Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Scattered Thoughts About Muslims, Sharia and Democracy

Recent events surrounding the publication of the cartoons disrespecting the Prophet Mohammad gave pundits around the world ample opportunity for inane commentary. Pronouncements that simply affirm "We're okay - they're not" are always well received, no matter how bone-headed. We saw and heard a lot of, "they simply don't get what free speech is all about," and precious little effort to really understand the Muslim viewpoint, much less genuine effort to reach out and engage them.

It's not enough to dismiss their complaints by saying, "they just don't get it." The implication - that they are stupid - generates understandable resentment. They would say that we do not take them seriously, and they would be right. These pronouncements come from people who do not feel threatened, but should be.

The advantages of allowing free speech, which we so take for granted, are not at all self-evident. Leaner societies than ours say they cannot tolerate the disorder free speech engenders. Of course, there is where freedom is needed most.

In our culture nearly everyone gets a public education up through secondary school, and a substantial number continue at a higher level. Here, free speech can be a given. In a culture where most instruction comes from religious schools, and few individuals advance beyond elementary levels, political authorities will say speech must be constrained. If someone says the wrong thing, riots in the streets could well result, as they have.

Even with our advantages, we are not so far removed from the cartoon rioters. In the USA,
no one dismisses people who want to ban flag burning by saying "they just don't get it." Surveys of American high school students show that over a third think the first amendment goes too far, over half think the government has the power to censor the internet and nearly three-fourths take our rights for granted. Oh, and 75% think flag burning is illegal (it's not... yet.)

Some Muslims, for example the daughter of the founder of the Fedayaeen, say the people in Muslim countries have been encouraged by their leadership to think the worst of the West. The leadership in those poor countries stir up fear, hate and now anger for their own political ends. Instead of honesty and democratic reform, the people are fed a diet of lies designed to unite them with a common enemy. Nothing so unites a people as a common enemy, and nothing else so entrenches the existing power.

Muslims immigrate to the West to take advantage of the material superiority we enjoy. Like everyone else, they want a better life for their families. At the same time, their leaders have no wish to integrate into our culture. For example, there is a Muslim movement within Great Britain to establish Sharia, or Islamic Law over British citizens. If they were to integrate into our culture, then the leaders would have to earn their positions through democratic processes. They fear democracy and the rule of the people because their own positions of power would be threatened. They are attempting to export their own tribal, feudal social order and establish it in western democracies under the name of "pluralism."

We have utterly failed to show the world how our material success relies on our free institutions. We failed to teach our own children the connection between the ability to publish offensive cartoons and the capacity to invent the internet.

We must do two things: First, we must insist that any adequate education include the rationale for and functioning of democratic governance. Courses that show the connection between productivity and free institutions must be part of any adequate education. These concepts need to be integrated into history and government classes. The government can influence religious schools by insisting that students seeking higher education receive these lessons and refusing aid to schools that do not teach them.

We need to do a better job of educating our own people and the rest of the world on why we need freedom of speech. People need to be shown how they personally benefit from allowing freedom of speech and the other rights we take for granted.

We cannot win this war with bombs. No quantity of munitions dropped on the hapless Afghans, Iraqis or Iranians will prevent the spread of Sharia. But I will fight it to my dying breath. We cannot allow our sons and daughters to come under the rule of narrow minded, absolutist intolerance.

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