Arming Libyans: Time for a Religious Freedom Test?

by - 15th April 2011

This article first appeared as a Guardian Comment here

An odd thing happened at the Frontline Club the other night.  In a discussion about the ‘new world order’ following the Arab uprisings, and the vexed question of whom to support as traditional allegiances shift and break, a woman at the back of the audience suddenly spoke up: What about a religious freedom test? What better criterion could there be by which to gauge rebel intent in Libya? 

It was as if someone had committed flatus.  The panel went quiet.  The BBC’s amiable Paddy O’Connell, moderating with great panache, moved on with a somewhat bemused ‘Thank you for that’.

‘The lady at the back’ referred to the US’ International Religious Freedom Act passed as long ago as 1998.  It commits foreign policy to a tough human rights agenda based on that fundamental freedom we take so for granted in UK, and whose origins we like to forget.  The seventeenth-century Baptists of Devonshire Square for instance laid down their lives rather than believe what the State with its Established church demanded they believe. 

This British blankness about our most fundamental freedom reminded me of a week I’d spent at SOAS on a fabulously expensive course about Political Islam – during which not one single Qur’an text or hadith was cited.  The (Iranian) Director of the London Middle East Institute (LMEI) said: ‘We have enough religion in the Middle East without adding to it.’  A very British approach.

Although it is undeniable that we do do God in various subtle ways in Britain (Comic Relief is arguably the stepchild of the Victorian missions; there is no Comic Relief in Yemen); our weekend is based around the Sabbath; A C Grayling has not just published an alternative Mahabharata, but a Bible; and no one would abolish Sunday altogether), we are terribly nervous about discussing it openly. If we cannot talk the talk about freedom of conscience, we will remain non-committal about walking the walk.  In foreign policy terms, we will continue to struggle to understand the Middle East, let alone decide who’s side we should be on. 

Even in its policy on Pakistan, the latest Human Rights Command Paper (Cm 8017 Human Rights and Democracy: The 2010 Foreing & Commonwealth Office Report) prioritises women’s rights over freedom of religion or belief, even though the lack of such freedom inhibits any criticism of religiously sanctioned oppression of women, such as rights of legal testimony, evidence in rape and so on.

The Frontline panel was eminent and experienced enough: former Middle East diplomat Dr Noel Brehony; Barak Seener, Research Fellow, Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies; Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. The debate was entitled ‘Foreign Policy, Diplomacy and the New World Order’.  The fourth panellist Dr Faraj Najem, apparently a ‘Libyan writer and historian’ attempted to generate passion for further arming of his rebel comrades back home, in order to ‘decapitate’ the present regime, a move which he tried to argue was implied in the UN mandate.  Gadaffi was the biggest threat of all to civilian lives, he said, and a justifiable reason for stretching the spirit of resolution 1973 to encompass ‘regime change’.  The West should encourage democracy by arming the rebels.

But democracy is built on the slowly growing creation of institutions that do not by definition spring up overnight, until the consensus of free and free-thinking people is possible without violence.  Liberalisation was a more likely objective, Seener argued - and no one disagreed.  That Najem does not understand the difference between democracy and liberalisation at this crucial stage in the crisis lends credibility to those who are cautious about arming a tribal society we ourselves appear to know next to nothing about as Tony Blair and the LSE so graphically showed?

The discussion turned to Saudi Arabia.  Najem said something curious: all Muslims would want the Saudi regime to remain unchanged ‘because of the holy places’.  Muslim sentiment decreed that Saudi Arabia was ‘a special case’ on which liberals and orthodox had to agree.

But what about the Wahhabi influence on the Kingdom? – akin to a nuclear core radiating toxicity across the world.  Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 17the century zealot who created religious legitimacy for the Saud family, has a long arm.  The movement he founded causes literal destruction (as in the case of the Bamiyan statues and the Muslim holy sites at Mecca, considered ‘accretions’ to pure Islam), and moral terror at home and abroad.  Apostasy – changing your mind – is an offence punishable by beheading in Saudi Arabia.

How can ‘liberalisation’ be viable for Libyans like Najem if they consider Saudi Arabia off-limits?

That was when ‘the lady at the back’ spoke up and asked whether a Religious Freedom Act, might be a basis on which to judge whom we support with weapons.

There was complete silence.  Then panellist Jane Kinninmont immediately denounced the 13-year old Act on the basis of its hypocrisy, citing the fact that the US has recently announced a further $60billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.   

That’s true, but the people who fought for that Act are not the same ones who do arms deals.  The annual report it requires equates to low level warfare on America’s own political turf.  And at least it keeps a light shining on more than just economic forecasts.

Indeed, Allen Hertzke, Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma who documented the three-year fight by American activists for a Religious Freedom Act writes: ‘These activists . . .  fill[ed] a void in human rights advocacy, raising issues previously slighted – or insufficiently pressed – by secular groups, the foreign policy establishment, and the mainstream press’ (p. 65). 

As a result, ‘Promotion of religious freedom is now a basic aim of American foreign policy.’

It cannot be denied that the 13-year attempt at the UN by the Organization of Islamic Conference to silence criticism of Islamic human rights abuses under the rubric of ‘defamation of religion’, would have prevailed with catastrophic results without US opposition on religious freedom grounds.

Back in the UK however, and to his shame, William Hague recently sanctioned £450million of aid to Pakistan, unconditional on that country’s abysmal religious freedom record, and its failure to address blasphemy penalties which have justified high-profile assassinations of any in office who support repeal. 

The Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langridge asked a pointed question in the House of Lords on 4 April about how much the government was proposing to spend on religious freedom in the coming year. 

The reply from Foreign Minister Lord Howell of Guildford, indicated just how far behind the US we are lagging in even acknowledging there’s a problem.  He said:  ‘We do not hold a central record of expenditure on such activity and so it is not possible to give a precise figure of how much the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) spent on monitoring religious freedom overseas in 2010-11.

‘In 2011-12 the FCO will have a centrally-held £5 million Human Rights and Democracy Fund dedicated specifically to supporting human rights projects. We will fund projects that focus on a number of priority areas, including freedom of religion or belief. These allocations have not yet been finalised.’

That’s a risible sum.  Only an Act will leverage awareness and will across the whole political system.

Liberalisation in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East will be possible only if Britain insists that regimes refrain from hanging or beheading those with whom they religiously disagree – (apostates) – and backs up its position with serious cash. 

Freedom of conscience i.e. freedom to think your own thoughts, underwrites all other freedoms, and there must be guarantees before we arm any movement, however beleaguered, especially when it regards Saudi Arabia’s polity as sacrosanct.