NEW ORLEANS — After spending much of his adult life in Egypt and Iraq, Michael Edens sees few hopeful signs of religious freedom in the Middle East. Yet with the rise of the particularly violent interpretations of Islam, he concludes true personal freedom in the region can only be found in Christ.
Edens, who serves as professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, made the comments during “Baptist Voices on Religious Liberty: Left, Right and Center,” a one-day conference on religious freedom Sept. 29. Other event speakers included Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Ukrainian Baptist statesman Gregory Komendant; J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; and Suzii Paynter, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The event was sponsored by New Orleans Seminary’s Institute for Faith and the Public Square.
“Certainly there is great cause for concern for religious freedom in the Middle East,” Edens, a former missionary with the International Mission Board, said. “But I come to you recognizing that the region I spent half of my adult life in is changing dramatically even as we speak.”
According to Edens, most of the countries of the Middle East include Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their constitutions. The article reads, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Edens noted, “That’s in the constitution of Egypt. That’s in the constitution of Iraq. That’s in the constitutions of most of the countries in the Middle East. Government documents are not the primary problem. It goes deeper.”
The religious heritage of the region also provides a source for understanding and internalizing personal freedom, Edens said.
“It is true that the Middle East, as the birthplace of the monotheistic religions, has been the major carrier of freedom of thought, conscience and religious liberty,” Edens said. “However, Middle Eastern cultures and peoples demonstrate a marked resistance to internalizing the concept.”
The roots of the current conflict stretch back through history. The geography of the region is dominated by arid, desert wasteland and the scarcity of water defines much of life, Edens said. In this setting, conflicts arose between nomadic peoples and those settled in cities. The groups had different lifestyles and different value systems. Edens pointed to Genesis and the problems Abram faced in region as an example of this ancient cultural clash.
“While conflict marks all of human history, there is a difference in the Middle Eastern conflict because the descendants of those ancient combatants are still neighbors today,” Edens said. “The tribes have not moved, the conflict has not been resolved, instead families carry the culture memory of the wrong that was done to their revered ancestor.”
Edens said that time heals few wounds in the region. In fact, he said, past events become part of the collective, living memory in the Middle East. Edens offered the Crusades as an example.
“The Crusades — in the West it is barely a footnote in our history, but in the Middle East the Crusades are about wrongs done to [their] family, to [their] clan, to [their] kinsman,” Edens said.
At times, Islam did offer some freedoms for “peoples of the Book,” Edens said. A notable example is the Pact of Umar which offered the Christian citizens of Damascus the ability to practice their religion “with moderation.” This approach continued into modern history under the Ottoman Empire. During this time, there was a degree of personal freedom of religion, but those freedoms had limits and Islamic law was the final arbiter.
When European powers began to guide the region during the colonial period, the leaders naturally gravitated toward the Christians of the region due to a shared belief heritage. When colonial rule failed and local rule was finally achieved, there was a marked decline in Christian influence, Edens said.
According to Edens, other influences that fostered the current situation include the rise of Jewish Zionism in the late 1800s and the discovery of oil in Arabian Desert (providing wealth for the House of Saud and leading to the rise of Sunni Islam). However, Edens sees the Six-Day War as the most important catalyst.
In June of 1967 more than 200,000 soldiers from nearby Arab nations surrounded the Israeli army near Jerusalem. Outnumbered two-to-one, it seemed like a sure defeat for Israel. But, to the dismay of the Islamic world, the Israelis defeated to the Arab armies.
This defeat, Edens said, led to a desire to return to 7th Century values among many Muslims. Individual Muslims began to see a stricter form of Islam as the solution to problems like poverty and lack of power.
“Morality (in the Middle East) is based on the corporate honor/shame model not the guilt/innocence model of the individualistic West,” Edens said. But the rise of the ISIS terrorist group is leading to a significant break in this “family-first,” communal identity.
Today, young people are defying their parents and breaking the honor of their family to join ISIS. In a way, Edens said, these individuals who join ISIS are expressing personal conscience in a way that is unheard of in the Middle East.
Edens saw signs of increased personal freedom of conscience during a recent trip to Egypt. He heard stories of young people rejecting the Islam of their families and turning to atheism and agnosticism. Others, he said, are rejecting Islam and coming to faith in Christ.
“Personal religious identity is changing in the region,” Edens said. “There is movement, coerced and otherwise, that is dramatically changing the trajectory of personal freedom.”
Edens said he is encouraged by the renewed verbal witness by national Christians to the Muslim neighbors. This was not happening when Edens lived in Egypt, but on his recent trip back he spoke with many believers who are actively sharing their faith.
“It is different today in the Middle East. There is a sense of urgency and a sense of responsibility and a sense of freedom to share Christ with their neighbors and to get prayer support from their brothers and sisters in Christ,” Edens said.
But the signs of hope for personal freedom are overshadowed by ISIS. The Islamic State is making people convert or die, Edens said. The very threat of ISIS is causing entire communities to leave their homelands in search of freedom. He noted that 11 million Syrians are currently on the move seeking freedom of conscience for their children.
“Something has broken down in the Middle East,” Edens said. “True religious liberty for the other is a distant, unreal dream in the Middle East outside of faith — faith in and a living faith with Jesus Christ.”
Edens full presentation is available online at faith-publicsquare.org/past-events.html.