The Arab Spring, invigorating, hopeful, promising new expressions of liberty, is giving way to the Arab Summer, and the world watches to see what this season will bring. Into the cloud of earnest hopes, ominous speculation, continuing conflict, and pervasive uncertainty surrounding the Middle East and North Africa, President Obama will deliver his message on Thursday, and religious freedom must be central to his agenda.
Obama has been conspicuously understated in his response to the world-changing events of the Spring, mostly limiting himself to general statements that killing is bad and freedom is good. The administration has declined to "pick a horse" in every country, out of fear of losing the bet. After hard-learned lessons in the risks of supporting unscrupulous leadership, Obama's hesitance to throw his unequivocal support behind a particular group is reasonable, be it Mubarak or the Tahrir Square protestors, the Saudi King Abdullah or the Shia minority, even Qaddafi or the Libyan liberation movement.
However, Obama's reserve, from the Cairo speech to this day, has devolved into a complete vacuum in leadership in the areas that are most fundamental. He has neglected to send the message that the new Arab world must revere human rights unfailingly, chief among which is the right to religious freedom. This principle is so basic to functioning states that failing to adhere to it is dangerous, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Arab world sits on religious fault lines, and the tremors experienced during the Spring have severely damaged relations between faith communities. Egypt has borne witness to tragedy as Muslims and Coptic Christians have taken up arms against each other in the streets of Cairo. In Gulf states, Sunni and Shia have clashed in cycles of violence, and the Jewish communities in nearly every Arab state are at risk of increased marginalization and disappearance. The national pride associated with a new season of Arab democracy has proved less meaningful than millennia-old faith communities.
Because faith traditions are fundamental identities throughout the Arab world, the urgency of religious freedom could scarcely be greater. There will be no lasting stability, no infrastructural development and no economic uptick until religious groups are confident that they will be protected, well-represented, and free to practice the dictates of their hearts, minds, and consciences.
The crises of unemployment and disenfranchisement that instigated the revolutions are guaranteed to continue as long as conflict rages. And the longer these nations remain in flux and unstructured, the more time Islamist and terrorist groups have to advance their comparatively well-oiled machines. One need not belabor the point that this is a dire threat both to the people of Arab states and to the United States.
Conflict in the region is so heavily religiocentric that to neglect religious freedom in favor of promoting the fastest route to stability would be counter-productive. These two must grow together or they won't at all. If President Obama wants to do what is best for the world, he must not neglect this opportunity to call upon the Arab states to build their futures on a foundation of religious freedom and respect.
In exhorting Middle Eastern and North African nations to protect religious liberties in Thursday's speech, President Obama need not scold their people into getting along and "playing nice". Human rights are not a Western value that he can assert only tentatively. He must recognize the Arab world's own notable examples of religious freedom and celebrate the accomplishments that people of faith can and have achieved when coercion is set aside. He must demonstrate confidence that the Arab states can and will emerge from the Spring more just and more free.
The United States' leadership following the Arab Spring looks different than at any prior point in history, but it is no less important. Indeed, the stakes are higher than ever as the global community becomes more interconnected. President Obama must not give another tepid set of remarks about "showing restraint." The time for reserve has passed, and now President Obama must affirm fundamental human rights, including religious freedom, as the foundation for the modern Arab world.