There are so many unspoken rules, ancient prejudices, historical tipping points and complicated allegiances in Arab politics. Most of them have a great deal to do with religion and little to do with human rights, equality or freedom. In fact, hating and oppressing all the “others” is a time-honored Arab tradition.
Shiites oppress Sunnis and Sunnis oppress Shiites. Christians are oppressed in most Arab countries and arguably oppressive in one. Palestinians are personae non gratae just about everywhere, but their cause is front and center for militants who use it to justify attacking Israel. Most al-Qaida and Hamas members appear to be Sunni. Hezbollah members and Iranians are Shiites. Jews seem to be everyone’s enemy.
Are you confused yet? You’re not alone. It’s maddening, but those of us from that part of the world have no problem keeping all this straight. Much of it explains our past, defines our present and shapes our future. In fact, much of the current unrest in Arab countries is a direct result of the connection between religious identity and power. And, let me be clear: Probably all religions and sects are guilty of exploiting their faith to commit countless atrocities – if not currently, then it is likely to have happened at some point in history.
I began this piece wanting to argue that Christians in Syria and Lebanon should wholeheartedly support the Syrian revolution and stand on the side of human rights, freedom and dignity for all, regardless of their fears. But I realized that any such argument will fall on deaf ears if religious affiliation, oppression of the “others”, and fear always come first.
So, to borrow from Jonathan Swift, here’s my modest proposal for a new Arab world that rejects the modus operandi of past centuries:
- Separate religion from all affairs of a nation and grant everyone the right to worship as they wish.
- Recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person and grant all citizens the same rights regardless of their religious beliefs, gender, political affiliation or family history.
- Give everyone equal say on who they trust to serve them at every level of government. Yes, free and fair elections are a must.
- Value and protect everyone’s right to express their opinions and associate with whomever they please.
- Administer equal justice to all according to fair laws approved by citizens.
Perhaps what I’m suggesting is simply for Arab countries to weave into the fabric of their new nations a universal teaching of all the world’s great religions, the Golden Rule, or the ethic that we are to treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves.
Can it be that simple? As the American revolutionary Thomas Paine once said, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” So, why don’t we?
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Laura Boustani is a Lebanese-American who immigrated to the United States from Lebanon in the 1980s.