No President Is a Pyramid
Religious freedom and Obama's missed opportunities.


Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. She talked to National Review Online’s Kathryn Lopez about President Obama’s Mideast trip and Thursday speech in Egypt.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is the president right when he says, as he did in a BBC interview this week, “The danger, I think, is when the United States, or any country, thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture”?

NINA SHEA: The president was speaking of democracy and human rights when he said this, and not only do I disagree with it, but he has shown in Cairo that he does as well. Fundamental freedoms and human rights are “inalienable” and “universal.” That is America’s cherished belief, and it is what all member states of the United Nations agree to in signing the U.N. Charter. So freedom of religion and speech, equal treatment under law for minorities and women, rule of law, justice, and democratic governance are for all people. It is both appropriate and necessary for American foreign policy to promote these fundamental values. Not only is it not a “danger” to raise these issues in our foreign policy, it would be a “danger” not to — they are essential to peace in today’s globalized world.

Using American aid programs and diplomacy for this end is crucial to national security. In Egypt, President Obama seemed to contradict his prior statement when he said that “America and Islam . . . share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” From there he raised a host of human-rights concerns, including religious freedom for Copts and other Christians in the Middle East and women’s rights. Unfortunately, he did so weakly, without detail or texture, and by undermining their significance through the drawing of moral equivalencies between the United States and the Muslim Middle East, where there are stark differences in observing these rights. For example, in speaking about religious freedom, the president criticized U.S. restrictions on Muslim charitable giving, but failed to explain that the restricted Muslim charities were found by courts and U.S. Treasury officials to be supporting Hamas and other Islamist terrorist groups. Moreover, Muslims — like all Americans — have many opportunities to donate to charity, including through religious organizations

LOPEZ: Is Egypt worse than other countries in its region when it comes to religious freedom?

SHEA: Egypt has the largest non-Muslim population in the Muslim Middle East — between 6 and 10 million Christian Copts — and because religious freedom is restricted, as well as other human rights, many problems arise: the arrest and torture of those who convert to Christianity; the suppression of building or even restoring Coptic churches; the denial of justice to Copts attacked and robbed by Muslims; the exclusion of Copts from many governmental positions; rampant anti-Semitism in the state media; the harassment of the Muslim Koranist group and the denial of Baha’is right to acknowledge their faith; and the punishment of perceived blasphemers and apostates from Islam, among other issues. Egypt also is in the lead of the effort to universalize Islamic blasphemy laws through the U.N. It has given rise to terrorists like Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy of al-Qaeda. It is on the “Watch List” of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government agency on which I serve as a commissioner.

Egypt is not considered as egregious a persecutor of religious freedom as, for example, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Iraq, all of which are considered by USCIRF as “Countries of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for denying religious freedom. In Saudi Arabia, to give one example, no churches or other non-Muslim houses of worship are allowed, and apostates are to be killed as matter of law.

LOPEZ: How are political dissenters treated in Egypt?

SHEA: Deplorably. The right to political dissent, like speech generally, is not protected. Even democratic and peaceful dissenters, like human-rights advocates Saad Ibrahim, Ayman Nour, and the young bloggers Karim Suleiman and Reda Abdelarahman Ali (all of whom have spoken up for religious minorities) have suffered years of imprisonment and other harsh treatment for their principled dissent.