The Difficult History of Religion and Freedom
Middle East Fears
Fears are mounting over the growing crisis in the Middle East.
Even as the current pharaoh of Mitzrayim (the Biblical name for Egypt) has
now bowed to the will of the masses, stepping down and ceding power to the
military, a great vacuum is bound to emerge, and its powerful effects will
ripple through the entire region and the world.
Remember, President Mubarak has held on to power with an iron fist for close
to 30 years, squashing all resistance and dissent. So it will not be a simple
process to fill the void left in this country of over 80 million people –
the most populous of all Arab nations.
Understandably, the entire world, and especially Israel and the surrounding
Middle East are deeply concerned about the future of Egypt’s direction, and
how it will impact, as it were, the fragile peace and equilibrium of the region.
With so many forces at work – and so much combustion
and anger built up over the years of oppression –
the outcome of the current upheavals is totally unpredictable
Will the army maintain the status quo, just with a leader
by another name than Mubarak? Will an autocracy be replaced
by a theocracy? Will it take the shape and follow the footsteps
of Iran? Will secular Arabs take control? Will – and
can – a true democracy emerge in Egypt, or does the
country not have the necessary infrastructure for a free
government? Will then anarchy and civil war break out between
battling factions? Will some madman take control in the
vacuum and press the “wrong buttons” that will
unleash bedlam and destruction in the entire region?
These are all very possible – but terrifying –
scenarios. And the doubts are worse than all. The unknown
evil is harsher than the known.
Hardly anyone predicts a happy – and peaceful –
Indeed, I too am guilty of contributing to this pessimistic
forecast. Last week this column painted a very precarious
picture of the region, spelling out the need for Israel
to be vigilant and non-conciliatory due to the volatility
of the situation, which only exposes and amplifies how Israel
is surrounded by hostile nations and cannot rely on any
promises and treaties that can easily be abrogated.
Some of you readers rightly criticized my fearful tone,
for which I apologize. Because inciting fear was the farthest
thing from my intention. My point was that we have to be
realistic to the facts on the ground. Awareness is half
the cure. Only by soberly recognizing the true personality
of the region, can we ever hope to discover peace.
In that vein, allow me to add this: Particularly, as believers,
there is no doubt that despite the hostilities surrounding
Israel, the holy land is the safest place on earth, G-d
watches over it with special providence, and the Jewish
people will continue to thrive and grow.
At the same time there are things Israel can do to make
peace with their enemies. But it has to be based on strength
not weakness; awareness not denial. Israel can play a major
role in taking the lead and initiative, showing a shining
example and being a light unto nations in this current upheaval.
I will write about that in detail in my next article.
So now for part 2 of this series – the good news.
What is the Solution to the Fermenting Middle East?
Now that we have established that the current uprisings
are a more honest reflection – no matter how raw it
may be – of the true status of the Middle East (and
we therefore need to be vigilant accordingly), let us discuss
what is the deeper meaning of these world-changing events.
I submit that a thorough historical analysis of the current
upheavals, will interestingly and surprisingly provide us
with an optimistic forecast for the future of this ancient
But this is predicated on the premise that awareness is
half the cure of a disease: As long as we live in denial
about the events in Egypt, or try to minimize and convince
ourselves that this uprising is just an anomaly, which will
soon disappear – we will be doomed to suffer as a
result. On the other hand, half the cure is awareness of
the festering problems. Defining the problem – by
coming to terms with these events, facing them head on and
dissecting their underlying causes – allows us to
find the solution.
* * *
Roots of Dissent
Reports from the mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square tell us that
the hundreds of thousands of protesters
who took to Egypt's streets were driven by their accumulative misery and frustration
of their impoverished and repressed lives under Egyptian rule.
Their tidal wave of anger and fury was not about Israel, but about Arab unemployment,
Arab poverty and Arab despair of a better future.
Everyone in the world has been telling us for years that the problem in
the Middle East is peace with Israel, settlements, Gaza, occupation. If israel
makes peace with its neigbors our problems will go away.
The masses that fixated the world’s attention for the last 18 days – first in
Tunisia and now in Egypt – have sent a major wake up call to the world: Our
problems are local. And not necessarily isolated to radical regimes, but even
the so-called “moderate” Arab states, like Egypt, friendly to the West. They
have brought our attention to the real issues that are threatening the stability
and peace of the Middle East: the repression and poverty plaguing these nations.
