Monday, February 23, 2009

During Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s Asian tour, a Japanese student asked her how to “eliminate the prejudice towards the Islamic world” in the context of the war on terrorism. Mrs. Clinton responded that the struggle against terrorism is not the result of prejudice against the Muslim world, but a defense against violent extremism. So far so good. Then she added, “Every religion has people who misuse that religion. You know, I’m a Christian, and through the centuries we’ve had many people who have done terrible things in the name of Christianity. They have perverted the religion.”

These pandering remarks send the wrong message. First, we wonder why Mrs. Clinton felt it necessary to bring up Christianity. “Christian terrorism” is not exactly making headlines these days. Perhaps she has a working knowledge of what constitutes “pure” as opposed to “perverse” Christianity.

More importantly, it is wrong to assume a posture of value neutrality vis-à-vis the Muslim world on the matter of the free exercise of faith. One certainly never hears these kinds of comments from Middle Eastern diplomats. This is a part of the world where many countries, though not all of them, have erected legal and other barriers to the expression of faiths other than the official religion. Non-Muslims are charged special taxes (jizya), converts from Islam are threatened with death, and foreign missionaries must conduct their activities as covert operations or be killed. While Europe and the Americas have seen mosques sprouting up in cities and in the countryside, often subsidized by foreign quasi-governmental organizations, similar construction projects would be illegal or at best highly dangerous undertakings in many Muslim states.

Rather than pandering, the United States should be sending a positive message to the world regarding the role of religion in our society. The United States is a plural nation with constitutionally guaranteed freedom of worship. In our country people of all faiths live side by side without strife. Religion plays an important role in American society, but in a way that respects the rights and obligations of all believers and, as President Obama likes to point out, the rights of the non-believers as well. Mrs. Clinton might profitably have extolled the value of religious pluralism in Indonesia, the next stop on her trip, which is not an Islamic state despite having the world’s largest Muslim population. Indonesia’s constitution guarantees freedom of worship and the state recognizes six major religious denominations. Christmas and Good Friday are national holidays, as are Hindu New Year and Buddha’s Birthday.

Were Mrs. Clinton bolder still, she could use the example of Israel, in which freedom of worship is so respected that Israeli sharia courts have the same legal status as rabbinical courts in matters of personal status, such as cases of marriage and divorce. Furthermore, the holiest site in the world for Jews, the Temple Mount, is dominated by a gold-domed mosque. Will we ever see a synagogue in Mecca?

Mrs. Clinton should not give ammunition to our enemies by offhandedly raising the issue of Christian “perversions” and placing the religious freedom that we enjoy on the same moral plane as the restrictive policies practiced in other parts of the world. If she truly wants to communicate “what we stand for and who we truly are,” she should defend our values rather than surrendering the high ground on the issue of religious freedom.

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