Hillary Clinton suggests Islamic governments fear religious debate

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used an international conference on religious freedom Wednesday as a platform to suggest that Islamic governments which suppress Christianity are secretly afraid Islam will lose out in a public debate.

“Every one of us who is a religious person knows there are some who may not support or approve of our religion, but is our religion so weak that statements of disapproval cause us to lose our faith?” she asked the attendees, who included national representatives from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

“Especially when one person’s speech seems to challenge another person’s religion’s belief, or maybe even offends that person’s religious beliefs … we defend our beliefs best by defending free speech for everyone,” she said, while citing her own experience as a Methodist — a Christian movement made up of many Protestant denominations, and where debate is common.

Clinton’s senior aide, the Saudi-born Huma Abedin, said the speech was largely unscripted. “Mostly, it was off-the-cuff,” Abedin told The Daily Caller.

Among the attendees were representatives of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Clinton did not mention any country by name, nor did she specifically mention Islam.

But her diplomatic rebuke of Islamic governments was daring and novel, partly because it may prompt a violent response, or even a careful counterargument, from advocates of Islam in the Arab world.

However, Clinton’s speech did not address similar sensitivities in the United States, where cooperating progressives and Islamists frequently say Islam’s critics are mentally ill, and typically refuse to debate the context and meaning of their own religious texts.

In August, for example, the liberal Center for American Progress issued a report titled “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.” The report was aimed at several critics of Islam, including Robert Spencer, a best-selling author whose repeated requests for debates have been ignored by allied progressive and Islamic advocates in the United States.

Similarly, Department of  Justice officials have described American critics of Islam as mentally unstable, a danger to national security, or similar to the Ku Klux Klan, whose history includes frequent murders of black and Republican legislators and activists.

“Materials that portray Islam as a religion of violence or with a tendency towards violence are wrong, they are offensive … will not be tolerated,” and are a threat to national security, Dwight Holten, a top DOJ official, said on Oct. 19 at a Washington, D.C. event scheduled by the department.

Muslim immigrants to the United States may turn away from integration because of “Islamophobia” or racism, Holton added. When a reporter for TheDC asked Holton to explain his charges, he pushed a door shut in the reporter’s face.

At the same event, Mohamed Magid, a Sudan-born Islamic advocate in the United States, asked for criticism of Islam to be criminalized. One member of the audience was Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, who did not rebuke or even respond to the request by Magid, who now serves as president of the largest Islamic umbrella group — the Islamic Society of North America. (RELATED: Progressives, Islamists huddle at Justice Department)

Secretary Clinton’s speech was delivered at the close of a closed-door conference intended to begin implementation of a 2011 U.N. resolution dubbed “16/18.”

That resolution was passed this year, in place of another favored by hard-line Islamic countries that would have declared criticism of Islam to be criminal defamation.

The successful resolution is titled “Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence and Violence Against, Persons Based on Religion or Belief.” It urges all governments to promote tolerance of all believers, to promote “a wider knowledge of different religions and beliefs,” to counter religious discrimination, anti-Semitism and “Islamophobia.”

The deal encourages and helps activists in many countries to establish religious freedom, said Ambassador Michael Kozak, the U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

The Department of State gathering was an off-the-record meeting of experts from roughly 30 countries. Attendees discussed legal and regulatory measures to promote religious freedom and free speech.

The three-day meeting was impacted by U.S. domestic politics. For example, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was allowed present a claim, while a Christian group, the Traditional Values Coalition, was excluded from the event and from preparatory discussions. The coalition’s president, Andrea Lafferty, was briefly detained just prior to Clinton’s speech.

The meeting, and Clinton’s speech, Lafferty told TheDC, downplayed the large-scale persecution and killing of Christians in Islamic countries, including Sudan, Iran, Pakistan and Egypt.

When asked if religious freedom was being advanced in Muslim-majority countries by the administration’s current foreign policy — which encourages the removal or dictators but does not condemn Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood — Kozak said “time will tell.”

But the diplomatic debate that led to the 16/18 resolution is driven by Islamic advocates.

In orthodox Islam, there is little to no room for religious debate outside the boundaries of tradition. In several Islamic countries, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, people are executed for blasphemy, heresy and apostasy, which is the act of abandoning one’s religion.

Islamic advocates say the harsh punishments are mandated by Islamic texts and local culture, which do not fully separate mosque and government, and often view religious dissent as betrayal.

Those views are markedly different from Christian texts, which promise a loving God, mandate the separation of church and state, and expect moral freedom.

Clinton’s speech reflected those Christian themes. American believers argue — but do not demand — submission from their rivals, she said. Instead, “we trust that over time, if [our rivals] are wrong, they will come to see the errors of their ways.”

In contrast, she continued, there’s reason for concern when “people are not confident in their religious beliefs to the point where they do not fear speech that raises questions about religion.”

Her speech included both new and old themes in American religion.

She argued that “truly at the root of every major religion is a connection with the divinity, is an acceptance and a recognition that we are all walking a path together.”

That claim of religious universalism is not widely shared by Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist clerics. For example, Islamic clerics say the Bible’s Old Testament is really a Muslim text that is misunderstood by Christians and is distorted by Jews. Similarly, most Christians say the Christian God is guided by love and reason, and rewards faith from free people, while most Muslim clerics say Allah requires submission and accepts forced conversions.

But Clinton also repeated the traditional American Christian view that human rights “are rights endowed by our creator within each of us… [and] we have special obligations to protect these God-given rights.”

That’s a markedly more traditional view than that held by her boss, President Barack Obama.

In November, for example, he excluded Christianity from his Thanksgiving message, and suggested that Americans’ rights to freely speak, vote, assemble and own property depend on the approval of other Americans. “No matter how tough things are right now, we still give thanks for that most American of blessings — the chance to determine our own destiny.” (RELATED: Democrat leaders merge church and party)

Throughout her speech, Clinton returned to the argument that religion requires freedom. And she repeatedly, although diplomatically, prodded Islamic governments to tolerate other faiths. Without citing any countries, she directed her criticism at Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where laws actively penalize or bar rival religions.

“We know governments which fear religion can be quite oppressive, but we know that societies that think there is only one religion can be equally oppressive.”

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