Past as Prologue, 55 years ago?—Elegant statue of Muhammad “quietly” removed from the roof of the Appellate Division Courthouse on Madison Square, New York City in 1955, when seven feckless appellate judges, “encouraged” by the US State Department, needlessly submitted to Islamic supremacist dictates regarding “Tawsir,” or statuary.
‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’
The First Amendment, the most important of the ten that constitute the United States Constitution. It guarantees the the two most fundamental rights; freedom of religion, or conscience, and freedom of speech. Their central place in Western civilisation helps explain its success.
The situation of religious minorities dramatically highlights a basic difference between the modern West and the Islamic world. Ahmadis and Baha’is, Hindus and Buddhists, Jews and Christians are regularly persecuted in Muslim countries, even ones that have signed the United Nations resolution against religious intolerance.
Muslim terrorising of Christians who voted for East Timor’s independence in 1999 resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. Churches have been destroyed in Turkey and Cyprus. Christian congregations bombed in Pakistan and Egypt. In October 2001, gunmen on motorcycles killed eighteen members of a Christian congregation in the Punjab. In August 2002, masked gunmen killed six people at a Christian school for foreigners in Islamabad. In September 2002, terrorists entered the Peace and Justice Institute in Karachi, separated Christians from Muslims, and then executed the Christians with gun shots to the head. That is just a tiny snapshot of the problem.
In Iraq, attacks on the Christian minority increased as American troops prepared to leave. That population has dropped to less than half its size since the war started. By UN estimates, about one and a half million Christians were living in Iraq before 2003; now there are fewer than half a million. With the exit of the Americans, there is no one left to protect the remainder. Nearly 40% of the Iraqi refugees in Syria are Christians, religious persecution being the main reason for their exodus. The cousin of Joe Obayda, of Iraqi Christians in Need, was forced to flee when Muslim militants tried to convert his daughters to Islam and demanded money from him. Not a word is uttered by any Muslim spokesman against this persecution.
In the Western media, acts of violence against Christians are generally reported only in a tendentious and misleading way. When Muslims attack Christians – Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq, or Copts in Egypt, or Catholics in Pakistan – this is routinely called ‘sectarian strife’ as if both sides were equally at fault. Currently reports of the violence in Northern Nigeria are being distorted in this way.
If the West demands that Muslim countries live up to their political and moral obligations to protect the rights of beleaguered and often terrified minorities, then it is taking steps towards freedom of conscience and pluralism tout court. But as long as religion is joined to the state, Islamic fundamentalism will remain a source of violence. Freedom of conscience can only be guaranteed in a secular state, where religion is a private matter.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) codifies freedom of conscience in this way: 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.
But in speeches to Muslim Audiences, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have taken to using the words ‘freedom of worship,’ a narrower concept than ‘freedom of religion.’ This change in terminology marks a subtle shift in policy. It conveys the Obama administration’s unwillingness to defend Article 18, which clearly defends the right to change one’s religion, not just worship in a particular way.
Indeed that administration along with Western intellectuals and ‘mainstream media’ have been shamefully silent about the persecution of religious minorities in the Muslim world, especially the Ahmadis in Pakistan and Christians in all Muslim countries.
Freedom of expression is endorsed in Article 18 of the UDHR. Today, however, freedom of speech in the West is under threat from Radical Islam and even from ‘mainstream’ Muslim authorities. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has already succeeded in pushing resolutions through the UN Human Rights Council (remember them?) that undermine the very notion of free speech. At the same time, many liberals in the West, from government officials to academics and journalists have failed to stand up for our fundamental liberties but instead have engaged in appeasement and self-censorship.
The shameful abandonment of principle by many intellectuals in response to the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the publication of the Danish cartoons, the murder of Theo van Gogh, the death threats to Geert Wilders and Hirshi Ali, the censorship of Parker and Stone (that’s ‘South Park’ to you and me), even the screening or removal of works of art depicting Muhammad, all illustrate an abject cowardice on the part of our leaders and lawmakers in the face of Islamic extremism.
Time we said ‘Enough!’