How Hobby Lobby Explains the Middle East

The stakes are different, but our struggles to define the role of religion in public life are similar.
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A demonstrator in support of contraceptive rights chants after the Hobby Lobby ruling in Washington, D.C. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

ASPEN, Colo.—To Westerners who don't follow Middle East news closely, it can all get a bit confusing—a jumble of corrupt leaders who seized power from other corrupt leaders. But in trying to understand why there's so much instability in the region, it can be helpful to think of the dynamics within certain Arab countries in the context of our own dynamics in the wake of the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case.

Don't get me wrong, the stakes are much different—thousands of lives and freedom of expression, versus free contraception, for starters. But both conflicts have a lot to do with the trouble that countries have in determining just how big of a role religion should play in government.

For example, here's what's happened in Egypt over the past few years (experts can skip the next paragraph or so): The country had a secular, strongman ruler, Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted after the Tahrir Square protests in 2011. After several months of military rule, Egyptians elected Mohammed Morsi, who is from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group that had been illegal for most of the twentieth century. But exactly a year ago, Egyptians overthrew Morsi's government and a new secular military leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, took over and has been in charge ever since.

This kind of turmoil might sound a lot like what happened in Latin America a few decades ago, or in Europe during the Cold War. But it's different for one major reason. As Brookings Middle East scholar and Atlantic contributor Shadi Hamid said during a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is produced jointly by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, in Egypt and other Arab Spring nations, the root of all this turnover was a fundamental disagreement about the role of Islam in the state:

If we're talking about the liberal elite who drove the sentiment against Morsi, there was a fundamental ideological divide between Islamists and non-Islamists. And we see this now throughout the region. In that way it's different from other transitions in Latin America or Europe, where the primary cleavages were economic in nature. You can split the middle on the economy, you can quantify that. But how do you split the middle on religion and ideology?

The Muslim Brotherhood is actually not religiously extreme, but secular Egyptians chafed at some of the group's actions during its brief time in power. The Brotherhood intimidated secular artists and comedians, like Bassem Youssef, who parodied the party. It passed a constitution without much input from minority interests. Members would say things like "wives should not have the right to file legal complaints against their husbands for rape, and husbands should not be subject to the punishments meted out for the rape of a stranger." In a widely circulated video from around the time of the 2013 coup, a 12-year-old boy calls the Brotherhood a "fascist theocracy" and blames them for not appointing enough women to the national assembly.

As Hamid said:

What is the meaning of the state, the purpose of the state, the identity of the state? You hear that rhetoric so much from people close to the military in Egypt that the Brotherhood was going to change the identity of the state. The role of religion in public life arouses these raw existential passions.

We've witnessed these kinds of raw passions just this week in the U.S. with the Hobby Lobby ruling, which upheld companies' right to exclude the coverage of certain contraceptives from their insurance plans if doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs. Some say the alternative would be like forcing companies to give employees a subsidy for going to church. Others say reproductive rights trump CEOs' religious views without exception. This morning, for example, Morning Edition featured the following "strong reactions" about the ruling:

"It is my choice to live out my freedom as I choose and not my choice to have the government hand me contraceptives," a woman named Emily Zender said.

Another woman, Alex Gillett, said it was "old white men making a costly decision for women."

Also speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Hillary Clinton, too, castigated the Court for its decision:

“It’s the first time that our court has said that a closely held corporation has the rights of a person when it comes to religious freedom, which means the corporation’s … [‘closely held’] employers can impose their religious beliefs on their employees, and, of course, denying women the right to contraceptives as part of a health care plan is exactly that,” she said. “I find it deeply disturbing that we are going in that direction.”

During the Middle East panel, New America Foundation president and Atlantic contributor Anne-Marie Slaughter made the Hobby-Lobby/Morsi-Sisi connection:

We heard Hillary Clinton talking yesterday about Hobby Lobby and the role of religion in the state. These are issues we nonviolently hear but they involve deep passions. 

This isn't to diminish the very real struggle for good governance that Egyptians and their neighbors have faced. The battle for birth control is nothing compared to the one for democracy.

But to many Americans, Middle East news can sometimes seem like spurts of random violence or inscrutable coup-like events. Recognizing America's own deep divisions when it comes to the role of religion in public life can help us understand what these people are going through, half a world away.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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