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Column: Islam, Heal Thyself

A protester holds up photos of Iranian dissidents under house as Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks in New York, Sept. 24, 2014.

A protester holds up photos of Iranian dissidents under house as Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks in New York, Sept. 24, 2014.

No one doubts the ability of President Barack Obama to deliver a terrific speech.

Still, the address he made Wednesday to the annual meeting of the U.N. Security Council was especially eloquent in its appeal to the Muslim world to cure itself of the diseases of extremism and intolerance that historically plagued many religions but not to the same extent as Islam in today’s world.

As the son of a Kenyan Muslim who also spent part of his childhood in mostly Muslim Indonesia, Obama’s remarks seemed less patronizing than they otherwise would from the Christian president of a predominantly Christian country.

Obama’s speech – which included a call to arms against the group that refers to itself as the Islamic State (IS) – got a polite reception in the General Assembly. Five Arab nations have joined the U.S. in carrying out bombing runs on IS and other terrorist factions in Syria. The U.N. Security Council – in a meeting chaired by Obama – passed a resolution intended to make it more difficult for would-be jihadists to cross borders and for individuals to finance terrorist groups.

But the willingness of many Muslim nations to confront the demons within their communities remains questionable, and the conditions that give rise to suicidal terrorists are, if anything, getting worse in some Middle Eastern states.

The challenges are apparent in looking at the routine practices of key members of the anti-IS coalition such as Saudi Arabia and would-be members such as Iran.

How can one inculcate tolerance in Saudi Arabia, where there are no Christian churches and Christian guest workers who gather privately to worship in homes risk arrest? Shi’ite Muslims, a substantial minority in the country and a majority in its oil-rich eastern province, also face discrimination and historically have been distrusted as a potential fifth column for Shi’ite Iran.

Beheading is the standard method of execution for those convicted of capital crimes in Saudi Arabia, and these grim public spectacles have an obvious influence on those who have cut off the heads of foreign hostages and put the grisly videos up on the Internet.

Non-Arab Iran, meanwhile, discriminates against Sunni Muslims to such an extent that there are no Sunni mosques in Tehran, even though a large number of Sunnis live in the country. Iran also discriminates against ethnic Arabs who reside in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan. According to the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2013, the Iranian government's “rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shia religious groups, most notably for Baha’is, as well as for Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, Jews, and Shi’ite groups not sharing the government’s official religious views.”

An Iranian-American convert to Christianity, pastor Saed Abidini, was arrested two years ago and is serving an eight-year jail sentence because he held private church services in Iranian homes from 2000 to 2005.

Unwillingness to tolerate conversions – unless they are to Islam – or expressions of faith that diverge from orthodoxy encourages a mindset that can lead to extremism.

Authoritarian governments that suppress all forms of dissent are another catalyst for rebellion. As Obama said on Wednesday, “If young people live in places where the only option is between the dictates of a state, or the lure of an extremist underground, then no counterterrorism strategy can succeed. But where a genuine civil society is allowed to flourish – where people can express their views, and organize peacefully for a better life – then you dramatically expand the alternatives to terror.”

Most Middle Eastern countries, with the possible exception of Tunisia, severely restrict freedom of expression and association. The hopes of the Arab Spring were dashed a year ago in Egypt after a coup removed the country’s only freely elected president and security forces arrested tens of thousands of regime opponents – including moderate Islamists and secularists – who still languish in jail.

Appearing Wednesday before a large audience in a New York City hotel, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in town for the U.N. General Assembly, criticized the current Egyptian government of military strongman Abdel Fatah el-Sissi for outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood.

But Rouhani – who was elected a year ago in part because he promised more respect for civil rights – had no answer when asked about the arrests and conviction of a group of young Iranians who made a video dancing to the tune “Happy” by Pharrell Williams that was circulated on the Internet.

“I don’t know the specifics of the case,” he said.

As Rouhani was leaving the ballroom, a young Iranian named Ali Abadi called out, asking why his sister, Ghoncheh Gharami, 25, was still in jail after being arrested for trying to attend a volleyball match in Tehran. In Iran, women are usually not allowed to go to sporting events alongside men.

Rouhani replied, “We can discuss it later.”

It is true that Rouhani does not control Iran’s judiciary and security services, although he remarked at a meeting with senior news executives and correspondents a day earlier that “part of my duties as president” require that he strive for “fairness and justice” in the application of Iranian law. Focusing on getting a nuclear deal with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, he is also not about to try to repeal laws regarding gender segregation or women's dress and behavior.

While Rouhani asserted that Iran was better poised to lead the fight against IS than the U.S., societies that discriminate against women, jail journalists such as Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian without apparent cause and convict young people for dancing in videos are perhaps not in the best position to confront those who are orders of magnitude more extreme.

Hishem Melhem, the Washingon bureau chief for Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite channel, wrote recently that “the jihadists of the Islamic State … did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk—what was left of a broken-down civilization.”

Before the Muslim world can successfully defeat IS and prevent the birth of new extremist groups, it must address its own intolerance of religious and political diversity and gender equality.

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    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.