Friday, September 28, 2012

Religious Freedom, the West, and Islam

The United Nations global muckity muck gathering over the last week hasn't accomplished all that much, but it has been fascinating.  Particularly fascinating has been the sustained tension between the expectations within the Middle East and the West around what is and is not acceptable speech.

Listening to the undeniably intelligent and measured Mahmoud Ahmadinajad expound on freedom of speech was particularly intriguing.   The arguments he makes might seem, on the surface, rational.  In essence, he says: "Of course we believe in freedom.  We only ask that freedom be limited to what does not offend us.  Why would one misuse freedom to offend others?  Once you no longer say anything that offends us, you can say whatever you like."  A similar case, bordering on a demand, came from the new President of Egypt.

There is, as with most subtly pernicious things, a kernel of truth squirreled away in there.  The good and the kind and the gracious do not use their freedom to offend.

But on more thought, what this establishes, without question, is the gulf between the West and those portions of the world governed by conservative Islam.  The difference is striking, and nontrivial.

Over the last week, for instance, an obscure American blogger wrote a couple of short pieces about the President's faith, openly musing about the faith commitment of the President's campaign and wildly speculating about the President's church attendance.

For the five of you who read my posts, you took for granted, as I did when I wrote them, that I could publicly state my case without fear of imprisonment.   Might someone take offense?  Possibly.   But speech that has the potential to challenge sensibilities is fundamental to the health of a democratic republic.

Take the case of an agnostic Egyptian blogger who was recently detained for vocally wondering about the existence of God, and struggling to discern among the competing truth-claims of Islam, Christianity, and other faiths.  This was taken as an offense against Islam, as it implicitly questioned whether or not the Quran was true.  The blogger now faces a potential five year sentence in Egyptian prison under anti-blasphemy laws.

This is being described by some as a difference of opinion about the boundaries of speech.

It is not, any more than the difference between speech in the former Soviet Union and the United States was simply a "difference of opinion."   It is the difference between oppression and freedom.  Any system, be it religious or atheistic, leftist or right-wing, that utilizes coercive power to quash speech that questions its authority is inherently oppressive.

There cannot be a meeting of the minds on this issue, because to suppress speech in the way that is expected in Egypt and Libya and Iran would violate the essential integrity of our national character.

If we ban speech, suppress it, delimit it, or use the force of law to cast it from the public square, then democracy fails.    This is a hard won truth, one that the West will not ever and should not ever abandon.

Stepping away from that wouldn't just violate the integrity of the state, but also the integrity of faith itself.   Faith cannot be coerced and be real.   It must be embraced openly and freely, or it does not reflect the sort of relationship with God that God is seeking.

And that, for those of us who care about integrity in our relationship with God, is a big, big deal.