedom of Religion"

"A country may lack freedom for a number of reasons, which may be related to rulers [or] tyrants, as well as to the economic and social institutions [in that country]. In our days, these reasons are discussed aloud and repeatedly referred to by satellite channel presenters and journalists. But there is one reason that is never mentioned: Those who want freedom [for themselves] lose the power of speech when it comes to [safeguarding] the freedom of others – in particular with regard to political and social rights, especially freedom of religion.

"Human history has shown that adherence to a certain religion, school of thought, or ideology is a strictly personal choice, which depends on the individual, his background, and factors that contribute to his peace of mind. We will never understand why some people become Muslims and others Buddhists, or why the Muslims split into Sunnis and Shi'ites, or the Christians into Protestants, Catholics, and other mutually hostile streams, which fought one another for years on end.

"It seems that the answer [to this conundrum] can be found in any religion: Allah created each of us to belong to one of the numerous and diverse nations and tribes, so that we get to know one another and exchange ideas – because if not for this, all humanity would be the same, either angels or devils.

"In all Arab states, we have all failed the test of freedom of religion and ethnic affiliation... even if [the group in question] shared our same religion or school of thought. When Saddam Hussein slaughtered and interred the Kurds, the Arab nation remained silent, or murmured in astonishment. This silence implied empathy with this [i.e. Saddam Hussein's] Fascist regime's fight against imperialism, and fear of Kurdish autonomy – the latter construed as a possible cause of Iraq's disintegration, while we wish for its unity. What is especially surprising is that the Arabs' silence on the Kurdish issue is one of the factors that ultimately led to the American invasion of Iraq and the Kurds' de facto independence, even if [de jures] the Kurdish region [will be] part of the not-yet-established Iraq Federation.

"In Egypt in particular, we have failed more than one test [of freedom of religion], i.e., as concerns the Baha'i and Christians converting to Islam. Denying freedom of religion [to these two groups] was explained just like it was in all [other] cases [of human rights] violation – [by claiming that these religions are connected with] colonialism and that their validity vis-à-vis other religions is therefore [suspect]. And what happened in Egypt happened in other Arab countries as well."

The Fate of the Yazidis – A Tragic Example

"The most recent test that we all failed has to do with the Yazidis in Iraq. According to the newspapers, the Yazidis were massacred by extremist Sunni groups, while the Arab public watched from a safe distance, concocting tales that portrayed the Yazidi community as Satan worshippers.

"Until this incident, I knew nothing about that group except its name, which surfaced every time the conversation touched upon different ethnic groups and schools of thought in Iraq. The slaughter of 500 members of the Yazidi community, and the [non-intervention stance] taken by the Arab world, have brought this issue, which had to be acknowledged, to the forefront – [since it indicates] the extent to which these people have become a testing ground for freedom of religion in the Arab world.

"Once we learn about the Yazidis, we are surprised to find that they profess an ancient religion that preceded monotheism. Despite numerous and repeated attempts over hundreds of years [to introduce other religions into the Yazidi community], the Yazidis maintained their own faith – even in the face of the ideological and religious challenges [posed by other religions]. [The main challenge,] coming primarily from Islam, concerned the Yazidi religion's fundamental concept, which has to do with the role that monotheistic religions assign to 'the angel,' or 'peacock,' [as it is called] in Yazidi lore, and to 'the Satan' (iblis) – the one who refused to prostrate himself before Adam [the first man, who dwelt in the Garden of Eden].

"However, even putting aside the question of the validity – or lack thereof – of their beliefs, the important point is that this group has held onto its faith despite the heavy pressure and massacres to which it has been subjected time and again throughout history, especially during the Ottoman period and during Saddam Hussein's rule…

"Nor did the trials of the Yazidis end with the fall of Saddam Hussein and his government. Al-Qaeda marched into Iraq, bringing with it extreme Sunni fundamentalism, which believed in murder and massacre as a solution to controversy – even for minor disagreements, let alone a 'Satan worshipping' sect, as it is dubbed in many languages!

"It is not clear what motives drive these people to adhere to their faith and to stay apart from the Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Muslims, or Jews. The Yazidi minority comprises less than 300,000 people, divided among two districts; they are totally unprotected, with not one ally in the whole world, save for [several] small groups in Syria, Turkey, Armenia, and Germany. These people are confined within their own group, are in constant fear of the outside world, and have never experienced anything but persecution, oppression, and murder."

"Personal Freedom Starts When the Weakest of the Weak [Are Granted] Freedom!"

"It is for this very reason that freedom of religion has, throughout history, been one of the most significant cornerstones of freedom in general. Inasmuch as freedom, in the final reckoning, amounts to the ability to choose, it is the strong, the rich, and the majority – since the latter have the means and resources – that always enjoy a wider choice of different possibilities. [Such freedom, however] comes to naught for an individual or for a group that is weak, marginal, or a minority whose religion no one understands.

"The connection between faith and freedom becomes obvious when it comes to defending the weak, or those who have been marginalized for holding views different [from those of the mainstream]. Defending such people is the first [step] towards defending the personal and political freedom of members of a [certain] political group.

"The facts about the Yazidi community in Iraq... came to light on account of the stoning of a 17-year-old girl by the members of this sect, as a punishment for embracing Islam in order to marry the man she loved. The entire sect turned against a single helpless individual, just because their religion forbade that person to embrace another religion. Following this incident, Islamic groups immediately proceeded to murder 23 Yazidi men as they were on their way to work.

"Once again, we are witness to crime perpetrated by the majority, in all its might and power, against a defenseless minority. As if it was not enough that Al-Qaeda blew up four vehicles in villages with defenseless and unarmed populations, none of whom had proselytized their religion outside the village boundaries.

"The wall of silence was erected in the Arab world [regarding this incident], just as it had been in the past. The silence implied acquiescence and satisfaction, as if the angels and the devils had finally matched the two parts of the equation [i.e. the good and the bad].

"As long as the strong are always tyrants, murderers, and torturers of the weak, there is no reason to be surprised at the results of actions by the majority, or simply by those with the guns and cannon.

"Personal freedom begins when the weakest among the weak [are granted] freedom!"[1]

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 5, 2007.

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