During the long conflict between the Communist bloc countries and the Western democracies, there was a robust war of ideas. Those publicly sympathetic to the Communists included both dupes and deceivers. The former advanced the interests of the Communists without necessarily taking their side, through a combination of naïveté and political or academic fashion. The latter, on the other hand, deliberately purveyed what amounted to Soviet propaganda.
These days we see clear parallels in public discourse about the tensions between Islamic fundamentalism and Judeo-Christian or “Western” culture. Today’s dupes and deceivers aggressively market the notion that there is moral equivalence between the two belief systems. In this process a great deal of disinformation is disseminated with little if any evident skepticism, and from a number of ostensibly reliable sources.
It is easy to be numbed by this daily drumbeat, to acquiesce in the notion that we of the Judeo-Christian, Western (and especially American) persuasion are equally, if not predominantly, to blame for most hatred and intolerance. But this is emphatically not the case.
Now and again it serves us well to sample what’s served up, to study the story lines before we swallow them. Here I offer two examples, one apiece from what I characterize as the “dupe” and “deceiver” categories.
First, I received an email this week from the American Bar Association’s Section of International Law advertising a continuing legal education course on “Religious Freedom and Religious Persecution.” The course description refers to “reports from all over the world of abusive and murderous actions taken against individuals because of their religious beliefs.” The ABA’s first and leading example is the burning of a Koran in Florida, followed by a reference to “blasphemy laws in Pakistan.” We’re advised that “these incidents raise a common concern about human rights established under international conventions.”
Well, we may agree that the Koran burning was boorish, and most Americans certainly don’t encourage that sort of thing. But it was also clearly protected by our First Amendment freedom of speech. As with dreadful art exhibits like “Piss Christ” (and we’ll say the same about “Piss Mohammad” art exhibits, if and when they appear), in this country we have a general consensus that civilized folks should tolerate much they find offensive because, in our pluralistic democracy, one of our values is respect for the freedoms of others.
And by the way, when that Koran was burned in Florida, no one was beheaded or gunned down. No one was harmed at all. Notwithstanding the ABA course description, this incident simply was not an “abusive and murderous” action against any individual. Details, you may say, but trust me, they matter. Compare Bible burnings in Muslim-dominated countries, which are frequently accompanied by physical violence.
Now, consider the ABA’s second proffered example of “murderous” religious persecution, “blasphemy laws in Pakistan.” Although it hugely undersells the significance of blasphemy laws to limit the nomination to Pakistan, on this one the facts are compelling.
Take one example. A few months back, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of the Punjab province in Pakistan, was murdered by a member of his own security detail for opposing the death sentence for a Christian woman (and mother of two) under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Her heinous crime was to mention the teachings of Jesus to a couple of co-workers.
Governor Taseer was riddled with bullets by one of his security guards. The guard, who subsequently pleaded guilty to the killing, was actually showered with flowers and cheered by Pakistani lawyers, members of a profession that, above all others, should be committed to the rule of law. In addition, according to reports by MSNBC and the Associated Press, even “moderate Muslim scholars praised” the killer for murdering the governor.
The ABA’s course description, while an understandable effort to suggest that we all have problems of intolerance to confront, did a disservice not only because it exaggerated the character of the Koran burning, but also — and more importantly — because by equating these very different actions it understated the evil represented by Sharia-based blasphemy laws.
Our second example takes us from the arguable dupe to the deceiver. On Sunday, April 3, The Washington Post featured an article by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf entitled “5 Myths about Muslims in America.” While the “myths” were carefully framed to facilitate his responses, even with only straw men to knock down the imam braced us with some real howlers.
The Post editors apparently do not insist that their columnists at least stick to statements that can be made with a straight face. Thus, in addressing American concerns about Sharia law, Rauf opens with the assertion that “Sharia is the divine ideal of justice and compassion, similar to the concept of natural law in the Western tradition.” Gathering steam, he adds that “most Muslim jurists agree on the principal objectives of Sharia: the protection and promotion of life, religion, intellect, property, family and dignity.” He then makes the utterly outlandish statements that “the U. S. Constitution is in line with the objectives and ideals of Sharia,” and that the Prophet Muhammad’s “vision of justice” was “an important precedent to the U.S. Constitution.”
What a relief to hear that Sharia’s principal objectives include the protection of life, religion, property, family, and dignity. Of course, the “life” part of that apparently does not extend to women who are raped. Consider the recent report of a 14-year-old Muslim girl in Bangladesh, who was raped by a married man and then, on orders from a local imam, lashed to death for “adultery.” Or contemplate the widespread practice of disfiguring young girls through female genital mutilation, which some may find difficult to square with the protection of “family” or “dignity.” As for Sharia’s reverence for “religion,” tell that to the non-Muslims who live in lands where Sharia law prevails. And considering Sharia’s blasphemy laws and its laws providing the death penalty for people who convert from Islam to another religion, it’s fair to say that the First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion are not the parts of our Constitution inspired by the Prophet Muhammad’s “vision of justice.”
In the United States, honor killings and other violence towards women (for example, the abusive Muslim husband who beheaded his wife upon learning she intended to seek a divorce) undercut Rauf’s conclusion that it is a myth to say American Muslims oppress women. Of course, it is notable that this is not nearly as great a problem in the United States as it is in the countries where Muhammad’s “vision of justice” is imposed through Sharia law.
Virtually all Americans hope for civil and mutually respectful relationships between individuals of different religious faiths. This is a value embedded in our Constitution and in our culture. This cause is not advanced, however, by false assertions that intolerance is mainly the problem of the West. Nor is it furthered by misleading characterizations of Sharia law.
Islamic fundamentalists are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the world’s religiously inspired violence. Ignoring the facts and avoiding honest conversations will not advance the cause of tolerance.
Ray Hartwell is a Navy veteran and a Washington lawyer whose opinion articles and book reviews have appeared in The Washington Times and The Richmond Times-Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.