Category Archives: Islam

How Should the Church Respond to Trump’s Travel Ban?

I began wrestling with this question last week Sunday when I read about two Christian families from Syria who, after fourteen years of working to attain permission to come to America, were told upon arriving at the airport that they either needed to leave the country or lose their visas. As CNN reported that morning:

Two brothers, their wives and children left war-torn Syria with 16 suitcases and crossed the border into Lebanon. They were finally on their way to the United States after working for almost 15 years to join their family members stateside.

But after a flight from Beirut to Doha, Qatar, and then to Philadelphia on Saturday, the two families were told to get on a flight back to Doha. It was because President Donald Trump had just signed an executive order denying citizens from seven countries, including Syria, entry into the United States.

One can imagine what these families – their last name is Asali – were going through. The years of painstaking work on applications and all manner of procedural requirements. The emotional stress. The financial cost. The lack of understanding (they spoke limited English and had no access to a lawyer or to their family members in Pennsylvania). The fear of what returning to Syria – where hundreds of thousands have died during the past few years, and where their ethnic group is one of the most persecuted – might mean. They already had a home purchased for them and fully furnished in America.

I wrestled with how the church should respond to Trump’s travel ban that morning. In the services I led I reminded the worshipers of the trauma families like these are experiencing. And I prayed for them. I prayed for all those who were suffering from the president’s sweeping travel ban.

But I didn’t write anything publicly because I wasn’t sure how to approach the issue in a way that wouldn’t seem politicized. Christians are already deeply divided about immigration and about what our government has to do to protect us from terrorism. And it is, in fact, a primary responsibility of government to protect us from terrorism by controlling who is permitted to enter the United States. So we need to be very careful here. No pastor has the right to dictate immigration policy, let alone national security policy, from the pulpit.

That said (and I would not say this in a church service), the sheer arbitrariness and irrationality of President Trump’s travel ban is quite well established. For one thing, even its staunchest defenders do not defend its execution. But we can go beyond that. Not a single properly vetted refugee has carried out a terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. As the Atlantic observes:

Over the last four decades, 20 out of 3.25 million refugees welcomed to the United States have been convicted of attempting or committing terrorism on U.S. soil, and only three Americans have been killed in attacks committed by refugees—all by Cuban refugees in the 1970s…

Here’s another fascinating statistic. As the libertarian Cato Institute points out, “Foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.”

The reality is that most of the terrorist attacks America has endured since 2001 have been committed by American citizens or permanent residents. True, some of these were foreign born. But to quote the Atlantic again, “Between 1975 and 2015, the ‘annual chance of being murdered by somebody other than a foreign-born terrorist was 252.9 times greater than the chance of dying in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist.'”

There is good reason, then, why the courts might not find that President Trump’s travel ban bears rational scrutiny – as it must, in order to be constitutional. We shall see where it all ends up, but I am thankful that, because of what the courts and other government officials have done, the Asalis have returned to the United States to stay.

In the meantime, what should the church do? Let’s be clear. I don’t think we should bring the politics or policy of the travel ban into our services. We need to be very careful here. We need to pay President Trump, his officials, and our courts the respect and deference we owe them, as the New Testament commands.

But that doesn’t mean our churches should stand by silently as human lives are thrown into chaos by the fallout. It doesn’t mean we should cease praying and advocating for the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the refugee. The vast majority of those affected by the ban are peaceful people who want to come to the United States for freedom, security, and prosperity just like our own ancestors did. And a good number of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of them are already part of our churches. We are responsible for them. We need to remember Paul’s admonition that if one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. Only by bearing one another’s burdens can we fulfill the law of Christ.

When I was a boy growing up in the mountains of northern British Columbia our small Christian Reformed congregation sponsored a refugee family who had been forced to flee the horror of genocide in Cambodia. I remember one young boy, Naroon was his name, who became my friend. We were about five years old. His family attended my church. The body of Christ became a ministry of salvation for them in a way that I will never forget.

At the very least, then, every church must make one thing clear. We stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants. We respect our government’s right to determine when and how they come into this country, but we pray and advocate for the acceptance of as many refugees as is safe and feasible. Then, once they are here, we welcome them with open arms. We care for their material and spiritual needs. We help them find jobs, homes, and playmates for their children. We seek reconciliation and unity with them as brothers and sisters with whom we desire to be one body in Christ.

If we are afraid to do these things as churches and as Christians because they offend our political sensibilities then we had better take a deep breath and reconsider our politics. We have to ask ourselves, where does our primary loyalty lie? Jesus, for his part, has told us that he will take our treatment of refugees personally (Mathew 25).

To stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants is not to politicize the church. It is to fulfill the exhortation of Christ in Matthew 25:45, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do it for me.”

Love Casts Out Fear: Christian Witness in an Anxious Age

America’s version of Christendom has collapsed, and most evangelicals are still trying to figure out what this means for the nature of Christian witness. We are so used to being engaged socially and politically from a position of power and privilege that we do not even know where to begin now that it is so obvious we are a minority. Many are discouraged, afraid, and even bitter. While our African American brothers and sisters have long known what it meant to be an oppressed minority (and so are consequently less surprised by recent social and political developments and less likely to freak out over every new development that all is lost), for white evangelicals this is new.

Tim Keller and John Inazu have an excellent article at Christianity Today reflecting on the challenges of Christian witness in an increasingly pluralistic and anxious age.

