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Commentary By Charlotte Allen

Unfree to Be . . .

Culture, Culture Culture & Society, Race

Religious liberty and human rights

This book is yet another riposte to the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s incendiary and much-discussed The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). Huntington’s book had been itself a response to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992). Fukuyama had argued that, what with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire, the era of political and ideological conflicts (history”) was over, and the whole world was now lumbering, in an immense metaphorical wagon train, toward Western-style liberal democracy with all its blessings and ills.

Huntington maintained, contra, that the Soviet implosion merely signaled the reemergence of older cultural and religious conflicts that had long predated Marxism and other ideologies of modernity. The most significant of those resurgent conflicts, Huntington predicted, would be that between Islam and the West, the former invigorated by an exploding population and a resurgence of traditional Muslim religiosity in defiance of the aggressively secularist governments that held sway in many Islamic countries during much of the 20th century.

Huntington believed that the fault lines” between cultures, whether they lay along political boundaries between countries or within the boundaries of a single country, were and would continue to be loci of violence, especially religiously motivated violence that included the formal and informal persecution of religious minorities. Unlike Fukuyama, who believed that religion was a spent historical force, and that cultures were irrelevant except insofar as they embraced or rejected modernity, Huntington argued that culture and religion were inextricably intertwined and continued to be powerful human motivators. He was thinking of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but his book did not do a bad job of predicting 9/11 and its geopolitical aftermath that pitted the West against militant forms of Islam. Huntington argued that Western nations needed to recognize that their treasured values and institutions were not universal and that it was necessary to assert and defend them politically and militarily in order to survive in recognizably Western form.

Needless to say, Huntington’s theories came in for much criticism from his fellow academics, especially the progressives among them who had embraced the idea of multiculturalism: the idea that there was nothing inherently superior about Western civilization and that Western nations should accept and even promote a diversity of ethnic and religious cultures within their borders. Multiculturalism appeared to be an especially appealing and tolerant way of dealing with the Muslims who streamed into Western Europe during the last decades of the 20th century, challenging the highly secularized and demographically declining Christian (or more accurately, post-Christian) hegemony there and demanding to be governed by their own mores. The most virulent of Huntington’s critics was the Columbia English professor and Palestinian apologist Edward Said, now also deceased. In a lengthy review of Huntington’s ideas in the leftist magazine the Nation, Said accused Huntington of racism, jingoism, reductionism, Islamophobia, and many other sins. Huntington’s leftist critics tended to attribute rising levels of religious conflict to a surge of fundamentalism” that equally afflicted Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths.

In The Price of Freedom Denied, Brian J. Grim, a senior researcher at the Pew Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, and Roger Finke, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Penn State, offer a different sort of critique of Huntington—although, as I shall argue, they end up advocating the same sort of multiculturalism as Huntington’s progressive foes. Grim and Finke belong to what they call the religious economies” school of analysis of religion pioneered during the 1970s and 1980s by the sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge. It is essentially a free-market and supply-side approach to religious affiliation, arguing that people adhere to specific religions not because those religions are embodied in their cultures but because the religions respond effectively to their individual needs and desires. They cite as an example the sixfold growth of American-style Pentecostal Christianity over the past 20 years in Brazil, a country whose Portuguese culture once made it solidly Roman Catholic. Thus, Grim/Finke argue, it is illogical to hypothesize a clash of civilizations” as an explanation for religious conflict, although they concede that such clashes do exist.

They contend instead that religious conflicts, including (and perhaps especially) religious persecution, arise out of efforts by governments and societies to regulate individual religious preferences. This can include government policies that explicitly favor a majority religion, or cartel” of officially approved religions, as well as government acquiescence in societal prejudices against minority religions, such as the pervasive anti-Semitism in Europe that generated violence against Jews long before Hitler made it official policy.

[W]e propose that the higher the degree to which governments and societies ensure religious freedoms for all, the less violent persecution and conflict along religious lines there will be,” Grim/Finke write. They add:

We propose that diverse religions can coexist in the same geographic space without conflict. But when the restrictions on religion become heavy and deny the religious freedoms of some or all, violent religious persecution and broader social conflict are likely.

