"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, November 13, 2006

The two new fronts in the global war for freedom

Some Americans know, and all should know, something said by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." When passed, what that meant to people was that the Congress may not regulate or abolish established state churches, may not make any particular religion illegal, and may not require anybody to be religious. Since World War II, of course, the Supreme Court has made utter hash of the two quoted clauses, so that American jurisprudence has no coherently applicable criteria for balancing freedom of religion with freedom from religion. But that is, one hopes and prays, a temporary problem. The fact remains that both freedom of religion and freedom from religion are inherent human rights respected in principle by basic American and international law. They are so respected in virtue of that acknowledged dignity of the human person which makes it intrinsically immoral to force people to act against their consciences. Such rights constitute an irreducible element of human freedom. And it is just that freedom which is now under threat from both the religious and the irreligious in today's world.

During the Cold War, most people could and did recognize worldwide Communism as a threat to freedom. Despite the protests of pacifists and some major lapses along the way, U.S. policy toward Communist countries was designed to protect the freedom of our way of life. The verdict of history is that we succeeded. Nowadays, many recognize the so-called "war on terrorism" as another protracted effort to protect the same from violent Islamic extremists, who seem to be growing more numerous by the year. What many fail to recognize, however, is that we have but are failing to exploit the moral high ground in our war with the Islamists.

In most Muslim countries, non-Muslims do not have the same freedom of religion as Muslims. The world's largest Muslim country, Indonesia, extends considerable freedom to non-Muslims inasmuch as the country's size and diversity has bred a culture of relative tolerance between religions. But in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the public practice of non-Muslim religions is not tolerated; conversion from Islam to any other religion is punishable and often punished by death. And the majority of countries in which Muslims comprise a majority lie closer to the Saudi/Iranian end of the spectrum than to Indonesia's. Even in Egypt and Syria, where ancient Christian communities still exist and are tolerated to a degree, Christians are dhimmi: they live with certain legal, educational, and economic disadvantages making them second-class citizens. And in Palestine and Iraq, Christians are finding themselves having to emigrate in droves if they want to have decent lives at all.

Even more significantly, you won't find most Muslim scholars willing to accept what the Pope calls "reciprocity." They don't think that Muslims should grant non-Muslims the same degree of religious freedom that Muslims generally enjoy in countries where non-Muslims are the majority. This is why, for example, they take for granted that they may, can, and should build mosques in Rome, but at the same time it is unthinkable to them that Christians be allowed to build churches in Mecca or even that the Jews rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, it is in the very nature of Islam to reject the idea of religious freedom as understood not only by the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—to which many nominally subscribe—but by Vatican II's Dignitatis Humanae. And that is probably the major reason why we must fight the war on "terrorism," which is really a war with those Muslims who take jihad to entail violent as well as non-violent means of spreading Islam. There is virtually zero chance that Muslims will, as a whole and as a matter of principle, accept the principle of reciprocity even as they demand religious freedom for themselves.

We have ample historical precedent for this fight. Thanks to the courage of countless knights, peasants, and churchmen, most of Western Europe was never conquered by Muslim armies. The Crusaders simply went on the offensive, taking the battle to the Holy Land even though their greed and divisions eventually made their conquests unviable. Spain, which had endured some measure of Muslim rule for centuries, fought for centuries to drive Muslim satraps out of Spain and eventually succeeded. When the Ottoman sultans tried later to grab big bites out of Western Europe, they were repeatedly and sometimes miraculously defeated. At nearly every stage in the millennium-long struggle, everybody who was anybody knew the stakes and did what had to be done—even if they also did some things that needn't and shouldn't have been done. But I don't see that kind of insight and resolve today. Westerners on the whole do not understand that Muslims on the whole, while enjoying the benefit of Western ideas about religious freedom, will never subscribe to those ideas fully and hence will never be placated by the sort of "tolerance" that presumes a willingness to reciprocate. True, the so-called "terrorists" are not terribly popular among Muslims; but that is because of their means, not their ends. And there will always be Muslims willing to use those means.

That is why our politicians need to have the cojones to let people publicly say whatever they think about Islam, no matter how negative, even as absolutely anybody may now publicly say what they think about Christianity, no matter how negative. But only a few even in America have those cojones, and it gets them into trouble. In several European countries, saying such things about Islam will land you in jail—but not, of course, saying similarly nasty things about Christianity. Indeed and conversely, actively professing traditional Christianity on certain points, such as following the Bible in denouncing sodomy as an "abomination" before God, will get you prosecuted for a "hate crime" even if you win in the end. Even in my home town, New York, it is illegal to display Christian symbols on public property during Christmas but legal to display Muslim symbols during Ramadan and Jewish during Hannukah. We are in danger of becoming dhimmi by virtue of that "tolerance" which is intolerant of the majority.

Indeed, that trend reflects what's been happening among our secular, cultural élites. Recently the atheism industry has got more aggressive: there's been a spate of propaganda denouncing "religion" as evil largely on the ground that its "intolerance" causes violence and social stagnation. (See, e.g., Sam Harris' book The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins' TV series The Root of All Evil?) On the popular level, even Elton John has got into the act, insisting that "organized religion" has "always bred hatred against gays." Presumably he supports suppressing the freedom of his fellow citizens to profess publicly what the Bible and the natural law say about sodomy. So, religious freedom is also threatened by those who are only willing to tolerate forms of religion they deem sufficiently tolerant. At the same time, however, they seem willing to tolerate Islam, which is a minority religion in the West and therefore, in the liberal mythos, a fit object of tolerance. Hence the New York decision, made by secular-minded jurists. But apparently no form of traditional Christianity, even ones that renounce religious violence, is to enjoy the same degree of tolerance.

In the case of both Islamists and secularists, then, we confront a double standard that threatens the basic and inherent right to religious freedom: Islam is to be tolerated even when it is intolerant, and traditional Christianity is not to be tolerated even when it is tolerant. I can understand the double standard on the part of Muslims; they do not, after all, even pretend that they ought not to have one. At least they're consistent. But in the West, the double standard not only accelerates the erosion of morality in general and of the family in particular, thus weakening the moral basis of our society, but also weakens our resolve to resist the violent adherents of a religion that really is objectionably intolerant. Accordingly, one front in the new, global war for freedom is external: the war against Islamist violence; but the other is internal, against our own secularists. If we lose, the fifth columnists will have the society they deserve.
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