The protesting throngs are demanding freedom, democracy, social justice,
rule of law and economic equality.
“More than 40 percent
of Egyptians live on less than $2 per day. Nearly 30 percent are illiterate,
and Egypt is on the list of failed states. Under the three decades of President
Mubarak’s rule, Egyptian society has lived under a draconian “emergency law”
that strips people of their most basic rights, including freedom of association
and of assembly, and has imprisoned tens of thousands of political dissidents.
While this Orwellian regime has been valued by some of Egypt’s Western allies
as “stable,” providing, among other assets, a convenient location for rendition,
it has been in reality a ticking bomb and a vehicle for radicalism.” So writes
Elbardei in a recent New York Times article.
Why are the Egyptians Finding it so Difficult to Establish a Free Society?
Why the Egyptians are finding it so difficult to establish a free society
– and the way they can ultimately achieve their goals – can be answered by
looking at history, which was fraught with the same battle: How to establish
freedom and respect human rights in a world dominated by power, control and
This has been the human race’s challenge from the beginning of time. So the
Egyptians are not alone: their search for freedom is the same one that societies
have been seeking from time immemorial.
The Birth of Freedom
What lies behind the human search for freedom? And why does it come so difficultly?
If freedom is the basic birthright and the natural state of every human being
– why has it not emerged earlier in history? Why is it a novelty just emerging
in the last few centuries? Why has it come with so much hardship? And why
does it continue to come so hard in Egypt and in other countries around the
This is perhaps the single biggest question, and its answer can provide us
with direction, and also tell us where we should be expending our resources.
Are we wasting billions of dollars trying to impose democracy in Iraq and
Afghanistan, for example?
The obvious answer, the one we hear all the time, is that people in power
don’t want to relinquish it. They are riding on top, with enormous wealth,
control and honor at their disposal, why should they just walk away and cede
control to others or to the people?
But that only answers the immediate difficulty in establishing a free society.
The question is how did the situation arise in the first place that allowed
for one person to take control over so many others, and repress their rights
in the process?
This brings us to the next level of understanding the evolution of human
history: Once upon a time freedom was a privilege, not a right. As a result,
the history of the world is one of single leaders: Pharaohs, monarchs, despots,
fascists, whatever you want to call them – took control, without the slightest
consideration for individual rights and personal freedoms. The common justification
was that the people were inferior in any case and not fit to make their own
decisions. Thus the need, for the God-King – yes, many of them were considered
deities – to rule and set the guidelines that governed people’s lives. No
need to elaborate on the cruel consequences and abuse of such absolute power;
history is a witness to that (barring the few exceptions of benevolent despots,
who proffered compassion and kindness on their subjects)
Only in the last few hundred years did freedom become a right – not just
a privilege or a gift bestowed by another human being – a G-d given birthright
inherent in every human being by virtue of being created. As the American
Founding father so aptly described in their Declaration of Independence: “We
hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that
they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among
them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But this only carries the question over to a larger dilemma: If these “truths”
are indeed “self evident that all men are created equal” and these rights
are indeed “inalienable,” “endowed” to us by our Creator – why then did it
take thousands of years for man to discover these essential truths?!
Some social evolutionists may argue that man was simply more primitive in
the past, and therefore was content with the tribal mores of allowing one
leader to control the pack, without the slightest need to exercise any higher
aspirations for freedom and individual rights.
Whatever you think of that argument, I find it sorely lacking, and especially,
considering the fact, that we have documented evidence going back several
millennia – to Biblical times – of people seeking freedom and the expression
of their basic human rights.
Regardless, allow me to propose the Torah perspective on this mystery.
The answer lies in the fundamental understanding of the nature and purpose
of existence itself.
G-d created our universe with the distinct objective of establishing a partnership
with the human being: G-d would provide the resources and we humans would
develop them. We would tame and civilize the otherwise unrefined world into
a Divine home. In one sentence: The purpose of our being is to spiritualize
the material universe, and fuse matter and spirit into one cohesive unit,
in which the material is a seamless channel for the flow of Divine energy.
