Does freedom come from religion or democracy?
A lawyer friend of mine found himself in a forum in Moscow discussing the future with post-Soviet bureaucrats. Someone asked him what was the most important element to a healthy Russian future. My friend replied, “A free press.” His response was met with a mixture of enthusiasm and enmity. Freedom of speech is not a universal right, and some governments are less than enthusiastic about promoting this liberty. But it is, as my friend confidently announced, essential for the health of any society. The American Civil Liberties Union has defended some of the most despicable individuals the world has ever known, people who have used the First Amendment as a tool for building hatred and division among our citizenry.
But the ACLU has seen itself as a passionate defender against any attempt to infringe upon the American civil right to free speech. It makes no difference if the speaker is a communist or a Nazi, an anti-abortionist or an anti-Semite, if they are not allowed to freely express their opinions, the ACLU will be their advocate. Deeply disturbing as their actions often are, the ACLU is a fierce force for freedom, and we are, I believe, deeply indebted to them.You may have read about the controversy surrounding a Danish paper’s publication of 12 cartoons depicting Muslim life in less than flattering ways. There is even a drawing of the prophet Muhammad with a turban shaped like a bomb. The cartoons have caused a huge uproar in the Muslim world with responses ranging from demands for apologies to calls for violence. One particular tactic being employed by offended Muslims is the boycotting of all Danish goods, which, I assume, would include everything from delicious pastries to modern furniture. It is a legitimate response. I think boycotts can be an effective, nonviolent, force for change, but this boycott also describes the vast divide that separates two very distinct worldviews.In one worldview, there is the conviction that certain parameters must not be breeched. For the good of society, there must be limits on freedoms, particularly as they are concerned with the dominant religion.
In Islam it is forbidden to depict an image of Muhammad. To ridicule the prophet via the drawings is, of course, even more offensive. But Islam finds itself confronted by a second worldview that places an even higher value on a citizen’s right to express his or her opinion, no matter who it offends. This conundrum is causing a great deal of consternation among Muslims living in the modern world. What of their religious practices and beliefs must they divest in order to invest in contemporary society? A certain sensitivity to this dilemma on the part of non-Muslim members of the world might go a long way in building bridges of understanding between radically different cultures.That being said, it is also incumbent upon our Muslim neighbors to recognize the inherent value of free expression in a democracy. Most residents of the West would place their ultimate value not on their religious views but their democratic freedoms. It is the old adage, “Believe what you want, just don’t ask me to believe it, too.”
As the world becomes smaller, these conflicting worldviews will be ever more in tension. Addressing this problem will take a sensitive and sophisticated strategy that recognizes the enormous difference in cultural histories. It will take compromise from both sides to find resolution. Compromise and compassion.The American Civil Liberties Union’s reach does not extend to Denmark, of course. But I am certain that if they could, they would be advocating a strong defense against those folk who seek censorship. The battle being waged across the sea is a portent of a greater war yet to be waged. Rich Mayfield is a Saturday columnist. He can be contacted at http://www.christianagnostic.com. “‘Reconstructing Christianity’ My new book of days”is available at your favorite bookstore.
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