Religious freedom is the common sense of our era. It is easy to be swept up in the hype. We are told that the guarantee of religious freedom is what stands between us and pre-modern political orders based on tyrannical forms of religious authority that leave women and minorities in the dust. If religious freedom is what you need to be for if you are against the oppression of women and minorities, then who could oppose it? Who could even question it? Religious freedom stands in for the good and the right in many complex, difficult and often violent situations.
Or does it?
Take the crisis in Syria. There is fear in some quarters that should the Assad regime fall, non-Muslim (and possibly non-Sunni Muslim) Syrians will suffer from a lack of religious freedom. USA Today reports that “Christians in Syria, where Muslims have risen up against President Bashar Assad, have been subjected to murder, rape and kidnappings in Damascus and rebellious towns, according to Christian rights groups.” The momentum builds, as persecution of Christians takes on a life of its own and may, in some cases, come to define the conflict on the ground. The logic of this story is clear: The result of overthrowing Assad will be Christian persecution. What we need, in this view, is religious freedom.
The problem is that the Syrian revolutionaries are not “Muslims rising up against Assad.” This is the regime’s narrative, and is not supported by the reality in the streets of Syria’s towns and cities. For decades the Assads have relied on the purported threat of sectarian anarchy lurking just below the surface of society and politics to justify their autocratic rule. This is not a sectarian conflict pitting Sunnis against Alawites and their Shiite allies in Iran and Lebanon. To portray it as one hardens lines of religious difference and makes sectarian violence more likely. In this case, tragically, strong advocacy in the name of protecting Christians’ freedom of belief is legitimizing a violent and increasingly illegitimate regime. It adds fuel to the fire of the very religious and sectarian conflict that religious freedom claims to be uniquely equipped to transcend.
As in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the Syrian revolt is a grass-roots popular uprising against a secular autocracy. People of all backgrounds, including Alawites, are among the protesters. This is not a fight between Alawites and Christians. It is a fight between an authoritarian regime that has stripped a country’s resources and oppressed its people and those who oppose it. The Syrian people are divided, with people of different backgrounds on both sides. One of the most prominent Syrian dissidents, Fadwa Suleiman, is a well-known actress who happens to be Alawite. At the same time, most Alawites have someone in their families working in Assad’s security forces or in other government jobs, and many fear displacement, unemployment and collective punishment. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the opposition today is reassuring Syrians and the international community that the revolutionaries stand for equality for all citizens in a post-Assad Syria.
When the conflict is seen as resulting from a refusal to acknowledge the rights of Christians, it conceals the ways divisions actually cut across sectarian divides. It makes it harder to find ways forward that emerge when the focus is not on beliefs, but on shared needs and visions. The crisis in Syria calls for an approach to protecting human life and dignity that goes beyond calls for “freedom of belief,” loosening the grip of this construct on the conflict.
The idea that this is a fight between Sunni terrorists and a legitimate but beleaguered regime is false. The idea that it is a fight between Muslims and Christians is false. The argument that religious freedom is the solution to all that plagues Syria is misleading. Syrians and others who know better need to speak out.
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is associate professor of political science at Northwestern and co-organizer of a Luce research project on The Politics of Religious Freedom.