Whatever one thinks of mainline Protestantism today, … it once provided the sociological and institutional framework that sustained the Protestant culture. That framework no longer exists. In its absence, the deep and accelerating cultural trends toward individualism and autonomy have continued to erode trust in social institutions—business, government, church, and even the family. And neither evangelicalism nor Roman Catholicism nor secularism has been able to fill the vacuum left by the shrinking of the Protestant mainline.

This new cultural reality raises some anxieties, but it also presents many of us with an opportunity to rediscover Christian witness in a world that we do not control. The dominant Protestant culture enabled some Christians in this country to forget, as the book of Hebrews proclaims, that here we have no abiding city. While we are called to love our neighbors and to maintain what James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence,” no human society can be identified with the kingdom of God. Christians profess that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), which means that we are never quite at home.

Although Keller and Inazu are careful not to say it explicitly, the widespread confusion and panic this is causing is reflected in evangelicals’ willingness to support Donald Trump. Trump has no coherent policy framework to offer the country, but that’s not what many evangelicals are looking for. They are looking for someone to “shake things up.” They want someone who will stick it to the cultural and political elites. Upset over a revolution in sexuality and gender, they are willing to support a philanderer who has demonstrated little respect for women or for marriage in his life. Fearful about threats to religious liberty, they are willing to support a racist who has declared that practitioners of the world’s second largest religion should be banned from entering the United States.

Keller and Inazu rightly call Christians not to give in to such fear-driven public engagement but to engage as a means of witnessing to Christ, who is, after all, continuing to reconcile all things to himself regardless of the state of American politics. After all, America is not the kingdom of God. We need to rediscover what it means to live as resident aliens.

To live as resident aliens entails a certain vulnerability, but it does not always mean persecution. Claims that American Christians today are facing persecution sound tone-deaf not only to secular progressives but also to many non-white religious believers who have long been actual minorities. That isn’t to say that demographics aren’t changing, or that Christians in the United States don’t face legal abuses and miscarriages of justice. But it is a caution about the use of language and a posture of the heart.

One practical implication?

Christians might engage in the cause of religious liberty with more hope and less anxiety. Many Christians today feel increasing legal pressures on their institutions and the ways of life they are accustomed to. Some of these challenges are significant: campus ministries experience hurdles to campus access, Christian adoption and social service agencies confront regulations in tension with their missional convictions, and Christian educational institutions face threats to their accreditation and tax-exempt status. We should not be naïve to these challenges, and we should work diligently to find appropriate legal and policy responses. But we must make our case in publicly accessible terms that appeal to people of good will from a variety of religious traditions and those of no religious tradition. In doing so, we cannot ignore the importance of religious liberty for all. There is no principled legal or theological argument that looks only to the good of Christians over the interests of others.

Focusing on others means attending to the challenges and limits that they confront in the practice of their faith. Today’s cultural climate makes it especially essential for Christians to defend the religious liberty of American Muslims.

You can read the rest of Keller and Inazu’s excellent article here.

Should Christians Be Offended By Obama’s Speech at the National Prayer Breakfast?

At the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday President Obama spoke at length about the ways in which religion is so often hijacked in the name of violence and injustice. Most of the examples Obama cited were of actions committed by Muslims and in the name of Islam. But Obama paused, for just a few sentences, to remind his mostly Christian audience not to be too self-righteous.

And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ…. So this is not unique to one group or one religion.

Conservative critics pounced.

Jim Gilmore, former governor of Virginia, claimed that the president’s comments were the most offensive he’d heard from a president in his life. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

Conservative columnist Charlie Krauthammer declared himself “stunned” that the president could say something so “banal and offensive.”

Here we are from an act shocking barbarism, the burning alive of a prisoner of war, and Obama’s message is that we should remember the Crusades and the Inquisition. I mean, for him to say that all of us have sinned, all religions have transgressed — it was adolescent stuff. Everyone knows that. What’s important is what’s happening now. Christianity no longer goes on Crusades. It gave up the Inquisition a while ago. the Book of Joshua is knee deep in blood. That story is over too.

And none other than the usually clear-headed Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, claimed that Obama’s comments were “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison.”

“The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.”

Really? The crusades and the Inquisition were met with the “overwhelming” moral opposition of Christians? Slavery and Jim Crow were condemned by an “overwhelming” consensus among southern Christians? As an intelligent Southern Baptist, Moore knows better.

Krauthammer claims that Obama’s comments were “adolescent stuff,” but it is Krauthammer’s misrepresentation of Obama’s speech that is juvenile in its politicized self-righteousness. Krauthammer implies that Obama’s reflective comments about Christianity constituted the main message of his speech, when in reality the president was simply offering a passing word of humility about his own religion in the context of a larger point about the legitimate and illegitimate uses of religion. It was a speech overflowing with positive references toward Christianity and its teachings of love, even as it sought to identify areas of common moral ground among diverse religions.

Is it politically incorrect for conservatives humbly to acknowledge the sins of the Christian tradition in public?

Is it really true, as Gilmore claims, that “every believing Christian in the United States” is too proud to be reminded of great sins committed in the name of Christ?

If so, orthodox Christianity would be in far worse trouble than I ever imagined.

This sort of self-righteous indignation, thankfully, does not represent all Christians. Many of us do recognize the crusades, the religious persecution of heretics (vigorously defended by prominent Catholic and Protestant theologians in past centuries), and the racial oppression and violence committed toward African Americans (also justified by Christian pastors and theologians in the memory of many still alive today) to be serious distortions of Christianity that have had tragic consequences for the credibility of the gospel.

