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.
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.

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

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