Last week, writing in Slate, Steven Waldman added his voice to the growing chorus to bar Rev. Franklin Graham from Iraq. Sure, Graham’s humanitarian organization might deliver vital food and clothing to a starving, threadbare people, he allowed. But the idea is still “absolutely loopy” on its face. The explicit missionary thrust of Samaritan’s Purse and the public statements of Graham on the nature of Islam — he doesn’t buy the “religion of peace” interpretation — would send the wrong message to the Muslim world, and we can’t have that.
The article further argued that “religious liberty does not trump all concerns.” In this case, it would be in the interest of national security and regional stability to repress the missionaries. For constitutional purists, Graham could be reined in without official — or, I suppose we could say “official official” — intervention. If George Bush were to privately ask him to “stand down,” he would likely acquiesce. The Rev. could still contribute to the humanitarian effort by raising money and giving it to third parties like Doctors Without Borders. “Better yet,” he could give it to Muslim charities. Waldman asked readers to imagine with him the kumbaya-like effects such a donation could have on “interfaith tolerance.”
But once we’ve had that moment of Zen, it might be fun to think about the reaction that blue state America has had to Islam during the War on Terrorism. When Ann Coulter wrote her infamous column advocating that the U.S. respond to September 11 by “invad[ing] their countries, kill[ing] their leaders and convert[ing] them to Christianity,” it was the last part that sparked the most outrage. To many, this was vile, retrograde stuff.
Most commentators sniffed when Coulter explained that such conversion should be voluntary. But now that the U.S. has to some extent embraced her first two suggestions, the third is worth considering. To dispatch the most obvious canard, she wasn’t calling for theocracy. Rather, the type of Christianity that she would have converted them to is American Christianity, which is as varied as it is massive.
In fact, America’s genuinely radical approach to religion was to refuse to give one church the ability to use the law as an instrument to lord it over another. Baptists may think Unitarians are headed for hell and Unitarians may think them unbalanced in return, but neither can forcibly convert the other or institute a tax on belief or unbelief. An ever shifting kaleidoscope of churches leads to a wide array of interpretations and approaches to scripture and tradition. And a lack of central authority means that the beliefs and practices of these churches arise in response to the needs and whims of the people who choose to warm the pews.
Which brings us back to Iraq, Islam and the War on Terror. President Bush has insisted since his 2002 State of the Union that freedom of religion is one of the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity,” and he no doubt believes this for practical as well as theological reasons. If radical Islam is a perversion of a great religion, it is a perversion funded by hostile governments which enforce some form of Sharia at home and subsidize mosques with fire-breathing Imams abroad. As a rule, Muslim countries don’t allow Christian churches to be built and level steep penalties for proselytizing or converting to religions other than Islam.
It would be hard to find a substance more disruptive for such Islamic regimes than American Christianity and there is arguably no better soil in the Middle East to sink it than Iraq. Under Saddam, it was the least Islamic state in the region, save Israel. The prohibition against alcohol was not only widely ignored but mocked. Christmas was a statutory holiday and Iraq’s 1 million Christians were tolerated and allowed to serve in the military and in government.
Unlike many of my co-religionists, I’m willing to believe that Islam is a great faith whose writings and traditions are worth studying and even, in some cases, emulating. But the Gordian knot that ties mosque and state has to be severed, for the good of the mosque. (It’s worth pointing out that Islam is surviving and slowly growing in the U.S.) The Bush administration has wisely chosen not to obstruct Southern Baptist, Catholic, Mormon and other missionary relief workers as they move into Iraq to help with the clean up effort. No doubt, they’re looking to feed souls as well as mouths. But, as in the U.S., the total effect of their sectarian efforts might be the growth of genuine pluralism in the Middle East.
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