Abraham Accords and Religious Freedom
By Benjamin Harbaugh
This week a historic signing ceremony took place, formally normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel and two Arab states. President Donald Trump heralded the signing of the peace deal between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain as the dawn of a new Middle East. The agreement’s title, the ‘Abraham Accords,’ highlights the ever-present role of religion in the Middle East, even in presumably secular state functions such as diplomatic recognition. While the accords are focused primarily on developing economic and security ties, they will greatly impact religious freedom by promoting pluralism, furthering an ongoing interpretation debate in Islam, and advancing peace.
The Abraham Accords build off of a structure that has been constructed over decades. Israel and the Gulf States did not come to the accord signing ceremony as strangers, they have drifted together due to their common regional foe: Iran. While mutual fear of Iran may be the driving force behind the agreement, the accords appear poised to promote pluralism in the region, a concept which has experienced dynamic growth in recent years.
The UAE spearheaded the charge and named 2019 the ‘Year of Tolerance,’ where they welcomed Pope Francis for the first ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula. In Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, the leader of Sunni Islam’s most prestigious theological institution, signed the Human Fraternity Document to foster a culture of mutual respect between Muslims and Christians. The UAE ended their year of tolerance by inaugurating the Abrahamic Family House, a complex that will house a church, synagogue, and mosque by 2022. Clearly, the Abraham Accords only improve the UAE’s desire to be seen as an image of pluralism and openness. The UAE’s regional leadership on issues like this likely played a role in convincing a country like Bahrain to join the agreement. Moving forward, the accords can serve as a force multiplier to highlight some of the good work that the UAE is doing and encourage its neighbors to join them.
Unfortunately, pluralism is not in the interest of some Middle Eastern countries and the Abraham Accords caused regional controversy. While the complex statehood question between Israel and Palestine was largely sidestepped by the accords, Iran and Turkey both publicly derided the deal and the former even threatened to attack the UAE. In light of the criticisms that the UAE “stabbed Muslims in the back,” the Gulf states have used Islamic law to justify their rapprochement with Israel. Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, the chairman of the UAE’s supreme religious authority, claimed that the agreement with Israel safeguards one of the fundamental goals of Islamic law and will benefit humanity. Sheikh Bin Bayyah went on to cite additional Islamic precedent and said that “Islamic sharia abounds in many examples of such cases of reconciliations and peacemaking in accordance with the public good and circumstances.” The dichotomy between the view of Iran and Turkey that the Gulf states betrayed Islam and the UAE’s interpretation of Islamic law as articulated by Sheikh Bin Bayyah is of utmost importance moving forward for Middle East relations. The control of this religious narrative is a key development to watch for the region in the coming months. As the Gulf states continue to use this interpretation to justify their actions to their citizens and the wider Arab world, the chance for a more tolerant brand of Islam to spread across the Middle East grows. While the discussion on Islamic interpretation vastly predates the Abraham Accords, the deals signed this week bring that debate back to the forefront of Middle Eastern politics.
Perhaps most importantly, the accords further the prospect for peace in the Middle East. Religious freedom is one of the defining fault lines of the region. Religious crises abound: Christians are leaving the region in mass numbers due to violence or threats of violence, Turkey has declared the Hagia Sophia a Mosque, and Zoroastrians are regularly persecuted in Iran. While the accords do not explicitly address religious freedom, they move the ball in a positive direction for a region that is deciding whether or not it will look towards the past or future for inspiration. These issues will not fade overnight, but it appears as though we may be in the midst of a serious reshaping of the Middle East. Hopefully, the Abraham Accords will be another step towards a Middle East that universally guarantees its people the right to practice their religion free from persecution.
Benjamin Harbaugh served as an intern in both the Office of the Vice President and the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State. He is currently a graduate student at The American University in Washington D.C. where he currently studies U.S. foreign policy and security. He is passionate about supporting vulnerable communities around the globe and has worked alongside the persecuted Church in countries such as Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and more. Engaged in the relationship between foreign policy and religious freedom, Ben believes in the importance of U.S. involvement for religious minorities around the world. When he isn’t studying, Ben enjoys long-distance running and traveling with his wife.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.