In the wake of the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya, and especially the murders in Libya, will the Religious Left defend free speech or align with demands that Islam's critics be silenced?
Some U.S. religionists seem angrier over the elusive anti-Islamic film that supposedly provoked Islamist mobs into mayhem and murder than over the attacks themselves. That Koran burning Terry Jones, the bizarre pastor of a small Florida congregation evidently touted the film, has also enraged Religious Leftists, who have implied moral equivalence between insulting Islam and murder.
Already fortified by two decades or more of multiculturalism, 9-11 only amplified the Religious Left's zeal for accommodation of every variant of Islam. Radical Islam, with its fierce intolerance for the sexually liberated and free thinkers, not to mention empowered women, should terrify liberal religionists in the West. But the Religious left has fairly studiously avoided direct critique even of Taliban-style theology, preferring more vaguely to disparage religious extremism.
The implication is sometimes that zealous Christians in America are as threatening as al Qaeda. In fact, the Religious Left always has fired far more specific and frequent rhetorical salvos at conservative Christians, evangelical and Catholic, who are deemed the main obstacle to the Religious Left's cultural and sexual agenda. Never mind that ardent Muslims, with widespread support even in moderate Muslim societies, favor capital punishment for sexual malefactors and religious dissenters. The Religious Left, despite its global rhetoric, was always more concerned about domestic politics than human rights for anybody in Iran or Saudi Arabia.
And it has always been a source of pride among liberal religionists that they are supposedly more attuned to the sensitivities of other religions, primarily Islam, than are more provincial conservative Christians. The head of Southern Methodist University's seminary carefully explained the latest situation yesterday.
"American Muslims understand that built into the fabric of their religious convictions is the tenet that representing the Prophet Muhammad in any way would be abhorrent," said William Lawrence, dean of United Methodism's Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. "Conversely, American Christians are very familiar and quite comfortable with depictions of Jesus dying on the cross. But it's not the role of American Christians to tell others what the tenets of their religion should be simply because they don't recognize them in their own religious traditions. So this should prompt an important discussion about why such a tenet is significant in Islam."
Should Muslims be able to ban depictions of Muhammad through civil law or intimidation? Lawrence didn't say. Instead he continued: "In our society we have a very high level of commitment to freedom of speech, including the freedom to say something utterly reprehensible. But in many other parts of the world, that freedom isn't constitutionally assured. In those societies, the actions of the U.S. film producers (behind 'Innocence of Muslims') just wouldn't be tolerated."
True enough, but does the United Methodist seminary dean have any preference for either perspective, i.e. free speech versus blasphemy laws? If so, he demurred. Instead, Lawrence concluded in neutral terms: "It has been interesting to see the U.S. Secretary of State and President Obama -- as well as political leaders in Yemen, Egypt and Libya, whose political systems are still in development -- condemn the content of the film while at the same time condemn the violence that has erupted over it. And it is encouraging to see the leaders of those countries say that the people of the United States aren't to blame over the work of one person."
Should we be "encouraged" that majority Muslims societies still generate rage, however contrived or exploited, over an obscure film half a world away that may or may not exist? Lawrence evidently discerns common ground between Muslim Arabs and Americans leaders who equally denounce murder and the production of low quality insulting pseudo films.
More specific than the United Methodist seminary dean was liberal Baptist clergy Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, which was founded in the 1990s primarily to combat the Religious Right. Writing for the Washington Post, he surmised "how much work is left to be done before we fully eradicate the prejudice and heal from the wounds inflicted 11 years ago." The implication is that anti-Islam sentiment in America since 9-11 is as much if not more the problem than radical Islamic terror.
Noting "violence and hatred cannot be the basis for dialogue between the U.S. and the Arab world (really??), Gaddy lamented that "anti-Muslim bigotry that has become all too pervasive in the United States." The maker of the "hateful anti-Muslim film knew full well that it would provoke anger" among Muslims, he lamented. "We saw what hate brought on Sept. 11, 2001 and we saw what hate looked like when Terry Jones threatened to burn a Koran last year," he opined, as though destroying a holy book were morally on par with murder.
Gaddy explained that Libya has emerged from years of dictatorship so Libyans would misunderstand that an American film must have government approval. "We will do well to intensify our efforts to promote respect for religious freedom and strive for interreligious understanding every day, which will help create a new context for the inevitable misstatement or offensive remark that provides a framework within which the wrong quickly can be resolved."
But does "religious freedom" for Gaddy and others on the Religious Left include the right, as guaranteed in America's Constitution, to attack Islam through film or publicity stunts? Of course Americans have long endured a media and arts culture that routinely mocks Christianity. Should only attacks on Islam merit special regard and protection?
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, birthed by Eleanor Roosevelt, and once universally revered by secular and religious liberals, unequivocally declares in Article 18: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." And Article 19 says: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
Should critics of Islam, whether thoughtful or stupid, have full freedom of religion and freedom of expression? Enmeshed by radical multiculturalism, and intimidated by violent overseas mobs as well as by domestic political correctness, the Religious Left, among others, seems increasingly ambivalent about these rights.