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Response from Sonja DeWitt

Discussion Question: Religious Undertones in Egyptian Protests?

Over the past decade, Egyptian Copts have fallen victim to increasing discrimination and persecution, most recently with the January 1 suicide church bombing that killed at least 21 people and injured dozens more. Do the current anti-government demonstrations in Cairo have religious undertones?


My friend alerted me to a fascinating interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation in which a journalist in Cairo made the following comment, "A fellow journalist friend told me she saw a Christian priest and a Muslim sheik being hoisted up by the crowd, chanting about the Quran and the Bible being against oppression, and so Mubarak should step down, that it's irreligious for him to hang on to power. There were scenes like that all throughout the square all day long." (The transcript of the full show can be found at http://www.npr.org/2011/02/01/133406849/egypt-uprising-lacks-leader-and-unified-agenda.) Clearly there is at least some recognition among the protesters of the link between freedom and religious philosophy. This made me wonder if we can date to hope that the drive toward political rights would move the opposition in the direction of religious rights and equality as well. History has shown that where there are religious rights, all other rights thrive as well and that where they are denied, other rights are inevitably suppressed. Is this perhaps a golden opportunity for the Muslim majority to reclaim the traditional Muslim respect for all “People of the Book” (i.e., Christians and Jews)? Will the protesters take this opportunity to combine religious and political rights to create a new social order which values religious tolerance, and hopefully moves toward religious freedom? We can hope and pray.

I've also been struck by the comparison between the Arab world in the last few months and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. First Tunisia, now Egypt, maybe Iran next? Are we looking at a new outburst of freedom-seeking in this most repressive region? If so, what will that mean for fundamentalist Islamic republics? How would the world change if repressive Islamic governments no longer controlled the Middle East, if they no longer were such a powerful force on the world scene? Would the world change as fundamentally as it did with the fall of Communism? No answers yet, but the questions are immensely intriguing and potentially exciting.

Photo of Sonja DeWitt

Author: Sonja DeWitt

Sonja DeWitt is a lawyer with over ten years of experience handling cases of discrimination, including religious discrimination cases. She has been involved with religious liberty issues for several years and has assisted in the efforts to pass the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, including meeting with the staffs of multiple members of Congress, organizing an interfaith lobbying effort, writing legal briefs and organizing religious liberty activities at her local church. She has received the A.T. Jones Award from the North American Religious Liberty Association for her work with religious liberty, and has been published in Liberty Magazine. She currently works in the Civil Rights Division of a federal agency.

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