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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Voices for intellectual freedom: A tale of two meetings on religious tolerance ....

In Worldwide Hate Speech Laws? Muslims and Christians together, (11/24/2008, Volume 014, Issue 10), Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, contrasts two meetings on the subject:
Two international meetings to promote interfaith harmony were held in the last two weeks, one in New York and one in Rome. The former, called by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia under the auspices of the United Nations, drew some 20 heads of state to discuss a "Culture of Peace." The latter brought together Muslim and Catholic scholars at the Vatican in the latest session of the dialogue called A Common Word. Both gatherings underscored the gulf between us. At both, all parties spoke for peace and tolerance, but they often meant different things.

As President Bush made clear in his remarks at the U.N. meeting, tolerance is understood in the West as respect for religious freedom. For the Muslim leaders in New York, tolerance means respect for religion itself, particularly Islam. As the astute Turkish political observer Ziya Meral pointed out, if Muslim leaders really wanted tolerance for different religious viewpoints, they would be holding similar discussions within their own societies. But no such discussions are going on.

Especially since 9/11, Islam has been publicly scrutinized, criticized, and sometimes ridiculed in the West to an extent never seen (or permitted) in Muslim lands. Many Muslims feel deeply offended by this, as well as troubled by the violent responses the criticism has sometimes drawn from Muslims--riots, death threats, even murders. Their leaders' solution is to try to halt the cycle by demanding an end to criticism of Islam, even in private speech.
The trouble is, when government interferes with religion, even for the good of religion, the result is bad for religion. Governments that are in the business of protecting a religion from ridicule will not hesitate to interfere with matters of faith and morals that are not their business. Thus the main reason that most Christians in the West value separation of church and state is to protect the church, not the state.

Not surprisingly then, the main outcome of the recent Canadian Islamic Congress-backed complaints to the human rights commissions against the popular Mark Steyn and historic Maclean's Magazine has been this: Many people who do not know much about Islam now see it in a much more unflattering light.

Suppose, by contrast, the Congress had responded to Steyn's article simply by publishing a book ("Voices of Islam in Canada"?) and then hitting the talk shows. People might have begun to think that the Congress had a point, that perhaps Steyn had overtopped himself ...

As it is, the Congress demonstrated precisely what Steyn had been trying to say, that freedoms we take for granted here would not accommodate easily to their value system. Nice one.

Shea's Hudson Institute, by the way, downgraded Canada recently from a 1 to a 2 in religion freedom.

Also, speaking of Saudi Arabia, check out Shea's 2008 Update: Saudi Arabia's Curriculum of Intolerance.

Here's the meeting I'd rather get invited to, as Shea describes it:
A Common Word is a more nuanced, sophisticated effort and holds greater promise of leading to peaceful coexistence, if only in the very long run. It too was initiated by Muslim leaders stirred by perceived criticisms of Islam, specifically Pope Benedict's 2006 Regensburg speech.

At last week's session, each side was represented by 29 religious leaders and scholars. The Vatican's team included converts from Islam and bishops from Muslim states where Christians are persecuted. One participant told me, after hearing "horrible stories of suffering and abuse," that he was convinced "the Vatican won't sell out the Catholic minorities for public expediency."

The final document produced by the Rome gathering contains 15 principles, including respect for individual choice in matters of conscience and religion and "the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and in public."

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