The challenge is this: Our universe was deliberately crafted in a way that
conceals its purpose and its Designer. This allows us the great gift and responsibility
to reveal the purpose and its Designer; to reconnect the structure with its
Architect, the portrait with its Artist, the composition with its Composer.
Without going into an explanation for all the reasons behind this concealed
architecture, suffice it to say that it gives our lives purpose and meaning:
We are not playing out the preordained script of a puppeteer. Our choices
and actions actually make a difference; we have the option and power to either
buy into the concealment and go about our lives driven by self interest, or
to transcend and see through the veil and fulfill our mission of transforming
the dark universe into a beacon of light.
This concealment creates a tremendous tension between matter and spirit –
which in turn defines the heart of all the conflicts throughout history –
which ultimately can only be relieved through spiritualizing the material,
and finding balance and integration between G-d and the universe He created.
With this inherent existential tension in mind, we can understand why discovering
truth, respecting basic human rights and freedoms, achieving unity amidst
diversity, is such a painstaking and difficult process. It reflects and captures
the entire purpose of existence – and realizing that does not come easy. The
stakes are high and the resistance is strong.
The difficulty is only compounded by the fact that the earth is populated
by diverse people, cultures and nations, each with their own way of seeing
things – only making it more challenging to find a common path, that respects
both our individuality and our higher calling.
The Battles of History
In essence this defines virtually every battle fought throughout history.
Some leaders simply exercised raw arrogance and brute strength to seize power.
What drove them was either ego, honor, money, control, vengeance, envy and
a list of other motives, some more devious than others – and at times perhaps
some benevolent cause as well.
Others saw themselves (delusionally or not) as deities, and felt that they
were bestowed with special powers to lead their people.
And yet other leaders grew out of the thinking that the “masses are …” and
people cannot be trusted with self-determination. Their inferior petty concerns,
their myopic vision, their distractions and seductions by immediate needs
and pleasures, simply wouldn’t allow them to be responsible citizens living
in an orderly way. Therefore, this argument went, the need for strong autocrats
to maintain order and prevent chaos and anarchy. Never mind that the fact
that such unchecked absolute power corrupts and becomes abusive. It’s still
worth it, or so this thinking goes, anything is better than total mayhem released
by unleashing individual interests.
Religion, interestingly, came to counter this approach to leadership. Arguing
that humans are all flawed, our only hope is to place our confidence in the
Lord above. Only a moral system of law and order based on the law of G-d can
be absolute and endure, and protect us from the whims of any individual –
layperson or leader.
Sadly, but predictably, religion was also hijacked by some, who rendered
it into another weapon to serve their own interests, or at least interests
that did not respect the individuality of their subjects. Through the ages
many “religious” leaders arose who abused religion, often with the same claim,
ironically, of the despots they were trying to displace: People can’t be trusted.
They need to be told – commanded – and even compelled to do what is right.
Discipline is always necessary, but what happens when in the name of discipline
and order one individual takes control and abusively imposes his will on others,
claiming that this is G-d’s will.
Even if it is G-d’s will, 1) who says that you are the final authority on
the matter? 2) and what if you are wrong?, 3) G-d’s will is also reflected
in the fact that He created every human being in His Divine Image. So G-d’s
laws cannot undermine or annihilate the fundamental rights and freedoms G-d
gave to every person on earth.
The rest, as they say, is history. Give people power and they can’t be trusted.
Give them absolute power, and they can absolutely not be trusted. Over the
last few millennia societies have been controlled either by secular and/or
religious monarchs and autocrats, some worse than others.
The other extreme option of secularism without faith has equally failed.
The ideas espoused by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, that reason will
trounce faith, has not held up, and cannot survive. Because, as the founding
fathers so clearly understood: Without the absolute, inalienable rights guaranteed
to us by our Creator, Who created us all equally, all freedoms will be arbitrary.
The challenge is to balance the two. To revisit the faith of Abraham, father
of all nations, who pioneered the path of integrating G-d in this selfish
What’s the Solution?
So what’s the solution? Well, that is the difficult narrative of history
– of why it is so difficult and it took so long for people to come to terms
with balancing all the forces – of: self interest, religion, self indulgence,
secular autocracy, democracy, socialism and other forms of rule – attempting
to maintain some control.