What is more, President Obama was right to remind us that many devout Muslims reject radical and violent interpretations of their faith, as those of us with Muslim friends and neighbors understand. Perhaps it should not be so offensive to Christians, in the midst of their justified anger at the injustice of Muslim terrorists, to remind themselves of their own religious sins and of the fact that they too stand only by grace.

Rather than cherry-pick the president’s comments to score political points, it would be better to highlight the words that are more representative of the overall tone of the speech:

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments.  And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.  No God condones terror.  No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number….

If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose.  We can never fully fathom His amazing grace.  “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love.  But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required:  To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

I pray that we will.  And as we journey together on this “march of living hope,” I pray that, in His name, we will run and not be weary, and walk and not be faint, and we’ll heed those words and “put on love.”

President Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast, February 5, 2015

Is It Just For The United States To Intervene In Syria?

At Acton University, on Wednesday, I had the privilege of hearing Marina Nemat speak about her arrest and torture as a teenager following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Nemat was just a young girl, sixteen years old, when she was arrested. She described her upbringing as a Christian in Iran leading up to the Revolution as quite normal. There was no religious tension between Christians and Muslims; women were able to travel freely, to dress like westerners and, as she put it, “have fun.” That all changed in 1979.

Nemat, along with many of her friends, was arrested because of her involvement in protests against the new regime. She was beaten, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement during an imprisonment of two years. She described to us how she was forced to convert to Islam in the face of threats that if she did not, her parents would be arrested and face the consequences. Nemat was raped and forced to marry her torturer.

But Nemat’s response to this horrific treatment was to draw closer to Christ, whom, she reasoned, had been through even worse suffering, and therefore understood what she was experiencing. Rather than hate or seek vengeance on her torturers, as she was tempted to do, she chose to forgive them. The consequences, and the PTSD, remain with her throughout her life. But despite the pain, the only possible response, she insists, is to show the love of Christ.

Still, Nemat distinguishes between forgiving people and failing to resist their tyranny. Having immigrated to Canada, she wrote the international bestseller Prisoner of Tehran, and has devoted her time and energy to speaking around the world against torture.

What was perhaps most interesting about Nemat’s speech was her insistence that more often than not American interventions in the Middle East make the problems worse rather than better. CIA complicity in the Iranian coup of 1953 helped pave the way for the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Americans like to do things quick and clean, she pointed out, but democracy is a process, not an event. Americans need to abandon their tendency to think that a revolution is always the solution.

In short, despite her torture and abuse at the hands of Islamists, or rather because of it, Nemat is highly skeptical of the benefits of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.

These comments, of course, follow closely on President Obama’s decision last week to send U.S. arms to the Syrian rebels. The administration is now convinced that “Butcher” Assad’s regime has crossed the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons. There must therefore be “consequences”: America will contribute just enough in the way of small arms to ensure that a balance of power is preserved and the war – which has already claimed 93,000 lives – can drag on.

In this case one might point out, in the administration’s defense, there is no expectation of a quick and easy fix. Against the arguments of Secretary of State John Kerry, but in line with the views of the Pentagon (the Joint Chiefs appear to adamantly oppose intervention), the president is refusing to create a no-fly zone or to use air power to bring Assad’s regime down. The objective (as in Vietnam!), is not victory, but negotiation.

Such a strategy may have the merit of avoiding the sort of interventions that brought U.S. forces into Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, but it hardly gives anyone hope that Syria will end up much better than have either of those countries. As Jeffrey Goldberg writes on Bloomberg.com,

The decision to provide small arms to the Syrian opposition has made no one happy — not the rebels, who understand that these quite-possibly ineffective weapons will take many months to reach them; not Kerry, who, while arguing that these shipments may become a “force multiplier” in the conflict, thinks that only a show of American air power will convince Assad and his Hezbollah allies that the U.S. is making a serious attempt to level a playing field that has been tilting their way for some time; and not the Pentagon, which thinks that Obama, despite saying that he is wary of the slippery slope, might be pushed down that slope anyway, by interventionists on his team or by events on the ground.

It is striking that even longtime interventionists like Walter Russell Mead now admit that it is hard to see how any of this might end well. The administration unnecessarily put itself in a corner with its Wilsonian rhetoric, first by declaring that “Assad must go,” and then by drawing the “red line” that would bring about such hard consequences. Now, if the United States does not act, President Obama will be regarded by countries like Russia and – most importantly – Iran as all bluff and no punch.

This is an entirely self-created problem; there was absolutely no objective reason for the administration to lay those markers on the table. There was no requirement in America’s foreign policy that the administration bounce in with the categorical demand that Assad step down….

Meanwhile at VM [Via Meadia], we are beginning to worry that there are now no good options left in Syria. Intervention looks increasingly like it would lead to a nasty quagmire; we supported it at an earlier stage before things had unraveled to their present point but are increasingly convinced that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so much that there is not a lot the US can do that would help. The current policy appears to be to feed the rebels just enough arms to keep the civil war grinding on, further polarizing Syrian society and promoting the rise of fanatical jihadis with ties to rich backers in the Gulf. Victory for Assad, even partial victory, would leave the administration in the position of having its bluff called and standing revealed as an incompetent blowhard on a major world political issue. Russia would gain credit throughout the region and the world for forcing Obama to fold, and Iran’s prestige would grow as Obama’s wilts.

If this is how the interventionists are talking, you know the case for war is weak. Yet war seems to be at the bottom of that slippery slope down which we are sliding. If Obama were to ask Congress to pass a resolution justifying intervention, he would probably get it.

