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Equal Rights or Equal Rites?

Paul Marshall

The big news was the president’s emphasis on the 1967 boundaries but, other than that, it was flat and anodyne.

What was most striking was what was not said. As Obama listed the region’s countries, he did not mention Saudi Arabia, not even when criticizing repression in Bahrain, much of it carried out by Saudi soldiers. So Saudi Arabia will get a pass on reform. Jordan and Lebanon were also ignored.

The president emphasized that, “We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders — whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.” However, despite his insistence that support for these principles must be “a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions” there were no actual concrete actions suggested. There were concrete economic commitments, but no really concrete political ones.

His examples of freedom of religion were sharply truncated: “Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.” In using this language, the president appears to have reverted to the administration’s previous practice of reducing freedom of religion to simply freedom of worship. What the Copts and the Shiites want is equal rights, not equal rites, regardless of religion, and this is something that requires major changes.

The president then undercut freedom of religion by speaking of “a deepening spiral of division between the United States and Muslim communities,” apparently defining Middle Eastern countries as “Muslim communities,” something that will dishearten the millions of non-Muslims that live there. Egypt and Syria and Lebanon each have a greater percentage of religious minorities than does the United States, and the U.S. is treating them not as members of religiously plural societies but as part of a “Muslim world.” This stance also privileges an Islamic political identity over an Egyptian or Tunisian one — or a liberal or democratic one — and thus gives recognition to political Islam against other forms of Islam.

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