Think of it like the maturing process of a child growing into an adult: Maturity
doesn’t come easily. It’s filled with awkwardness, pain, unknowns, uncertainties
– as the old gives way to the new, as the innocent child gives way to the
complicated adult. History is like an organism is macrocosm: It has gone through
and continues to go through growing pains, as it moves from a dark universe
wandering in search of its Maker, an untamed population seeking its purpose
– a lost world trying to find its balance, between morality, self interest,
corruption, faith, and all other forces unleashed by the dissonance between
what we do and who we are.
Every nation, every religion, every community, even every home and family
– from the beginning of time till this day – faces and will be faced with
the challenge of finding a balance between individual interests and common
good, between personal freedoms and G-d. We all will have our day of reckoning
– to make our peace with G-d.
The Jews in ancient Egypt had their time.
The United States and Europe had its time. Faced with the oppression from
King George, the founding fathers chose liberty. They broke away from British
rule and charted their own course toward freedom.
Now it’s Egypt’s turn. It’s interesting and ironic how everything comes around.
Egypt of old was the oppressor of the Jewish people; today the Egyptians are
being oppressed by their own Pharaoh.
But the story is the same – as old and as new as history itself: Freedom
will not die. The individual dignity of every person will not be annihilated.
Created in the Divine image, the free spirit of every human being endures.
No despot, no autocrat, no amount of money and power, no measure of oppression
and torture, can hold the divine human spirit down. It may take millennia,
but it will have its day.
Egypt – leading the way for the entire Middle East – is now having its day;
its rendezvous with destiny.
All the forces of history are converging – and clashing – in this ancient
land of the pharaohs: Old word vs. new world; poverty vs. wealth; power vs.
the masses; faith vs. modernity; religion vs. secularism; freedom vs. oppression.
As just in the days of old, the new Egypt can learn much from the old Egypt.
Pharaoh argued that he knows best what is good for his people. Ignoring the
favors done to him and Egypt of the past, turning the land into a superpower,
the new Pharaoh “announced to his people, ‘The Israelites are becoming too
numerous and strong for us. We must deal wisely with them. Otherwise, they
may increase so much, that if there is war, they will join our enemies and
fight against us, driving us from the land.'” Armed with this great excuse
– the good of the people – the Egyptians thus enslaved the Israelites “to
crush their spirits – and their bodies with hard labor” and “to build up the
cities of Pithom and Ra'amses as supply centers for Pharaoh.” “They made the
lives of the Israelites miserable with harsh labor… all the work they made
them do was intended to break them.”
“But the more the Egyptians oppressed them, the more the Israelites proliferated
and spread.” (Exodus 1:8-14).
This oppression lasted for 210 years – a little more than two centuries!
But finally, the free spirit in the people, led by Moses sent by G-d, prevailed
– and Pharaoh was forced to let the people free. The key message of the Exodus
was that you humans are exclusively “My (G-d’s) servants,” “not servants to
This is the essence of freedom: No human need ever serve another human. Each
of us, by merit of our birth, is a unique individual with inherent rights
and freedoms, which no one can take from us because no one gave them to us.
In the words of the Declaration of Independence cited above: “all men [which
includes women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain inalienable rights.”
Mitzrayim today is now facing the challenge that the Jews faced 3400 years
All confrontations between an old order and a new one are inherently difficult.
Every change from the past to the future is inevitably challenging, and fraught
with fears and uncertainties. Or else it wouldn’t be real change.
Christianity had its time for accounting: After centuries of oppressing and
terrorizing the Western World with its religious beliefs, it finally came
to a breaking point, which led to the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason,
rebelling against the blind and absolute power of the Church. The long agonizing
search for freedom and human rights finally took hold and was institutionalized
in the US Constitution and in different variations in Europe, and then continued
and continues to spread across the globe.
This battle, mind you, still continues, and we have not yet achieved full
balance and integration between religion and modernity, and faith and reason.
But the process is well under way.
Now is Islam’s time. For all its beautiful ideas and noble values, Islam
is now facing the same challenges that all people and religions have faced
– balancing the powerful forces of faith in a secular world. Not through autocracy
or fundamentalism, but discovering how to be free, within the framework of
faith and social justice.
With the Egyptian rebellion against Mubarak’s rule, the long held belief
and “solution” that the only way to maintain order is through forceful autocratic
rule, has been exposed for what it is: Untenable. Even if one were to argue
that it had its place and played its role during the 20th century,
its tenure is now over.