What’s at stake? Mead reminds his readers why America cares about the Middle East in the first place:

The worst thing that can happen to the United States in the Middle East is that the Persian Gulf melts down and the oil flow stops, wrecking the global economy (and, despite our healthy domestic supplies, our own), bringing down the world financial system, causing mass unrest in country after country, and creating a messy situation in which a variety of ugly and expensive US interventions are absolutely required.

While most Americans probably agree that the United States should not seek to be the world’s policeman, the fact remains that America is the power that holds the global economic order together. Europeans and Australians may complain – as one burgeoning economist did to me over a few beers in Berlin last month – that U.S. militarism is out of control, but the fact remains that in the cases of Libya and Syria it is the British and the French who are pushing the Americans toward intervention. Why? They understand that the prosperity of the global economy does indeed depend on a measure of stability and security in the Middle East. Just as importantly, they understand that only the United States has the power to make that stability and security endure.

But does that amount to a case for U.S. intervention in Syria that would satisfy just war theory? I doubt the Obama administration is thinking about it from that perspective, but Christians have to wrestle with these questions. And when it gets down to it, we need to face up to the real question: is the stability of the Middle Eastern oil supply, and its importance for the global economy, sufficient grounds for the United States to intervene in a war in which neither side appears to merit such support? Perhaps the case can be made, but I remain skeptical.

The case for intervention seems to rest on something a lot more like Bismarckian Realpolitik than on anything comparable to just war theory, whether Christian or secular. And for that reason it seems to put us in that dangerous territory of having no idea what the unforeseen consequences of military action will be. Which takes me back to the stirring story – and warning – of Marina Nemat. Revolution, violence, and intervention don’t have a great track record in the Middle East. It’s one thing when war is unfortunately necessary as a requirement of justice; it’s a whole other thing when war is merely an uncertain gamble of international power politics. Perhaps both the safest, and the most just, thing the United States can do is to use its economic and diplomatic power to press for peace.

Sympathy for Anti-Shari’a Laws: why we have to get it right

What the law says on paper does not always reflect what goes on in practice. A government can recognize rights in theory that it does not genuinely respect in reality – or that it does not have the power to protect. An ethnic or religious community can claim legal deference to its internal courts, on the basis that all of its members yield voluntary allegiance to those courts, without the allegiance of such members being genuinely free.

Take the fictional example of a Muslim woman who has immigrated to the United States with her family from Bangladesh. The woman speaks virtually no English and all of her best friends and closest family (aside from her husband) remained in the mother country. In the United States only a few years, the woman’s husband begins to abuse her her in various ways, physically, emotionally, sexually. He manipulates her by reminding her that if she seeks to divorce him he will win custody over their children based on the Shari’a derived prenuptial marriage contract they established and that American law has agreed to recognize as valid. The woman, a devout Muslim, recognizes that if she abandons the Muslim community she will lose everything that is dear to her, everything that she knows, including possibly her salvation.

Hard-nosed critics will point out that everything is fine. This woman has all the same rights and freedoms as do any other Americans. She can flee the Muslim community and find refuge in the hands of secular courts whenever she wants. We should not lose any sleep over her plight, or the plight of potentially thousands of women and children like her.

At the First Thoughts blog Matthew Schmitz cordially responds to my worry that the situation in Islamic communities is still too complex, and the commitment of most Muslims to fundamental rights and freedoms still too weak, to merit the sort of deference to Shari’a courts that would make the above scenario possible. I’m grateful to Schmitz for his engagement of my post. As he puts it:

My response to this is simple: Laws often fall short of their aims, and if we’re worried they’re being ignored or going unenforced the trick is to actually enforce them, not impose new burdens.

Fair enough. One would think, then, that it makes sense to take the time to establish a mode of interaction between secular courts and Shari’a courts that is compatible with the enforcement of basic rights and freedoms and appropriate to the circumstances in most Islamic communities, right? As John Witte writes (in the paper Schmitz is worried about),

First, it takes time and practice for a secular legal system to adjust to the realities and needs of new religious groups and to make the necessary legal accommodations… Concessions and accommodations will come, but only with time, persistence, and patience.

Second, it takes flexibility and innovation on the part of the religious community to win accommodations from secular laws and cultures….

Third, religious communities, in turn, have to accommodate, or at least tolerate, the core values of their secular host nations if they expect to win concessions for their religious courts and other religious practices. No Western nation will long accommodate, perhaps not even tolerate, a religious community that cannot accept its core values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, or of human rights, democracy, and rule of law….

Finally, Muslim tribunals must become legally sophisticated and procedurally equitable to be both attractive to voluntary Muslim disputants and acceptable to secular state courts.

In other words, it takes time and care to get it right. Religious liberties do not trump other rights and freedoms that government is bound to protect, and if religious groups demand religious prerogatives, without credibly demonstrating that they will exercise those prerogatives consistent with a modicum of justice for the weak and vulnerable, the government should not readily yield to that demand.

Schmitz agrees that the law needs to be enforced, but is he open to the steps necessary to ensure that this will actually happen? He is focused on one objective, that of securing religious liberty. He understandably argues that religious liberty is so threatened in this country that we should take its side regardless of the group or practices in view, or of the dangers that might come with it. And I want to make it clear that I wholeheartedly agree with Schmitz in his skepticism about the anti-Shari’a laws passed in places like Oklahoma (and rejected by federal courts). I am not defending anti-Shari’a laws in this post. I do not think they are the way to go.

