- - Thursday, May 28, 2009


Next week, President Obama travels to Egypt to make a major address to the Muslim world. If past experience is any guide, he will continue apologizing for America’s “mistakes” and bend over backward trying to explain that the United States is not a threat to Islam.

The temptation will be to make it all about us, while avoiding the larger issue of how America should approach the issue of religion in the Muslim world.

This would be a huge mistake.

The Muslim world will indeed be listening, and frankly the chorus of American apologies is falling on deaf ears. Mr. Obama’s mea culpa campaign has produced no outpouring of Muslim support for his policies.

Instead of wallowing in guilt, the president should find a way to connect America’s tolerance of Islam with honest criticism of extremists who abuse others — Muslim as well as non-Muslim — in Islam’s name. After all, Muslims have suffered the most at the hands of Islamist extremists.

Mr. Obama should take a universal approach, one that not only appeals to all Muslims, but is also grounded in America’s successful historical experience with religious liberty. Prior speeches indicate he should be comfortable with this approach.

In 2006, he said, “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King … were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause.”

True enough. But it’s one thing for a radical Islamist to use “religious language” to justify murdering people, and another for King to argue that his religion would condemn such a murder. Both would be drawing from their own religious convictions. But King would draw, as well, from a long constitutional tradition of religious freedom and the rule of law.

Political and religious freedoms go hand in hand in America. Each reinforces the other. Political freedom provides the space in which religious freedom can be practiced according to individual conscience.

This is not some odd phenomenon peculiar to Americans, but a model that is good for others to follow. What is truly strange, the Economist once mused, is “when America has tried to tackle religious politics abroad, especially jihadist violence, it has drawn no lessons from its domestic success.”

Strange indeed, not only because religious freedom works, but because it is the most compassionate way of accommodating the world’s various religions.

The major issue surrounding religion and global politics is not that our country disrespects Islam or any other religion. The central issue is that too many governments in the world don’t sufficiently protect their religious minorities. Some Muslim-dominated countries do embrace the ideals of religious tolerance, but numerous others persecute religious minorities. The latter deserve closer scrutiny and condemnation. What is worse, such regimes — like Iran — commonly make incessant demands for Western apologies as cover for their oppression of their own people.

Surely, we can couple the need to respect religious minorities with the positive message that religious freedom benefits Muslims. We should not let ourselves be cornered by the argument that unless we consent to Muslims persecuting non-Muslims we have no respect for Islam. Our position should be that Muslims the world over should be free to practice their religion, but their governments should respect other religions as well.

We should send these messages without being preachy or arrogant, but also acknowledge that we do have a serious image problem in one area. Many Muslims are turned off by American secularism. They look at America’s anything-goes popular culture and conclude that it is not for them. What is worse, they equate our diplomatic squeamishness about religion, and our constant apologies for our religious views, as anti-religious bias.

They are wrong that America is a vast wasteland of nonbelievers. A recent Pew survey found 84 percent of Americans say they have a religious affiliation. But you can understand how others arrive at their misperceptions by watching our television and movies or even, in some cases, listening to our diplomats.

We have to find a better way to talk about religion in our diplomacy. We should not be hawking Britney Spears, nor should we try to sell America like toothpaste. But we must convey how our historical experience offers vital lessons about the relationship of religion and political freedom.

And the biggest lesson of all is that religion flourishes best when it is allowed to grow freely as a matter of individual conscience.

• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (Heritage.org) and the author of “Liberty’s Best Hope.”

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