The Final Freedom

Shahbaz Bhatti was a 42-year-old Roman Catholic living in the strongly Islamic nation of Pakistan.  He was, in fact, the only Christian member of the government, serving as the minister for religious minorities.  In that capacity, he was an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, which sentence those who insult Islam to death.  Criticism of the blasphemy laws is blasphemy, of course, so on Wednesday he was murdered by Islamist gunmen on the streets of Islamabad.

The murderers left pamphlets at the scene, claiming responsibility in the name of al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban movement.  Addressing those who would challenge the blasphemy laws, the pamphlets declared, “With the blessing of Allah, the mujahedeen will send each of you to hell.”

Bhatti had been threatened with death many times before.  His murder comes only two months after Salman Taseer, Muslim governor of the Taliban-infested Punjab province and fellow critic of the blasphemy laws, died at the hands of a turncoat bodyguard. 

Westerners often wonder if there is any hope the Muslim world will fully embrace democracy.  It’s a particularly urgent question when dictatorial regimes across the Middle East are tumbling down.  America was born in defiance of tyranny, and when people around the world yearn for freedom, their cries echo in her soul.  We want more for the people of nations like Egypt than to replace one dictatorship with another. 

We also note the uneasy existence of some Muslim communities in the West, and cannot help asking if Islam is fundamentally incompatible with democracy at some level.  It is a dreadful question for a nation committed to religious tolerance, an ideal written into our Constitution… and its presence is the key to understanding the difficulty Islam faces when coping with Western ideals.  The life and works of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer are proof Muslims can do it.  The murders of these brave men demonstrate that they might fail.

The dilemma facing Islam is that it is inherently hostile to other religions, which operate under severe restrictions when Islam holds power… if they can be practiced at all.  I will leave it to Koranic scholars to debate whether this behavior is hard-coded into their faith, but its prevalence is undeniable.  From Saudi Arabia’s religious totalitarianism, to the second-class citizenship imposed on infidel “dhimmis,” to Pakistan’s brutal state-enforced blasphemy laws, intolerance is not a rare condition for governments dominated by Islam.

Religious tolerance is the “final freedom,” which both summarizes and enables all the others.  Organized religion can only be conducted in concert with freedom of speech, property rights, and freedom of assembly.  For example, one of the major causes of tension with Coptic Christians in Mubarak’s Egypt was the government’s reluctance to grant permits for building churches.

The compromise of religious freedom always imperils democracy.  As the exercise of religion comes under assault, every essential liberty of the faithful is denied.  It’s not long before the followers of a persecuted religion cannot own property, participate in government, express themselves freely, or expect equal treatment under the law.

A just government derives its power from the consent of the governed.  How could any religious community be expected to “consent” to a government which actively persecutes it?  Observant Christians and Jews have had their rough patches with the American government, which throws all sorts of tortured legal obstacles at expressions of faith, while secular liberal culture sneers and wonders aloud if they should be permitted to participate in the affairs of the State… but this is nothing compared to the merciless, and occasionally fatal, discrimination Christians and Jews face in Muslim nations.

Religious beliefs, including atheism, rank among a citizen’s most treasured intellectual possessions.  A government which does not respect these paramount treasures will be unlikely to show deep respect for its citizens in any other area. 

It’s not surprising to see many people regard the beliefs of others as odd, ridiculous, or profoundly mistaken.  By definition, each of us sees his own religion as correct, which makes all others “wrong” to some degree.  To fully embrace the free exercise of those “incorrect” beliefs is the ultimate measure of faith in our fellow citizens.  Democracy only works when the people have faith in each other.  Replace that with contempt for unbelievers… or transcendent faith in the State itself… and we are not far from concluding that certain people are not worthy of rights that only the elite deserve, or can handle.

The final freedom is absent from a state that punishes blasphemy with death.  The people ruled by such a state will find all other freedoms slipping through their fingers like sand.  The founders of the United States spoke of rights granted by God, but they are no less meaningful to those who refer to the divine by other names, or no name at all. 

The oppressive power of the government is powerfully restrained by the concept of an authority that predates and transcends it.  Our Bill of Rights begins by forcing the State to concede the existence of a power greater than itself.  This humility is what makes “inalienable” rights possible.  A “right” granted at the discretion of the government is a gift that can be taken back.

Understand the freedom of religion, and you will see the wisdom and justice of every other word in the Constitution reflected within.