At the same time, I wonder of Schmitz is taking the dangers of accommodation to Shari’a law seriously enough. Just as importantly, I wonder if he is underestimating the threat that is posed to religious liberty itself if that liberty is widely used as a cloak for oppression and injustice. In short, if we don’t do the hard work of making sure Muslims use their religious liberty consistent with basic inalienable rights and freedoms, it is the cause of religious liberty itself that will suffer, not simply the persons who suffer because the law was not properly enforced.

To be clear, the point is not that Muslims are more guilty of certain crimes – such as spousal abuse –  than are other religious groups. The point is not that Muslims are morally inferior at all. The point is rather that Islamic communities have to go through a process, a process through which Jewish, Catholic, and other communities have already passed, to ensure that accommodations can be granted and yet the laws protecting people’s basic rights and freedoms still be enforced. Many Islamic communities have not yet demonstrated the commitment to fundamental liberties, or to the procedures necessary to secure those liberties, to merit the sort of deference that is ideal.

Schmitz is right that religious freedom has special priority in this country. But that doesn’t mean it justifies irresponsible deference, deference that is blind to the necessity of preserving fundamental procedures of justice. I know Schmitz would not accept religious liberty as a justification for crimes like child sacrifice or the freedom of conscience when it comes to abortion. In that sense it is not a trump card that can be played against other rights like the right to life or to due process of law. And those rights need to be protected in reality, not just on paper.

Religious liberty is indeed “too fundamental and fragile an American principle to trifle with.” That’s why we need to get it right.

Should American courts recognize the legitimacy of Shari’a law?

In a thought-provoking article at Christianity Today my professor and dissertation adviser John Witte, Jr., defends the intent of the Oklahoma legislation that prohibited the use of Shari’a law in state courts, legislation that has thus far been rejected on religious liberty grounds by federal courts. Witte describes three arguments generally used to defend the limited legitimacy of Shari’a law in the United States, rejecting each in turn.

The first reason has to do with religious liberty:

Both Western constitutional laws and international human rights norms give robust protection to the religious freedom of individuals and groups. Why deny peaceful Muslim citizens the freedom to opt out of state laws on sex, marriage, and family that run afoul of central faith commandments?

Witte responds,

This argument, however, falsely assumes that claims of conscience and religious free exercise must always trump. But this is hardly the case in modern democracies, even though religious freedom is cherished… Even the most devout religious believer enjoys no immunity from criminal laws against activities like polygamy, child marriage, female genital mutilation, or corporal discipline of wives. Religious freedom is not a license to engage in crime…. Most Western democracies readily allow religious officials to officiate at weddings, testify in divorce cases, assist in the adoption of a child, facilitate the rescue of a distressed family member, and the like. Some democracies also will uphold religious arbitration awards and mediation settlements over domestic issues. But that is a long way from delegating full legal power to religious bodies for governing the domestic affairs of their voluntary faithful

The second argument is essentially libertarian. It follows John Locke in asserting that marriage and the family are pre-political institutions that the state is bound to recognize but not meddle with. Why not, as some conservatives have suggested in response to the spreading phenomena of same-sex marriage, simply privatize the whole institution?

Witte’s response to this argument is an excellent explanation of why the state must be involved in the institution of marriage, both in terms of protection and regulation:

A comprehensive system of marriage and family law—let alone the many related legal systems of inheritance, trusts, family property, children’s rights, education, social welfare, and more—cannot long operate without coercive power. It needs police, prosecutors, and prisons; subpoenas, fines, and contempt orders; material, physical, and corporal sanctions. Moral suasion and example, coupled with communal approbation and censure, can certainly do part of the work. But a properly functioning marriage and family law system requires all these coercive instruments of government. And no religious authority can wield coercive power.

The third argument is based on the value of religious equality. As Witte affirms, federal and state courts permit deference to religious rules and tribunals on various points when it comes to Judaism and Christianity. Why should Islam be any different? Witte acknowledges that this argument is the most difficult to overcome. His basic response is to appeal to history. The exceptions granted to Jews and Christians have come about over a long process and for valid, particular reasons. Islam has not yet worked through that process. What’s more, by virtue of their embrace of democratic rights and freedoms Christians and Jews have earned a certain degree of deference that is not yet clearly due to Muslim communities:

[R]eligious communities, in turn, have to accommodate—or at least tolerate—the core constitutional and cultural values of their secular host nations. No Western nation will readily grant concessions to a religious community that rejects liberty, equality, and fraternity, or human rights, democracy, and rule of law.

Witte’s argument is spot-on in many respects, but Matthew Schmitz is not convinced. In a post at First Thoughts entitled “Christianity Today’s Dead-Wrong Defence of Anti-Sharia Laws” he argues that the Oklahoma law was less a rejection of special accommodation to Shari’a law than it was a restriction of religious freedom currently enjoyed by all religious groups.

If a marriage contract doesn’t run afoul of our laws or our Constitution, what does it matter whether or not it references Sharia? Should it be ruled out? If so, what about an otherwise identical contract that doesn’t reference reference Sharia? Witte’s argument is, at its best, an argument for inaction—not for the measures passed by states like Oklahoma and Kansas.

In a fuller statement of his argument in National Review, back in June, Schmitz made a persuasive case that laws targeted at Muslims accomplish nothing in the way of preserving the sovereignty of American law, and that, in fact, they do much to weaken religious liberty, alienate Muslims, and even threaten national security. His most important point is that there is no need for the sort of law Oklahoma wants, or that Witte defends.

