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An-Na'im's religious freedom messages resound during Arab revolutions
By April L. Bogle | Emory Law | May 24, 2016 12:05:00 PM

“Providential” describes the work of Emory University law professor Abdullahai Ahmed An-Na`im these days more than ever before. The main messages of his copious scholarship -- that democracy cannot exist within an Islamic state and that a secular state is not hostile to religious freedom – are the answers that reformers in Africa and the Middle East are desperately seeking as the revolutionary spirit sweeps the Arab world.

“I have a message to convey that I believe people are ready to receive,” says An-Na`im, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law and a Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. “I am fortunate to be doing work about the secular state and constitutionalism at a time when people are seeking this information. No matter how good a person’s work may be, if it’s not timely, people won’t respond to it.”

In distinguished lectures spanning Europe, Asia, and Africa, and in live webcasts from his living room in Atlanta, An-Na`im is engaging people around the world in conversations about the importance of America’s model of religious freedom – freedom from religious coercion and freedom of religious choice.

“People see secularism as hostile to religion, but I explain that the U.S. model actually enables religion and piety in an honest, personal way,” he said, adding that mixing religion and state is a corruption of both, while separating them enables their optimum service to society.

“Audiences find this appealing. It is an ‘aha’ moment for them, and I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss what deeply concerns them and to give them the tools they need to challenge religious extremists,” An-Na`im said.

Charter for Sudan

Of deep personal concern to An-Na`im is his home country of Sudan, which is poised to separate – after more than 50 years of religious warfare -- into a northern Islamic state and a southern nation that supports Christianity. “It is breaking up due to confusion about Shari`a.  Even if they continue this path, they both must confront the issue of religious freedom.”

To engage exiled Sudanese citizens based in the United States, the Arab States of the Persian Gulf, and Europe, An-Na`im hosted live webcasts from his home for four Sundays in a row during March and April. The virtual forum was designed to generate discussion of a charter for national consensus in Sudan that he had floated in Arabic on the website Sudaneseonline.

He also recently participated in a forum with the Right Reverend Ezekiel Kondo, Episcopal Bishop of Khartoum and Chair of the Sudan Council of Churches, hosted by Emory Law and the Carter Center, to discuss the fate of religious minorities in Sudan. 

Revolutionary Outcomes

An-Na`im is closely watching the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Ivory Coast, too. Of these five, he believes Tunisia has the best chance of “getting it right” because of its rich French and Italian influence. Egypt has a “good chance” because of its strong middle class, but it “lags in political freedom.”

“Egypt has been a single party system so long that it must go back two generations to reclaim its political system,” he explained.

As for Yemen and Libya, “they are not quite ready” because they lack the necessary discourse, religious and educational institutions, and political parties – the cultural foundations of democracy.

“Confusion and violence are part of the process in countries such as these. There are no short cuts. Democratization is a process of self-discovery,” he said.

Yet, he was heartened by international involvement in Libya and most recently Ivory Coast, another nation not fully prepared to ease peacefully into democracy.

“In those countries, you have to have bottom-up discontent and you need international cooperation to level the playing field,” he said.

Hopeful International Response

An-Na`im is clearly energized about the role of his work in the world as he heads into the summer. He’ll be writing a new book that attempts to reframe the discussion of “Muslim Americans as a minority” to “American citizens who happen to be Muslim.” And he’ll maintain his rigorous lecture schedule, with stops in Cairo, Helsinki, Istanbul, Rome, and Venice. (See related story.)

But it is recent developments in the Arab world that give him hope. The international community has placed former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo under arrest, the rule of law has replaced mobs in the streets of Egypt, where former president Hosni Mubarak has been charged with corruption, and world leaders are denouncing dictators who cling to power, stating they will be held accountable.

 “The international community is sending a clear message and using consistent action. There’s something in the air I haven’t experienced in a long time. It’s very exciting,” An-Na`im said.