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February 14, 2011 12:32 pm

The Difficult History of Religion and Freedom

avatar by Simon Jacobson

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A thorough historical analysis of the current upheavals, will interestingly and surprisingly provide us with an optimistic forecast for the future of this ancient region. Photo: gbaku.

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.

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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 and uncertain.

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 – ending.

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 region!

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 neighbors 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 Mohamed ElBaradei 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 greed.

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 world?

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 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 (delusional 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 universe.

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 my servants.”

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 ago.

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.

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 it?

Whatever its virtues, democracy is not freedom. As Tocqueville warned in his classic Democracy in America, 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 material success.

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.

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