Sharia, of course, does not grant all the rights that the U.S. Constitution does; neither does Christian canon law or Jewish Halakhic law (or English or French law, for that matter). But why should this fact prevent a court from honoring a contract made under the provisions of one of these “foreign” legal systems if the contract does not itself violate any U.S. or state regulations, laws, or constitutional provisions? Under one reading of the Kansas law, a contract that makes reference to canon law or sharia — but is otherwise perfectly legal — would be thrown out, while an identical one that makes no such reference would be upheld. The other possible reading of the law is that it only bars rulings based on foreign legal systems when the rulings themselves would violate constitutional rights. But in that case, as Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia Law School has argued, the law is meaningless, for courts will not tolerate or enforce violations of constitutional rights in any case.

In short, even if courts were to recognize the limited relevance of Shari’a law for members of Muslim communities, that would not prevent any particular individual from claiming and receiving the full protection of the rights and freedoms all Americans are afforded under the Constitution and the law of the land.

Of course, Witte knows this. As he writes in his article, the current accommodations made to Jewish courts do not offer the latter any form of coercion. Constitutional rights and freedoms always trump religious authority full stop. Thus Jewish courts “do not claim authority over all of Jewish sex, marriage, and family life. Having abandoned physical coercion and sanctions, they claim no authority beyond persuasion to stop a disputant from walking out of court and out of the Jewish community altogether.”

But the issue is complex. In theory an individual may be able to walk out of her religious community at any time, but in reality the threat of social and religious ostracism is far too great, especially for ethnic and religious communities not well integrated into American society. This seems to be the assumption underlying Witte’s reference to history. So while Schmitz thinks the fears of “creeping Shari’a” are overblown and worries about the more fundamental cause of religious liberty, a valid fear given the events of the last few years, Witte fears that the Islamic community has not yet clearly embraced American values with sufficient enthusiasm to warrant the sort of deference given to other communities, a seemingly equally valid fear given the reality on the ground.

It’s a difficult tension, and it’s by no means clear to me that there is an easy answer. I’ll be paying close attention to how it all plays out.

Another Example of an Islamist Party Condemning the Embassy Violence

The Washington Post reports that the governing Islamist party of Tunisia has also condemned the attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the Muslim world. The attack on the embassy in Tunis resulted in the deaths of a few protestors and apparently in the placing of an al Qaeda flag where the American flag had once flown.

According to the Post:

Tunisia is now run by the once-banned Islamist party, Ennahda, which has vowed to protect the rights of women and free worship, while building a robust democracy. But the moderate government has since struggled to quell protests by increasingly vocal ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis.

The youth wing of Ennahda said in a statement emailed early Saturday that both the film that incited the protests and the violence should be condemned.

The party’s statement accused “enemies of the revolution” of turning peaceful demonstrations into destructive mobs and manipulating anger over the film to divide the country and prevent Tunisia from building a robust democracy.

“We call on the youth and on all Tunisians to maintain vigilance and unity in order to prevent all attempts at sowing divisions and halting the revolution,” the statement said.

Hillary Clinton’s response to the Embassy Attacks

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

This is a bit dated now, but in her remarks at the opening plenary of the U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue on Thursday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton skillfully represented, I believe, the proper response of the United States to the recent embassy attacks in the Middle East and the video that sparked them.

Clinton navigates numerous thorny issues of politics and religion here, successfully avoiding offense while offering a political assessment of religion and violence that is substantive and meaningful. It’s worth reading this whole excerpt (all italics are added by me):

I also want to take a moment to address the video circulating on the Internet that has led to these protests in a number of countries. Let me state very clearly – and I hope it is obvious – that the United States Government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. And as you know, we are home to people of all religions, many of whom came to this country seeking the right to exercise their own religion, including, of course, millions of Muslims. And we have the greatest respect for people of faith.

To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage. But as I said yesterday, there is no justification, none at all, for responding to this video with violence. We condemn the violence that has resulted in the strongest terms, and we greatly appreciate that many Muslims in the United States and around the world have spoken out on this issue.

Violence, we believe, has no place in religion and is no way to honor religion. Islam, like other religions, respects the fundamental dignity of human beings, and it is a violation of that fundamental dignity to wage attacks on innocents. As long as there are those who are willing to shed blood and take innocent life in the name of religion, the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace. It is especially wrong for violence to be directed against diplomatic missions. These are places whose very purpose is peaceful: to promote better understanding across countries and cultures. All governments have a responsibility to protect those spaces and people, because to attack an embassy is to attack the idea that we can work together to build understanding and a better future.

Now, I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day. Now, I would note that in today’s world with today’s technologies, that is impossible. But even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law, and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.

There are, of course, different views around the world about the outer limits of free speech and free expression, but there should be no debate about the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable. We all – whether we are leaders in government, leaders in civil society or religious leaders – must draw the line at violence. And any responsible leader should be standing up now and drawing that line.

Now I understand that some Christians would take issue with a description of Islam as a “great” religion, as well as with the claim that Islam “respects the fundamental dignity of human beings.” But there is no question that any charitable description of the world’s second greatest faith would be able to affirm these points. Remember, this is a political statement, an assessment of the proper balance between freedom of speech, human security, and religious liberty. It’s basic message, brilliantly put, is that the United States is committed to all three.

Of course, level headed leaders in the Middle East, including the Islamist leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, share Clinton’s desire to reduce the tension. On Friday Khairat El-Shater, the Deputy President of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood wrote in the New York Times,

Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.

In a new democratic Egypt, Egyptians earned the right to voice their anger over such issues, and they expect their government to uphold and protect their right to do so. However, they should do so peacefully and within the bounds of the law.

