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To end the old year and begin the new, there is more entirely predictable bad news from the world of radical Islam. On New Year’s Eve in Pakistan, Islamist political parties brought business and government to a standstill with massive protests against any potential changes in a blasphemy law that carries a mandatory death sentence for anyone convicted of “insulting Islam.” On New Year’s Day in Alexandria, Egypt, a suicide bomb attack in a Coptic Christian church wounded at least 96 and killed 21 people. In Iraq, attacks on Christians that began in October continued, causing the flight of additional refugees toward the more tolerant Kurdish territory to the north.
The governments–our putative allies in the Muslim world (and in Iraq, a government that would never have come into being without American military force)–seemed unable or unwilling to display any backbone on behalf of secular principles of governance. The target was a Christian minority but the truth is that without secular government, freedom of religion can never flourish. To look at the violence as an issue of “interfaith relations,” as this week’s On Faith question does, is to ignore the obvious: Equality among either believers of different faiths, or between believers and nonbelievers, can never exist when one religion occupies a privileged legal position.
Of course, all of this casts even more doubt on post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy, based under both the Bush and Obama administrations on the notion, unsupported thus far by evidence, that a combination of war and diplomacy can hobble radical Islam as a threat to the democracy and security of the world.
What interfaith relations? In Islamic theocracies, of course, there are no such relations by definition–except when theocratic rulers smash dissent. In fragile nation-states like Pakistan and Iraq, Islam has pride of place but there is supposed to be some toleration of minorities. These governments have little will or ability to protect the rights of non-Muslims (or even of Muslims who disagree with their more radical co-religionists).
The question for the United States is not what religious and political leaders should say about “challenges” to “interfaith relations.” It is whether America should continue spending its blood and treasure on wars based on the wishful notion that an American military presence, for whatever length of time, will somehow make majority Islamic nations more amenable to a democracy that accomodates many forms of religious belief and nonbelief and is therefore less of a threat to the West.
My guess is that nothing anyone has to say about these events from the West will have any effect at all. There are courageous citizens of these countries, though, who put mealymouthed western multiculturalists to shame. I strongly recommend the New Year’s Day editorial by Hani Shukrallah, editor of Ahram Online, titled, “J’accuse,” in which he says, “I am no Zola, but I too can accuse. And it’s not the blood thirsty criminals of al-Qaeda or whatever other gang of hoodlums involved in the horror of Alexandria that I am concerned with. I accuse a government that seems to think that by outbidding the Islamists it will also outflank them. I accuse the host of MPs and government officials who cannot help but take their own personal bigotries along to the parliament, or to the multitude of government bodies, national and local, from which they exercise unchecked, brutal, yet at the same time hopelessly inept authority…But most of all, I accuse the millions of supposedly moderate Muslims among us…I’ve been around, and I have heard you speak, in your offices, in your clubs, at your dinner parties: `The Copts must be taught a lesson,’ ‘the Copts are growing more arrogant,’ ‘the Copts are holding secret conversions of Muslims’….” Coptic Christians now make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population.
Shukrallah concludes, in language worthy of Zola, “Our options…are not so impoverished and lacking in imaginination and resolve that we are obliged to choose between having Egyptian Copts killed, individually or en masse, or run to Uncle Sam. Is it really so difficult to conceive of ourselves as rational human beings with a minimum of backbone so as to act to determine our fate, the fate of our nation?”
I’m wondering just how long Shukrallah is going to be walking around, free to raise his voice. I’m wondering what will happen to Mehdi Hasan, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who said of the strike, “The liberal and democratic forces in this country have retreated so much that it has created an ideological vacuum that is now being filled by religious extremists.” This independent human rights commission has documented persecution of Christians and of members of the Ahmadi sect, a minority within Islam, who have been accused of blasphemy.
The U.S. media has paid insufficient attention to attacks on Christians that have been escalating for years and do not happen to have occurred on a major Christian holiday. President Obama denounced the most recent attacks, but such denunciations have a way of making violence against Christians and Muslim minorities appear to be an exceptional event rather than an ongoing reality.
Men like Shukrallah in Egypt and Hasan in Pakistan have every right to say “J’accuse” not only to “moderate” western Muslims but to non-Muslim multicuturalist liberals who have been silent about the behavior of radical Islamists. They also have a right to say “J’accuse” to supporters, inside and outside the U.S. government, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These war apologists won’t admit how bad things are because it would call the whole military effort question. What are we fighting for in Afghanistan? Surely we can’t be sending our soldiers to die for the right of Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan, to be free to execute people for blasphemy.
Only in a secular world, informed by the best Enlightenment values upholding all freedom of thought (which includes but goes far beyond freedom of religion), has blasphemy been relegated to the ludicrous medieval status it deserves.
Note: Due to the impending publication of my new book, I will be posting only one Spirited Atheist column a week for some time.