In this sense, the world is indeed flat. Young Egyptians, gazing through
the windows of the Internet, have gained a keener sense than many of their
elders of the freedoms and opportunities they lack. They have found in social
media a way to interact and share ideas, bypassing, in virtual space, the
restrictions placed on physical freedom of assembly.
Economically and technologically the word may be flat. But spiritually, ethically
and religiously – the world is round, very round. The diversity of people,
nations and cultures will always keep this world round.
Our challenge now is reconciling between all these conflicting forces – finding
the proper delicate balance today, and preparing the ground for tomorrow.
Hence, as explained, the maturity process is not simple or fast. You can’t
simply go from total slavery into freedom, without first building infrastructures
that can carry and perpetuate the freedom.
Egypt – as all those before them, and those to follow – will have to find
ways to reconcile between the powerful forces – of freedom, faith, order and
peace – tugging in different directions.
The challenge is twofold: One, to achieve freedom – respecting the
equal dignity and inalienable rights of every human being.
Two, creating an organized system and order that works and
allows freedom to flourish. Because freedom doesn’t
help people if they are plagued by poverty, disease and
corruption. Freedom must come together with a system of
implementation (see here).
In a nutshell this is the story – and challenge – of all history:
And this is the inside story behind the developments in Egypt: Just as in
days of yore, when the Jewish people were freed from Egyptian bondage, so
too today, the Egyptians themselves are now trying to free themselves from
the modern day Pharaoh. Yet, this freedom does not come easily.
Democracy vs. Freedom
One more key point:
People often confuse the idea of freedom, which rests on
the principle of inalienable individual rights, with the
idea of democracy, which rests on the principle of unlimited
majority rule. But what if the Egyptian majority wanted
a dictator or an absolute fundamentalist religious leader?
Is something right and moral just because a majority wants
Whatever its virtues, democracy is not
freedom. As Toqueville warned in his classic Democracy
, a democracy can be just as tyrannical as a dictatorship
once the voters decide to vote themselves money from the treasury.
Democracy is a method of deciding who shall rule.
It does not determine the morality of the resulting government. Democracy
is not to be worshipped as an idol unto itself. Arguably, if there was democracy
in the middle ages or earlier, it would have destroyed the world. Wise and
seasoned democracy – one that will support true freedoms and equal rights
– requires an infrastructure than can handle it. It took centuries if not
millennia to build just such infrastructures, and they are still quite vulnerable.
So while we support freedom it has to be balanced with humility before G-d.
Especially when there are religious passions raging. The only way to balance
freedom with religion is by making our peace with G-d. Like Abraham taught.
Egypt’s search today – and all revolutions against oppressive
regimes – is for freedom, not merely democracy. A government
that will honor and respect all people’s rights, even that
of minorities. And it will take much work and time for that
type of freedom to take hold, amidst all the chaotic forces
swirling in an Egypt that for decades (and perhaps forever)
have deprived its people from their basic rights.
That is the great challenge today: Not whether autocracy
is better than theocracy, or unbridled freedoms, which can
lead to chaos. The challenge is how to ease Egypt into a
smooth (as smooth as possible under the circumstances) transition
from its past into a new future.
Thank You, Egypt
We should be thanking the Egyptians today for reminding us all of the true
challenge in the Middle East today. The enemy is not Israel and not other
scapegoats. The enemy is repression and the violation of the fundamental basic
human rights that every human being deserves.
Hopefully, this revolution will not be hijacked by interest groups, and serve
as a healthy wake up call to us all, to the entire region, to the entire world:
Time has come to make our peace with G-d and with each other.
Islam is at a crossroads. Just as Christianity before it evolved from oppressive
leaders tyrannizing the masses, until it arrived at a place of restoring human
dignity (in a country like the USA), Islam too can now embrace the core principles
of its faith – those it shares with other major faiths – honoring and celebrating
the dignity of every human life, while balancing and integrating it with the
forces of modernity and coexistence with others.
We are entering into a new stage of maturity: A balance between the passions
of faith and the sobriety of reason, an integration of spiritual values and
Our world is making its peace with G-d.
Based on this analysis, we can derive a formula how Israel should respond
to this crisis. Stay tuned for part 3 of this series.