Grim/Finke argue that religious conflict is pervasive throughout the world because nearly all countries in the world (86 percent by their reckoning) restrict or regulate religion in some fashion and thus generate religious violence, even though their constitutions typically guarantee religious freedom. The regimes include that of China, where members of unapproved religions are regularly imprisoned; that of Russia, where Jehovah’s Witnesses and other adherents of nontraditional faiths complain that police are slow to respond to vandalism of their property and disruption of their worship services; and those of Western Europe, where anti-cult movements encourage discrimination against members of so-called new religions. Indeed, start-up costs” for a new religion, such as registering with the government and finding a landlord willing to rent it worship space, can be daunting enough to exact social costs: a decline in the supply of religious options ... meaning less religious plurality and choice,” Grim/Finke write.

Even the United States, with its strong First Amendment protections for religion, is not immune from official intrusions upon religious liberty, Grim/Finke insist. They cite the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division of Oregon, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith upholding a denial of state unemployment benefits on misconduct grounds to two men fired from their jobs as counselors at a drug rehabilitation clinic for using peyote in a Native American Church ritual. Congress attempted to nullify the Smith ruling with the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993, but in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that RFRA was unconstitutional, at least to the extent that it applied to the actions of state and local governments. Furthermore, Grim/Finke point out, the Smith ruling had a chilling effect on subsequent First Amendment litigation. Many more plaintiffs lost their cases, and many more felt reluctant to take their claims to court in the first place. Members of minority religions suffered the most, especially with respect to zoning disputes involving their places of worship.

Grim/Finke also point to persistent reports of religiously motivated hate crimes in all 50 states: assaults, church-burnings, synagogue defacements. Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, Grim/Finke decry what they describe as a growing Supreme Court-blessed tyranny of the majority” in America regarding toleration of the beliefs and practices of minority religions.

Grim/Finke devote much of their book to case studies of countries—China, Japan, India, Brazil, Nigeria, and others—whose statistics support their correlation of incidences of religious conflict with those countries’ restrictions or lack of restrictions on religion. The governments involved offer an array of justifications for the restraints: national security, decreasing interfaith tension, nation-building (as in Kemalist Turkey), maintaining strict secularism in public life (the rationale for the 2004 French ban on the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols by students in public schools), and in the case of the Supreme Court in the Smith decision, upholding the validity of a religiously neutral state law—classifying the mescaline in peyote as an illegal drug—that applied equally to all residents of Oregon. Then Grim/Finke turn their attention to the elephant in the religious room, the same elephant that caught Samuel Huntington’s attention: Islam.

Muslim-majority countries lead the world in violent religious persecution. During the first seven years of the 21st century, the two scholars note, there was violent religious persecution in every single Muslim-majority country with a population of more than two million, compared with 78 percent of Christian-majority countries and 86 percent of other countries. Furthermore, 46 percent of Muslim-majority countries have the highest levels of persecution,” which Grim/Finke define as leading to the displacement or abuse of more than 1,000 persons because of their faith. Only 11 percent of Christian-majority countries fall into that category. Interestingly—and this is why Grim/Finke reject the surge-of-fundamentalism rationale offered by leftists—in 1945, a year in which some of the most egregious and lethal government restrictions on religious freedom in human history prevailed in the Christian-majority countries of Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union, Muslim-majority countries had even higher levels of religious regulation than Christian-majority countries overall. And when those countries, which were largely under European colonial rule during World War II, won their independence during the postwar years, their levels of religious regulation soared still higher, while those in the Christian-majority West, determined not to repeat the Holocaust, declined.

In other words, fundamentalism has always been the rule in Islamic-majority countries, its persistence masked in recent years by the secular-nationalist policies of their leaders.

