Saturday, August 14, 2010

Obama steps up on freedom of conscience

Freedom of conscience and the freedom of religion is a great and revolutionary principle. In the great Arab califates, particularly in Cordoba in Spain in the 12th and 13th century, such freedom was first practiced toward other “peoples of the book.” Jews and Catholics flourished during the califate (see Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World). In Cordoba and Granada, there was even a golden age of poetry in Hebrew – one of the great moments in the diaspora – and the medicine and philosophy of Maimonides.

The Arab conquerors adopted these policies of toleration for political reasons. They were a minority, and wanted to rule over others not simply by force or by divide and rule, but with some degree of cooperation and even flourishing. That is the driving force in what Menocal describes, so that the nun Hroswitha, in far away Germany, hearing the Catholic representative of the califate and learning of Cordoba, spoke of it an “an ornament of the world.” Policy was, in this respect, moral. The life of Cordoba shines compared to oppressive kingships and tyrannies elsewhere.

In the Cordoba project in New York, Americans, also Muslims, seek to celebrate that heritage. It is a noble one and much denied by, in this respect, ignorant bigots including Thomas Friedman in the New York Times and the late Samuel P. Huntington who insist that “Islam does not tolerate pluralism.” Arab Europe pioneered toleration and great Christians like Alfonso the Wise and Pedro the Cruel took up these policies. They were betrayed by a benighted Pope, who launched the Inquisition and sent Columbus to commit genocide in a “new world.”

For a long time, intolerance and Catholicism were synonymous. Thus, the King and Church butchered Huguenots (Protestants) on St. Bartholomew’s Day in France in the 17th century. Those slaughters were of course opposed by other Catholics. Montesquieu hails the Vicomte d’Orte who refused the sovereign’s order: here, he replies, there are only “braves soldats (brave soldiers) et bons citoyens (good citizens),” so we cannot carry out such an order. Through religious persecutions, dissenting sects came to form America. They often persecuted each other (cf. Anne Hutchinson) or, in utter degradation, burned “witches.” But a decent (liberal and conservative and radical) movement emerged which culminated in the First Amendment to the American Constitution. That there would be no obstacle to freedom of religion, that each can follow her conscience so long as she does not harm others, is a great principle. It extends toleration not just to groups - as in the califates of 5 centuries before - but to each person. Michael Bloomberg rightly celebrated it, taking some political heat. See here. So, now, has Barack Obama, in a situation, as Glenn Greenwald underlines here, where there is no political gain domestically.

“To anyone wanting to quibble with what was done here -- the timing, the wording, etc. -- I'll just pose this question: when is the last time a President voluntarily entered an inflammatory public controversy by taking a position opposed by 70% of the public?”

Greenwald makes a really good point. Well, perhaps Obama himself, in releasing the torture memos when required by the judicial decision over the outcry of 4 former heads of the CIA. He has now undone some of that good, but the fact that he released those documents isolates, on that issue, his current decadence (see here).

But the principle of freedom of religion is just as sharp. He was under no requirement, except a moral one, to speak out. He could have, on this issue, as most politicians, temporized or hidden. But Obama, at his best, as we saw in the campaign on the issue of race, does not do this. He does the right thing.

“President Obama delivered a strong defense on Friday night of a proposed Muslim community center and mosque near ground zero in Manhattan, using a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan to proclaim that ‘as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country’ . . .

“‘I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground,’ the president said in remarks prepared for the annual White House iftar, the sunset meal breaking the day’s fast.”

“But, he continued: ‘This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are’. . ."

Obama stands for an America which represents, in this fundamental respect, a great and decent alternative to all theocracies, Islamic, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or other. Gingrich (who should really strive to become a Dr. Seuss character and, in the end, recover himself) spouted off about: when they have synagogues and churches in Saudi Arabia, then we can have a mosque in New York. Let us conduct ourselves as badly as the worst, Gingrich seems to suggest, or in a Cheneyesque imagining, even outdo them.

In fact, the freedom of religion that Obama and Bloomberg celebrate is the inheritor and strengthener – the guarantor of the equal basic rights of each individual – of the toleration of long ago Cordoba. This is something that decent people have united on, Arab, European and American, inter alia, to make a less murderous politics. Palin, the anti-Defamation league (becoming a Defamation League for the occasion), Giuliani and other – on this fundamental issue – bigots foster war between the United States and predominantly Islamic countries. Their answer to the slaughter of innocents on 9/11 is, apparently, to slaughter many more innocents (and America, even under Obama, has gone much too far with this in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan). They do not think that in the Middle East, their intolerance can be invoked to close the hearts of some Arabs against other Arabs, including Christians. Or worse, they do not care. Their calculations are narrowly political - and will very likely lead us, heedlessly, into further war and (self-)destruction.

Obama, in contrast, understands that toleration isolates and weakens those fanatics who would kill innocents: "Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam — it is a gross distortion of Islam. In fact, Al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion, and that list includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11." But a policy of religious freedom enlists the support of most Muslims in America and world wide, including the people working to found the Cordoba Center. The upholding of basic rights for each person in a plural society is a strength of the American past and poses a shining model for the present and future. Andrew Sullivan here and Glenn Greenwald and Joan Walsh here are right. Obama’s words deserve to be celebrated.

1 comment:

Post a Comment