By Rob Asghar
Center on Public Diplomacy, University of Southern California
While a Berkley Center conference this week at Georgetown University examined whether proselytizing is a legitimate activity in our multicultural era, officials in my native Pakistan are pondering how to tweak blasphemy laws that “protect” Islam from criticism.
The common thread is the quest for how to balance freedom of expression with respect toward others’ convictions. But as someone who has traipsed through Islam, Christianity, agnosticism, atheism, Taoism and Los Angeles-style New Age thinking, I suspect there is no perfect balance: Freedom of expression, and tolerance for all such expressions, must come first.
Muslims and Christians must be free to share their respective good news, but they must also learn to endure patiently when Danish cartoonists and American performance artists demean their lords and prophets, or when persons such as myself walk away–publicly–toward rival faiths or to faithlessness.
But first, true believers must thicken their skins. And by “true believers,” I could be referring to Christians, Muslims, atheists, feminists, civil rights champions, gay rights activists or any number of other people who believe they’re saving humanity from ruin–and who are willing to ruin others’ lives to do so.
My late Muslim father illustrated the paradox years ago. At the time, he was outraged when evangelical Christian friends proselytized me right into their posh church. After futilely trying to convince me I was intellectually wrong to leave his faith, he appealed to tradition: “You must honor your heritage!” he thundered. “Everyone should respect the religion of his mother and father, and find a way learn to live with it.”
“But Dad, then there wouldn’t be any Muslims,” I responded.
“What do you mean?”
“Someone had to anger his parents by being the first one to leave idolatry or Christianity or Judaism to become a Muslim, right? Why aren’t you angry at that person for dishonoring his parents?”
“Well… Because… at least there were doing the right thing.”
I’m sure they were. But my father’s switch in tactics was revealing.
Fifteen years later, I left evangelicalism behind. Many evangelical friends who once believed I was so bold in discussing my journey away from conservative Islam now found me to be a tad tedious, high-disclosure and disrespectful in how I discussed my journey away from evangelicalism. Such persons always believe that faith should be public–right up until they decide it should be private.
That’s why evangelical parents who want to “put religion back” in public schools tend to be the first to be outraged by a public university requiring students to gain a greater understanding of a non-Christian religion that’s been in the news.
That’s why Muslim minorities in Western nations have a civil-libertarian passion there that is rare in Muslim-majority countries.
Consider the very impulse to proselytize: In his classic book, “The True Believer,” Eric Hoffer noted that we proselytize less out of a desire to benefit others and more out a desire to drown our own doubts. It reminds me of the comment by the greatest sociologist of our time, Jerry Seinfeld, who mused that straight men may tend toward homophobia because “we know we have weak sales resistance.”
In that same way, the true believer wants to yell at everyone about his beliefs but is panicked about hearing theirs.
Still, As Muslim and Christian and secular worlds grind together, he no longer lives in a world in which he can have his wish. Either all of us must be silent about our views or all of us must be able to speak. Only the latter option is viable, and only the latter option is enriching.
Again, I refer not just to Christians and Muslims but to, say, nervous and militant progressives who harass university presidents and evolutionary biologists who fail to uphold politically correct orthodoxies. Such militants often boast that they don’t murder others in the manner that the Pentagon does; but they are skilled in destroying the careers and reputations of those who dare believe differently.
“Get over it” may not be the most sensitive message to send such true believers. But there may be no better message for us to affirm. Get over the insults, dear true believer. Get over the outrage. And get over the fear of being pulled away from the beliefs to which you cling like a lifeline. If you do so, we can all be both honest and free. And that’s the best deal you and I can get in this lifetime.
In this way, we can all work toward a tolerant and vibrant global free market of ideas, religious and philosophical, thus making religious discussion and practice as life-affirming as possible while minimizing their destructive potential.
Rob Asghar, a fellow at the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, is the author of “Lessons from the Holy Wars: A Pakistani-American Odyssey.”