The breach of the United States Embassy premises by Egyptian protesters is illegal under international law. The failure of the protecting police force has to be investigated.

We are relieved that no embassy staff in Cairo were harmed. Egypt is going through a state of revolutionary fluidity, and public anger needs to be dealt with responsibly and with caution. Our condolences to the American people for the loss of their ambassador and three members of the embassy staff in Libya.

We hope that the relationships that both Americans and Egyptians worked to build in the past couple of months can sustain the turbulence of this week’s events. Our nations have much to learn from each other as we embark on building the new Egypt.

Right he is. But who will the average Muslim on the street believe? And what about those prominent leaders who are willing to denounce the film that started all this but will not denounce the violence that has followed it? For all concerned, I hope the leaders who understand what’s at stake here – and manage to keep cool heads about it all – are able to win the day.

What’s wrong with the Muslim world?

What’s wrong with the Muslim world? What kind of religion teaches its adherents that vitriol and violence is the appropriate response to blasphemy? And why does the United States continue to maintain its active presence in the Middle East, let alone to work hard to win the respect of Muslims around the world?

As The Economist puts it,

FOR many Americans the killing of Christopher Stevens, their ambassador to Libya, this week crystallised everything they have come to expect from the Arab world. In a country where the West only last year helped depose a murderous tyrant, a Salafist mob attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, killing Mr Stevens and three colleagues. The trigger for this murder, the riots in neighbouring Egypt and the storming of the American embassy in Yemen? A tacky amateur video about the Prophet Muhammad that the Obama administration had already condemned.

But of course, this is not the complete picture. While a number of extremist Muslims were involved in violence or in exciting violence, many others worked hard to prevent it. A piece in Slate points out,

Hillary Clinton reported this morning, in her most eloquent news conference as secretary of state, that Libyan citizens and security forces had tried to fight off the small mob of militants who set fire to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and that, afterward, they’d sheltered many survivors and carried the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, to a nearby hospital….

Similarly, Clinton said, Egyptian security forces helped American guards stave off those who stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo before much damage was done. Though she didn’t mention it, the new president, Mohamed Morsi, must know that his country’s fortunes, and thus his own political prospects, depend on foreign aid and investment….

[W]hat we’re seeing is, potentially, a conflict not only between the West and radical Islam but also between elements within Islam… [I]n the long run, it’s important for President Morsi, Libya’s leaders, and at least a few other prominent Muslim spokesmen throughout the region to denounce the most violent of these protesters—and to denounce the very tactic of assaulting embassies and killing diplomats as an antiquated practice that violates their principles and has no place in contemporary Middle Eastern politics.

In another piece The Economist reminds suspicious westerners that the violence they are witnessing in the Middle East is not simply spontaneous, Islamic-inspired practice. Rather, it is carefully orchestrated by extremist Islamists who represent only a minority of Muslims but who are working hard to grow that minority.

Muslims’ resentment at slights to their religion is readily aroused by reports of desecration of the Koran or books, films and pictures that include a blasphemous (ie, any) depiction of the Prophet Muhammad or of God. Yet outbursts of rage can also be stirred by political grandstanding and mischievous politicians preying on an ill-informed and aggrieved populace.

It is certainly odd, for example, that the latest film suddenly began attracting attention in the run-up to September 11th, an anniversary almost as politically charged in the Muslim world as it is in the West. It was energetically publicised (albeit in caustic terms) by two Salafist (hardline Islamist) television channels.

Most outbursts of Muslim rage bring political dividends to someone. The Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, reaped the benefits of his fatwa demanding the death sentence on Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses”, published in 1988. Pakistani politicians gain from whipping up sentiment against Christians—and against politicians seen as soft on them.

But why is it so easy for these demagogues to turn ordinary Muslims against the West? Isn’t that simply the result of Islam? Certainly there are aspects of Islam that render it subject to manipulation and abuse, and the religion cannot be whitewashed of those parts of its history that prominently featured conquest, violence, and intolerance. Muslim scholars need to continue to wrestle with how the Islamic faith can be faithfully practiced in a democratic and pluralistic world. But Islam is no more reducible to violence and intolerance than is any other human religion, and there is much more that makes Muslims vulnerable to manipulation than religious orthodoxy.

Ignorance of the way the West works in many Muslim countries makes rabble-rousing easy. Protesters at the American embassy in Cairo on September 11th erroneously believed the offensive film to have been shown on “American state television”: in a place with a weak tradition of independent broadcasting, that claim is not as absurd as it might be elsewhere….

A reluctance among many Muslims to accept that America could be a blundering victim of atrocities rather than a wily perpetrator meant that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers were widely reported from the outset as an inside job, facilitated by Israel’s intelligence service, to stoke up Western hatred of Islam. Three-quarters of Egyptians now believe that conspiracy theory.

There is a lot of miscommunication going on, and Americans need to appreciate that fact. The average Arab in the Middle East does not understand America the way my Muslim neighbors down the street do. And just as America has successfully won over millions of Muslims in this country to the values of democracy and pluralism, the same may yet occur in the Middle East. Yes there are countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. But there are also examples of tremendous progress like Turkey. Yes there are Muslims like Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But there are also Muslims like my neighbors down the street who have warmly welcomed my family into their homes, attended my children’s birthday parties, and even babysat for us.

Like most Americans and like most Muslims living in the Middle East, what these people aspire to is a life of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Amid all the furor and the violence, when all the attention is on demagogues, terrorists, and extremists, we should not forget them.

