H. L. Mencken, himself on of America’s greatest editorial writers, had meager respect for most of the species. As he once put it, “Give me a good editorial cartoonist, and I can fire half the editorial staff.” He wouldn’t have been surprised by a piece entitled “A Vote for Religious Freedom,” that recently appeared on the editorial page of the Washington Post. It was marked by the self-induced imbecility about “freedom of religion” that has been the bane of serious debate about the role of Islam in today’s world.
The piece addresses the issue of the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, noting with approval the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s vote to deny historic status to the existing building on the site. In the words of the editorial,
The agency’s correct call is a victory for cooler heads in city government, and for a fundamental American ideal – freedom of religion.
In fact, as far as the current debate about Islam is concerned, freedom of religion is a red herring. I suspect that, among all those who have expressed opposition to the mosque, the number of those who really care whether their neighbors believe in Jehovah, Allah, or the Great Green Grasshopper God is vanishingly small, as long as their opinions are between themselves and their God, and don’t imply any requirement to intervene in or control the lives of others. I have not yet read a single article on the subject that takes issue with the right of Moslems or anyone else to think and believe as they please. Many of them, however, take issue with the claims of Islam to political control and social coercion. The question, then, is whether these arguments are justified, or are merely smokescreens for an assault on freedom of religion.
The answer is obvious. Is it credible to argue that the Islamic theocracy in Iran has not practiced religious discrimination against those of other faiths, or that its justification for that discrimination has not been based on Moslem religious doctrine? Is it credible to argue that Islam does not explicitly reject freedom of religion, prescribing severe punishment for those who would leave Islam for some other faith, and institutional discrimination, including special taxes and denial of freedom of speech in matters relating to religion, directed against those of other faiths? Is it credible to argue that Islam poses no challenge to separation of church and state, or that it has never favored substitution of religious for secular law? Is it credible to argue that much of the terrorist violence that has plagued the world in recent years has not been justified in the name of Islam? Is it credible to argue that severe limitations on the equal treatment of women, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Islamic world, are not justified in the name of Islam? No, in all of these cases, it is not credible.
The proposed mosque is to be part of a complex known as the Cordoba House, and the Wapo editorial tries to gull its readers with the revisionist version of history according to which Islamic Cordoba was a “medieval Spanish city where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in peace for 800 years.” It boggles the mind to consider the possibility that Wapo’s editorialists are really stupid enough to believe that. Do they not have access to Google? Can they not confirm for themselves that Jews were subjected to pogroms in Moslem Spain, including one in Cordoba itself in the year 1011? Did not Ibn Abdun, one of the foremost Spanish Islamic jurists in this “golden age” write,
No…Jew or Christian may be allowed to wear the dress of an aristocrat, nor of a jurist, nor of a wealthy individual; on the contrary they must be detested and avoided. It is forbidden to [greet] them with the [expression], ‘Peace be upon you’. In effect, ‘Satan has gained possession of them, and caused them to forget God’s warning. They are the confederates of Satan’s party; Satan’s confederates will surely be the losers!’ A distinctive sign must be imposed upon them in order that they may be recognized and this will be for them a form of disgrace.
Were the Jews of Cordoba not forced to wear such a sign, in the form of a yellow turban, reminiscent of the yellow Star of David they were forced to wear under a later European regime? Were Christians not martyred in the city for daring to criticize Moslem religious beliefs? Was not Maimonides himself, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of the Cordovan “golden age,” forced to flee the city to avoid religious persecution? I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point.
In fact, there is no such thing as a “mere religion” among any of the major religions in the world today. All of them have, at one point or another, claimed the right to political control, attempted to elevate their religious tenets to secular law, and discriminated against and penalized those who thought differently. I am hardly a defender of Christianity, and it is no different from any of the other religions in this respect. However, devout Christians can, and have, as in the case of Roger Williams, convincingly argued for the separation of church and state based on religious doctrine. The enlightenment has further neutered its claims to state support and established status, to the point that, today, one can reasonably speak of freedom of religion in nominally Christian countries. Not so with Islam.
The principle that the WaPo editorialists and others who make similar arguments are defending, then, when they evoke “freedom of religion” has nothing to do with private religious beliefs. Objectively, what they are saying, whether they are prepared to admit it themselves or not, is that, as long as the adherents of some system of belief can manage to convince the rest of society that they are a religion, no matter whether their “religious beliefs” include such things as a monopoly of state power, severe restrictions on freedom of speech on matters touching their beliefs, and a right to profound intervention in the lives of others, then they automatically become immune from criticism in the name of “freedom of religion.”
One wonders what kind of a two by four it would be necessary to whack people like this up alongside the head with before they finally realized this debate isn’t about “freedom of religion.” Would they defend the murder of a Moslem friend for “apostasy” because he decided to convert to Christianity in the name of “freedom of religion?” Would they tolerate the nullification of democracy and the imposition of sharia law in the name of “freedom of religion?” Are they prepared to tolerate “honor killings” in the name of “freedom of religion?” Would they assist in the genital mutilation of their daughters if it were required in the name of “freedom of religion?” Would the editors of the Washington Post claim that these things are not required by the Moslem religion? A great many devout Moslems who have spent a great deal more time studying Islamic scriptures than they would claim that they are required. Who are the editors of the Washington Post to define what it means to be a Moslem?
The debate about the mosque at Ground Zero does not and never has had anything to do with freedom of religion. There is a point beyond which it is no longer acceptable to sacrifice one’s own Liberty and tolerate intervention in one’s own life to accommodate the religious beliefs of others. The debate is about when that point is reached.