The reason for this lies in the nature of Islam itself, Grim/Finke argue. The prophet Muhammad first and foremost established a social order that was to be lived in conformity to the will of the one true God as revealed in the holy Quran,” they write. In the Dar al-Islam there is no distinction between religion and society, and religious apostasy is not only the gravest of sins against God but the gravest of sins against the social order, treason. Sharia law—the science of interpreting the Koran and sayings of Muhammad and applying them to social situations—is integral to Islam. Grim/Finke argue that the most significant religious clashes involving Muslims have taken place not along the fault lines between Islam and the West but within the Dar al-Islam itself, where theologically motivated factions jostle, often violently, to impose their competing visions of the true” Islam and sharia upon their fellows. That means that victims of religious persecution and religious violence in Muslim-majority countries are likely to be other Muslims—and indeed, statistics show that Muslims are far more likely to be persecuted in Muslim-majority countries than they are in Christian-majority countries. As for Muslim-launched terrorist acts against the West, Grim/Finke argue that their true aim has been to claim [the terrorists’ own] country for Islam.” Al Qaeda, for example, started out as a group of Wahhabi purists outraged by the decadence of the Saudi royal family and its hosting of infidel American troops on sacred soil.

Grim/Finke’s analysis of sharia’s centrality in Islamic society, and on the brutal internecine warfare that has characterized much of Muslim culture since the prophet’s death is shrewd—although their it’s-not-about-you breeziness regarding a stream of West-directed Islamic terrorism, especially the 9/11 massacre (which was neither the first nor the last Muslim attempt to blow apart a U.S. commercial airliner laden with passengers), stopped me short. Grim/Finke cite a 2000 survey by the First Amendment Center indicating that 73 percent of Americans believed that all religious groups are entitled to freedom of worship regardless of how extreme their beliefs are.” They continue: Only seven years later, however, the number agreeing dropped to 56 percent.”

I wonder why.

I am not advocating persecution of Muslims, or even making Muslim girls take off their headscarves as the French make them do; but there is something off-key about tut-tutting the Supreme Court for upholding the firing of two drug counselors—yes, drug counselors—after they tested positive for the cactus equivalent of LSD. Grim/Finke contend that the Smith ruling set America on a slippery slope to tyranny of the majority” in religious matters. That seems a hyperbolic projection. For one thing, little harm was done by the ruling. Since the Native American Church is a real church dating to the early 20th century, believe it or not, not an invention of sixties hippies, both the Oregon legislature and Congress quickly amended the law to accommodate peyote use in Indian religious rites. For another, had the Supreme Court ruled otherwise, America would have been set on another kind of slippery slope: forced to condone polygamy (a bona fide practice of dissident Mormons and also, ahem, some Muslims) and even human sacrifice (a bona fide practice undoubtedly of some of the ancestors of the members of the Native American Church). Grim/Finke have little faith in American tolerance and American common sense.

Which leads to the second problem with Grim/Finke’s analysis. Like the leftists with whom they disagree on most other issues, Grim/Finke are strong proponents of religious multiculturalism. They write that multiculturalism with religious pluralities does not lead to violence as Huntington suggests—the attempt to prevent multiculturalism and religious pluralities does.” Perhaps so. But how should a multiculturalism-friendly government respond when, say, its Muslim population agitates to be governed by sharia law, as Islam demands of its societies? In 2004 Canada’s Ontario province came within a hair’s breadth of turning over Islamic divorces and child-custody disputes to Muslim clerics in the name of multiculturalism; the transfer was stopped only after feminists pointed out that sharia is not a legal system that promotes anything resembling a Western concept of women’s rights.

Toward the end of The Price of Freedom Denied, Grim and Finke display a graph that correlates the religious freedom in given countries with a number of other freedoms, including gender equality—and also with lower poverty, economic freedom, and a higher percentage of GDP spent on public health. The graph is a picture of . . . the West. The good things shown in the graph, including religious liberty, exist because they are the products of values that are specifically Western, deriving from the West’s admittedly secularized Christian heritage.

If Western cultures are unwilling to stand up for those values, they will find themselves in a clash of civilizations that they will surely lose.

This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard

This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard