Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | August 21, 2013

Democracy and Religious Freedom

So, things are pretty bad in Egypt these days. As the BBC summarizes: “The last few weeks have seen violent scenes and several hundred deaths in Egypt following a crackdown on those protesting against the overthrow of democratically elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, by the powerful Egyptian military. That ousting was itself triggered by widespread protests against Mr Morsi’s government, which had come to power following a period of military rule after Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office in 2011.”

Among other happenings, some of the Egyptian Islamists are seizing the present unrest as an opportunity to persecute Egypt’s Christian minority. (Christians make up about 10% of the population of Egypt.)

At the League, Murali uses these developments as a springboard for posing a question: is it better to live in a democratic state without religious freedom, or in a dictatorship that practices religious toleration? Here is how he puts it:

Suppose you have two societies A and B which, let us assume, are culturally similar. A is a dictatorship. It is not some benign fairy tale dictatorship. Like a lot of real world dictatorships, it restricts a number of civil liberties. It is not that great on due process, and certainly, voting is an extremely restricted franchise, but it is secular. There is strict separation between church and state. People may not be free to protest or criticise the government. The economy is not particularly spectacular and there is a fair bit of corruption. But, people can pray to whomever they want or no one at all. No particular religion is touted as the one true faith in public schools. And the government, as far as it can, refrains from making divisive claims about religion. B is a constitutional democracy, but it is a theocratic one. Rather than protecting liberty of conscience, the constitution protects the practice of one particular religious tradition. The laws reflect this and ban conversion from that religion. In fact, the constitution expressly spells out a mandate to institute and enforce religious laws. If homosexual acts are condemned in the religion, the country makes such acts illegal. Of course, since it is a constitutional democracy, there is less in the way of due process violations. There are fewer arbitrary arrests and detentions. The economy isn’t run any better or worse than in A. While people are generally freer to protest and gather, the majority does support these theocratic rules and the constitution does not invalidate blasphemy laws. It is illegal to speak against the official state religion.

Of course, we would prefer to have constitutional democracy and religious freedom, but sometimes that preferable combo is not on the menu. In the particular context of the Arab Spring, some of the elements that have broad popular support are not terribly interested in certain components of the traditional, Western liberal democracy toolkit — especially religious freedom.

I do not believe that the answer to Murali’s question is immediately obvious. On the one hand, I tend to think that a democracy is more likely to evolve to embrace religious toleration and plurality than a dictatorship is to evolve to allow more free speech, free assembly, free elections, and the like, since those latter items are direct threats to the dictatorship’s ability to maintain itself in power. On the other hand, history is replete with examples of majorities using democratic government as a means to abuse minorities.

(FWIW, Murali favors the dictatorship with religious toleration: “I think that A is not only better than B, but way better than B. Freedom from the imposition of religious rules by the state is so important that removing such religious imposition should be extremely heavily weighted.”)

Food for thought.


A delegation of Egyptian Copts meets with Nasser, 1965

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.



  1. I guess I’m with Murali on this one. Democracy is a means, not an end.

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