September 22, 2010
The freedom to speak freely is a hallmark of the American constitutional tradition, as is the freedom of religion. These twin liberties are two reasons why so many people have risked - and continue to risk - life and limb to make it to our shores. Not surprisingly, these freedoms often come into conflict with each another in the public arena. No one likes to see their deeply held beliefs insulted, degraded, or mocked, yet the right of free speech includes the right to criticize our neighbor's religious views. The moment we deny our citizens the right to criticize other people or their ideas, we will no longer be truly free.
By all indications however, our government appears to have developed a double standard when it comes to criticism of certain religious traditions - or, I should say, one such tradition. While other religious groups in America (Christians in particular) are expected to tolerate all manner of offenses, debasements, and outright attacks against their beliefs in the name of the First Amendment, Muslim Americans benefit from a government that goes out of its way to avoid offending their religious sensibilities. In a country that has gone to sometimes extreme lengths to preserve the hallowed "separation" between Church and State, the question is, why?
Many Christians in America today feel that their religion is under attack, and with good reason. An attitude of skepticism and downright hostility towards Christianity has taken hold in many corners of society, resulting in actions that test the charity and tolerance of even the most pious believers. Revered Christian icons have been immersed in urine and smeared in elephant dung in the name of "art" (with the patronage of the federal government, no less), Jesus Christ and his followers have been portrayed as gay lovers in an off-Broadway play, personal faith testimonies and religious groups have been censored on high school and college campuses across America, a veterans' cross memorial in the California desert has been the target of an ACLU lawsuit, and Bibles have been burned by the U.S. government in the name of "diplomacy."
Despite the role that Christianity has played in the character and formation of the United States - despite its status as the majority religion in America and one of the three great world religions - I don't recall a single instance where a President and a Secretary of State and a general intervened on behalf of Christians with a plea for respect and restraint directed toward provocateurs who denigrated their faith. I certainly cannot recall any instance in which an anti-Christian provocateur has been told by such luminaries that his actions against Christianity might prompt Christians around the world to commit violent acts of retaliation. An offense against Islam, however, is a different story. When rumors began to circulate that a fundamentalist Christian pastor named Terry Jones was planning to burn the Koran on September 11th as a sign of American opposition to Islamic terrorism, darn near the entire government - from the military to the State Department to the FBI, even the President himself - weighed in.
So we're back to the original question: Why the double standard? Why do Muslims warrant special treatment in a country that prides itself on its ability to distinguish between the secular and the sacred? Dr. Mark Mitchell, author and Professor of Political Theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, offers an interesting perspective. Turns out, while the American constitution may view all religions as equally valid in the eyes of the law, not all religious traditions comport equally well with the principles embodied in the American constitution:
"Let's reverse the situation for a minute. Imagine that an obscure Imam in Kuwait decided to burn a pile of Bibles to commemorate the end of Ramadan. . . . The American response to a Muslim cleric burning Bibles might indicate an important fact about Christianity and about the American Constitutional order. Christ taught his disciples to turn the other cheek. To love their enemies. To pray for those who persecute them. Christianity at its best is a religion dedicated to loving God and loving one's neighbor. Thus, the proper Christian response to the Bible burning Imam is to pray for him. To pray as Christ did while on the cross: ‘Father forgive them.' Peaceful persuasion rooted in prayer and characterized by love is the Christian ideal. Protests and violence (or the threat thereof) is not in keeping with the Christian faith; although, plenty of Christians have veered down that road to the detriment of the very faith they claim.
The American Constitutional order is one historically rooted in the Christian faith but separated from any established national church. In that sense, the American Constitutional order is secular in form but an outgrowth of a culture permeated by assumptions about human nature and moral truths born of Christianity. As a result, we enjoy a political sphere that can be influenced by the religious sphere while at the same time citizens are free to worship as they please and the state has no say over the content of religious beliefs. . . . There are no Muslim states that effect the separation of the state and the church save Turkey, an experiment imposed in the early twentieth-century by a strong ruler who was attempting to help Turkey become a modern nation. While Turkey certainly provides some evidence in support of the hope that Muslim nations can establish political institutions that are formally separated from the dominant religious institutions, the jury is still out and recent trends suggest a resurgence of Islamicist control. So the question remains: can Islam exist as a majority religion in a nation committed to religious pluralism and freedom of expression? This is one of the great questions of our time."
Dr. Mitchell poses an excellent question, one that our leaders in Washington would do well to ponder. Should the American government abandon its ideals and compromise on its constitutional principles to appease a segment of the population who, because of their religion, refuses to integrate those principles into their way of life? Should we allow fear of violent retaliation abroad to prevent us from defending the exercise of constitutional liberties of American citizens here at home, however offensive and misguided their actions may be?
The President, for one, had no difficulty in standing up for the First Amendment rights of those wishing to build a Muslim community center and mosque near Ground Zero, despite the highly offensive nature of the project. He unequivocally stated his view that Muslim Americans have a right to build a mosque wherever they wish to build one, be it Ground Zero or any other location allowed by law. The inappropriateness of the project's proposed location didn't merit a word from the Commander in Chief. The insult to the memory of those that died on that spot nine years ago at the hands of fanatical Muslim terrorists didn't warrant a call for compassionate restraint.
The nuanced distinction between "right" and "rectitude" that the President should have acknowledged with regard to the Ground Zero mosque proposal was instead employed against the pastor in Florida, whose desire to burn the Koran was offensive and misguided - yet nonetheless protected by the Constitution. In this instance the President's focus shifted from the legality of the action to the appropriateness of the action. A call for restraint was issued, pressure was applied, and the pastor backed down.
At no time during the Koran-burning controversy did the President see fit to address the troubling fact that Muslims often respond violently whenever their religious sensibilities are offended. Yet the assassination of Theodore Van Gogh, the threats against Salman Rushdie and the violent response to the Danish cartoons that mocked Muhammed were not that long ago. Alas, the President and his emissaries seem resigned to the fact that Muslims often appear incapable of tolerating criticism of their faith with grace and civility. But is a policy of appeasement toward Islam a proper course under the Constitution? Does allowing Islam to occupy a "criticism free zone" comport with American constitutional ideals? Or will such a policy increase the likelihood that the producers of "Muslims Behaving Badly" will be all the more inclined to trot out their act the next time any critic of Islam deigns to speak unkindly of the Islamic faith?
The current clash of civilizations is not going away. Many European countries are struggling to deal with the fallout from tensions between their secular societies and Muslim immigrants. The American people need to know that they have a president who is prepared to protect and defend the liberties of all Americans, regardless of religion. When it comes to the Constitution, there is no room for double standards.
Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of "Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty" He is also Chairman of the Center for a Just Society.