Eric Patterson on Religious Freedom and Democracy a Decade after the Arab Spring

January 29, 2021

In a recent article in Providence, Eric Patterson, RFI Executive Vice President, reflects on the dearth of meaningful change concerning religious freedom in the Muslim-majority world since the Arab Spring ten years ago. 

The situation remains troubling. Despite the fact that nearly all Muslim-majority countries have signed on to international covenants promoting religious freedom and despite the fact that many constitutions in the region purportedly support religious diversity and pluralism, the region has become less free over the past decade.

The issue at hand, Patterson argues, is a grave misunderstanding of the nature of religious freedom. He focuses specifically on two fundamental concepts: separation of church and state due to the French notion of laïcité, and divine vs. popular sovereignty. 

As to laïcité, the French’s concept of ‘separation of church and state,’ Patterson writes: 

Although laïcité sounds superficially like America’s “separation of church and state,” it is fundamentally different: in the US, “separation” restricts the government from interfering in religion; in France, laïcité shields the government and society from the influence of religion….Unfortunately, many people in highly religious societies assume that the US version of “separation” is identical to the French. Consequently, the claims of Western democracy—if separationism is a key tenet—can never be accepted by many in the Muslim world.

In practice, laïcité leaves no room for religion in public life. Conversely, in America, “the First Amendment to the US Constitution expressly forbids government intervention in religion, but anticipates a robust religious public,” as key to a flourishing society.  

Next, Patterson addresses another misinterpretation that undermines acceptance of religious freedom in the Muslim-majority world, namely, the idea of sovereignty: popular vs. divine. 

The idea of sovereignty in American democratic theory is a political idea for how governments should be established and operate—in ways that are consonant with morality and based on—and limited by—the sovereignty of the citizenry. That sovereignty only extends to the political realm, both to check unrestrained government power as well as to underscore the opportunity and responsibility of citizens to constructively advance “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” For Muslims, the word “sovereignty” immediately connotes the omniscience and omnipotence of Allah, and therefore … Islamists reject Western “separation of church and state” and “popular sovereignty.”

Read the article in full, “Religious Freedom and Democracy a Decade after the Arab Spring.”