Comparing Islamism to Protestantism – The trajectory of reformation, pluralism, democracy, and public influence

Yesterday I highlighted some of the changes in the Arab world that are leading to the democratization and secularization of politics. What is particularly striking about the phenomena is that it is not the growing acceptance of western values or of liberal theory that is driving the change. Rather, it is the development of competing and evolving forms of Islamic practice, including Islamic fundamentalism.

The great example is Egypt. Despite the surge in influence of conservative Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, Egypt has not followed the path of the Iranian Revolution three decades ago. Rather, various Islamic groups are competing with one another, and with the military and other parties and movements, to shape an evolving quasi-democratic state. In the process, Islamist leaders are more concerned about pandering to popular values concerning, say gender and sexuality, than they are to imposing their own revolutionary agendas. In short, religion and democracy are allies here, not enemies.

It is still unclear where all of this will lead, but what are particularly striking are the various points of analogy with the western, particularly the Protestant, experience of modernity.

To be sure, Christian political theology has always been more conducive of the separation of church and politics than has Islam. There is something about the proclamation of a kingdom that is not of this world that creates the concept of secularity, the idea that certain institutions and practices are limited in their significance to this world. The state is one of those institutions, and politics involves such practices.

But the fact is, the West did not immediately pursue the way of democracy. Although Christian political theorists and theologians articulated theories of self-government, of representation, of rights, and of the separation of powers long before the Enlightenment arrived, these developments took place within the context of serfdom, monarchy, and empire, and only eventually of small scale aristocratic republics. They never questioned the establishment of religion or considered how government might recognize religious pluralism because there was little need to do so.

It was the various social, political, and religious developments that came with and followed the Reformation that changed all of this. All of a sudden nations like the Netherlands found themselves bitterly divided between Catholics and Protestants, while countries like England found their populations fracturing into a multitude of Protestant sects and eventually denominations, groups that defined themselves according to belief and commitment rather than cultural or ethnic identity. In fact, it was the religious pluralism that became so dominant in the American colonies, particularly in the middle colonies, that gave rise to the separation of church and state, and to the largest scale experiment in democratic governance the world has ever known.

And yet something profoundly unexpected to many religious zealots then took place. In precisely the country where church and state were separated, religion thrived, and in the continent where governments refused to give up the establishment of religion, Christianity withered. During the Second Great Awakening it was the most evangelical and democratic forms of Christianity that won the allegiance of the masses. And it was in the context of both exponentially multiplying religious pluralism and of widespread cultural and political influence – what historians have called the Benevolent Empire – that Protestantism experienced its disestablishment from political power.

The pattern was arguably repeated in the 20th Century. The Mainline denominations that were so culturally and politically prominent gradually declined in number as their theological moorings collapsed. On the other hand, the Fundamentalist and Evangelical groups most isolated from political power and most faithful to their conservative creeds thrived. By the end of the century it was these groups, not the Mainline denominations, that represented mainstream Christianity, and it was these groups that had the most moral, social, and political influence in the country. Even more interestingly, the political significance of these groups (i.e., the rise of the Christian Right) appeared only in the context of the increasing secularization of government and the growing pluralism of the country.

What is the connection with the Islamic experience? Note some of Olivier Roy’s conclusions once again:

Fundamentalism, by disconnecting religion from culture and by defining a faith community through believing and not just belonging, is in fact contributing to the secularization of society… In such a context, any endeavor to restore traditional norms through laws and regulations will fail. After all, you cannot change a society by decree. [Think of the impact of the Reformation on the understanding of the church, and the gradual shift away from the coercion of the true religion in Protestant countries.]

The growing de facto autonomy of the religious arena from political and ideological control does not mean that secularism is necessarily gaining ground in terms of culture and society. Yet certainly a new form of political secularism is emerging… What is at stake is the reformulation of religion’s place in the public sphere. There is broad agreement that constitutions should announce the ‘Muslim’ identity of society and the state. Yet there is similar agreement on the proposition that shari’a is not an autonomous and complete system of law that can replace ‘secular’ law. Instead, shari’a is becoming a loose and somewhat hazily defined ‘reference point’…. [Think of the growing recognition among Protestants that the Torah could not directly be applied to modern civil law, and a willingness to wrestle with the complexity of applying biblical law to modern societies.]

The recasting of religious norms into ‘values’ helps also to promote an interfaith coalition of religious conservatives that could unite around some specific causes: opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance. It is interesting to see how, in Western Europe, secular populists stress the continent’s Christian identity, while many Muslim conservatives try to forge an alliance with believers of other faiths to defend shared values. In doing so, many of them tend to adopt Protestant evangelical concerns, fighting abortion and Darwinism even though these issues have never been prominent in traditional Islamic debates. In this sense, the modern neofundamentalists are trying to recast Islam into a Western-compatible kind of religious conservatism. [Here the comparison to conservative Christianity in America – in both its Catholic and Evangelical forms – is obvious.]

It’s all very fascinating. Note again the points of analogy:

1) It is in the context of the revival and reformation of religion that a new emphasis is placed on individual faith and commitment. The group of disciples is distinguished from the cultural or ethnic people group.

2) The inevitable result is religious pluralism, the competition between various religious sects or denominations.

3) Religious pluralism makes it impossible for any one religious group to dominate the cultural or ethnic people group theocratically. Politics must necessarily be secularized and democratized.

4) It is by appealing to broadly accepted religious values, or by translating religious commitments into more widely accepted moral commitments, that religious groups maintain their political and cultural influence.

5) Groups that refuse to play according to the democratic game, or to accept the secularization of politics, are marginalized.

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