The challenge of Islam and the American perspective of freedom of religion
I confess I am fed up with the liberal news media and the controversy surrounding the proposed building of a mosque near ground zero. To propose building a mosque anywhere near ground zero is provocative, disrespectful, and will send the wrong message to terrorists. It is a classic political ploy by Islamic leaders, for now they are talking with New York Governor David Patterson about a compromise site. By the Muslims taking this extreme position first, they have laid the foundation for an appearance of being magnanimous, willing to compromise, but the fact remains that they should never have brought this up in the first place. This is an old school political ploy in America for radical causes – shock the opposition first with an unreasonable demand, and then back off a bit, allowing you to get more than you ever would have gotten otherwise.
This morning I read an article in USA Today online edition, written by Rick Hampson, where he quoted a Brooklyn physician Ali Akram, who called the protesters against the cultural center “un-American. They teach their children about the freedom of religion in America, but they don’t practice what they preach.” The doctor is wrong. On the contrary, to raise concerns about Islam is precisely practicing what we preach about the issue of freedom of religion. American Evangelical Christians do not need lectures by liberal press media and Muslim physicians about freedom of religion.
The concept of freedom of religion that rose out of the American colonial experience had an evolution, a development. First came religious tolerance, where one Christian denomination was the state church, receiving tax support and official recognition, and the others were tolerated. This was patterned after the European experience and, without question, was a great improvement over the previous era of one Christian denomination persecuting other Christian denominations.
Religious freedom was first experienced in the American Colonies in Rhode Island by the founders, among whom was the Baptist leader Roger Williams (1636). The idea was developed in as much a rejection of the taxation of non-believers to support a church they were not members of, as it was an ideal to let different denominations co-exist. It was considered unethical by these early Baptists to coerce non-believers through taxes to financially support the state church. It has developed further in thought and in values over the centuries, but it is essential to understand its development to grasp its proper application.
All freedoms have their limitations, and it is no different with freedom of religion. Our right to swing our fists wildly in the air ends where someone else’s nose begins. The American Bill of Rights (1791) simply states that congress shall make no laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Immediately questions on this matter are raised. For examples, what if a religion’s practice insisted on taxing non-believers? To deny them that right would, of course, be prohibiting the free exercise of their religion. Or what of the Canaanite religions of ancient Palestine that practiced child sacrifice? And perhaps the most significant question: how do we define what religion is? Clearly the word “religion” had some definition attached in the minds of the framers of this amendment.
Abraham Lincoln presented the difficulty of using words with unclear or even contradictory definitions by posing the question: If you called the tail a leg, how many legs would a horse have? The answer was, of course, only four, for calling its tail a leg does not make it so. But when we look at the different ideologies that we call “religions” we find that there is not a precise consensus among them as to what a religion is. The only thing we can be sure of is that the founding fathers referred to those religions which were active in America in those days, namely Christianity and Judaism.
Forceful coercion to the faith was then and remains today a key issue in this matter. The American Bill of Rights could have limited religion rather than congress, saying such things as “religion shall not impose its beliefs on others,” but they did not. Instead they specifically limited congress from prohibiting the free expression of religious faith. Yet the specific history surrounding the matter, and common sense itself, indicates that all religious faiths in such a system must abide by a non-coercive policy regarding conversion and apostasy.
The question is whether or not Islam fits this definition of religion, as an ideology that may peacefully exist with others. The real problem with Islam is its practice of “conversion” through the sword, and the practice of murdering those who leave Islam for another religion. If Islam only sought to peacefully proclaim its message and asked people to believe, if it only sought to keep its adherents within its ranks by words and philosophical arguments, then it would fit the pattern of the founding fathers’ expectations more than 200 years ago. But it does not precisely fit this pattern. This coercive approach to the spread of their religion is found in their Qur’an and many of the adherents believe is inherent in the message.
For example, America also believes in free-enterprise, we allow people to conduct business and make money relatively free from government entanglements, except those that protect the public good and prevent unfair competition. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a man opened a business in town where he threatened to kill all who did not shop in his store. And when a customer of his decided to trade at another business, he stalked him and killed him. We would quickly decide that this man’s violent activities were not part of running a retail business – that he had added something to his own understanding of business practices that significantly altered the entire concept, redefining it all together. We would outlaw such practices and imprison the man.
But suppose the man actually had a franchise, and this tactic was in the employee handbook of how to run a business. Would we not outlaw the entire franchise? Someone might argue, But that is not free enterprise! And we would quickly argue back that the ethic and the method of doing business for this franchise had put them beyond the functioning frame work of business laws. Of course, could not they simply strike that part from their company strategy and still operate? A business perhaps could, but when we apply this to the field of religion we have another problem.
The question is whether the teachings of violence against non-believers and apostates of Islam are such an integral part of Islam that they cannot simply be re-interpreted, clarified, or explained away by Muslim scholars. If coercive conversion, death to apostates, and death even to people who criticize key points of their faith, are necessary parts of Islam, then this is not the type of religion that the founding fathers were thinking about when they wrote the Bill of Rights. Christians and Jews, while not believing alike on all points, both practice coercive-free religions. People are free to believe and free to leave the churches and synagogues.
Nonbelievers are free to even say and write blasphemous things about Christ and the Bible and Christianity in general – things that greatly offend a Christian’s conscience. All we ask for is the right to respond to such criticism. The same can be said for Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sikhism, and even Mormonism. Like Christianity, the spread of their religion is not achieved through violence – and though at times in history violence has erupted, conversion by coercion is not an integral part of their message or the spreading of their faith. But say or write anything deemed blasphemous about Islam and someone will put a price on your head.
It is not correct to equate passages of Old Testament wars to the teachings of the Qur’an. The Bible was written over a 1500 year period, and though there are different interpretations of the wars of annihilation that Israel fought against its enemies in the Old Testament, these happened a thousand years before the birth of Christ. Christianity has made the Old Covenant obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), and in Christianity in itself there is no allowance for forceful conversions. The Qur’an, on the other hand, was the product of one generation, and, therefore, all its teachings remain in effect.
Some Islamic scholars argue that the passages advocating violence against unbelievers and apostates are not properly interpreted by the radicals and terrorists. We wish these Islamic scholars well in their efforts to clarify these matters. Yet until they do, until this matter is clarified, non-Muslims must look upon Islam suspiciously, never letting our guard down, never knowing when a radical may seek to fulfill the will of Allah by violence.
To the point of building an Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York City, the matter is provocative to non-Muslims and is encouraging to the radical Muslims themselves. Moderate Muslims will argue that they want to build it for the sake of their own religion, to proclaim and practice an Islam that is non-violent. I seriously doubt that building a Mosque on ground zero will have such an effect. It will instead send a message to the radicals that terrorism works, that justifies at the expense of the innocent the spreading of Islam through violence.
Any thinking person who will examine the faiths cannot even begin to equate the message of Christianity with Islam on the question of violence. The clear passages of the New Testament espouse a peaceful faith that seeks to bless others, that even seeks the good of the non-believing community while it proclaims its message without coercion. For examples:
1 Timothy 2:1-4: I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
Romans 12:14-21: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Some have pointed out such leaders as Jim Jones and David Koresh of Waco, as proofs that Christianity may also become violent. Any ideology, whether faith-based or not, can become violent, but these small and otherwise obscure sects, ostracized by all other Christian groups, as tragic as the consequences were for the adherents, were about mind control and twisting the truth, not about basic Christianity. The gospel preached and the faith practiced was not the faith of the Bible. They were short-lived, isolated groups, not branches of new thought that grew a violent type of Christian teaching based on the New Testament.
The only reasonable response of Americans to Islam is (1) to insist that the type of Islam that is practiced in America is non-violent, and that its teachings are monitored to insure non-violence and (2) that a clear separation exists between Islam in America and radical violent Islam elsewhere. If these factors cannot be guaranteed, then the only logical conclusion is that Islam is not the type of “religion” that the founding fathers had in mind and it must be outlawed in America.
We have done the same with every ideology that has come upon our shores since our existence.
So far as a political ploy goes, I have to congratulate whoever thought up the idea of building an Islamic cultural center in New York – the enemy is clever if nothing else. It was a master stroke and even duped the New York City Council. There were two possible outcomes – both advantageous for radical Islam: either it would be approved or disapproved. Either way they could then spin the outcome to their favor – an approval showed Islam is victorious and disapproval showed America is out to persecute Islam. To have it approved by the city council and rejected by the majority of people still plays in the hands of extremists.
 And, by the way, I confess that I am a bit baffled by the linking up of Islam and the liberal media on this or any issue. What are they (the news media personnel) thinking? Do they think any form of Islam will bring more freedom to the press?