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ISIS, Religion and Terror - And Why I am Not Charlie

Sunday, March 15, 2015

...or not
While we are rightly shocked at the brutality of ISIS, there really isn't anything new here.  Hundreds of years ago David Livingstone traveled through northern Africa and commented on the "other" slavery practiced by the Barbary pirates.  
"To overdraw its evil is a simple impossibility."
The only difference between this and ISIS is digital video and social media.  What only Dr. Livingstone saw is now on the web for all to see.

But in the wake of the massacre of the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo we are getting a very clear contrast of responses to the intersection of religion and violence.

This intersection is nothing new to Europe.  From Constantine's Edict of Toleration Europe became a 'Churchist' society - meaning the Church was the most significant unit of society.  The Crusades then pit that 'Churchist' society against the Islamic Caliphate and produced decades of religious wars.  Within Christianity itself, the corruption engendered by the intersection of politics and religion produced the Reformation, which then produced conflicting religious loyalties - and more decades of religious wars.

The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 was, for all intents and purposes, written on paper recycled from ashes from some of these wars.  The 'nation-state', with borders commonly recognized by 'international law' as we have come to take for granted, was born.  The important thing to note, however, was how Europe gradually went from being a 'Churchist' society to a 'Statist' society, where the State is now the most significant unit of society.

This is the context in which we must evaluate the comments of Charlie Hebdo's new editor-in-chief, Gérard Biard in the wake of the massacre.  There are some very important clues here: Biard's claim is that the paper does not attack religion unless religion gets involved in politics.
Every time we draw a cartoon of Muhammad, every time we draw a cartoon of the prophets, every time we draw a cartoon of God, we defend the freedom of religion, we declare that God must not be a political or public figure, He must be a private figure.
In light of Europe's history, this all makes sense.  The Enlightenment produced the distinction between public and private that forms Biard's premise here.  This, then, is how Europe views the very idea of being 'secular'.  God, religion and devotion must be private.  Since the State is the most significant unit of society, and the State is secular, society (the individual in the public square) must also be 'secular'.  And it is the State that defines where the boundaries between public and private are with respect to religion.

This view of religious freedom is very different than the one held by America's founding fathers.  And this is why I am not Charlie.

The story of Islam in America is largely the story of a peaceful coexistence.  Along with many other religious minorities, we have lived peaceably among each other while Europe struggles to do the same.  There must be a reason why.

I believe it has to do with exactly what we mean by 'secular'.

Where Europe has gone from being a 'Churchist' society to a 'Statist' society - which it remains - our founding fathers built their ideas on the scaffolding of the tradition in the Reformation that believed one became a Christian by choosing Christianity for themselves - and thus were baptized as adults rather than children.  This necessarily meant that the freedom to make (or not to make) that choice must be a freedom that arises from nature rather than the State and its church.  This, then, is the foundation of the American idea that there are rights - "...among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," that precede government.  Therefore the first priority of the exercise of political power is the securing of those rights to their proper owner – the individual.

This is why we do not distinguish between public and private in the American idea of religious freedom.  To do so requires that we allow the State to determine the boundaries between public and private.  And that, then, means the freedom of religion is subject to the benevolence of the State rather than ours by nature.

And so when we say we are 'secular', we mean to say we make the maximum amount of room in our public spaces and life for the expression and practice of the religions of our people.  And this is why most of our newspapers did not publish the cartoons.  To expose religious sensibilities and sanctities to public ridicule is to deny our public spaces and life to those religions and their adherents.
This is what Europe does not yet understand.  Biard complains that refusal to run their cartoons undermines freedom:
When they refuse to publish this cartoon ... they blur out democracy, secularism, freedom of religion, and they insult the citizenship.
Voltaire was wrong. It is exactly the opposite.

By not publishing cartoons that defame sanctities, we preserve the essential dignity of our neighbor who practices a religion different from ours.  And that dignity cannot be divided by the State between public and private - where someone in a cubicle somewhere decides for everyone else where the border between public and private is drawn, thus infringing upon both religious freedom and personal dignity.

Europe's ideas worked well for them while everyone shared the same history and customs.  But the news today proves ever more clearly that multiculturalism is the inexorable arc of history.  For freedom to endure, it must be conceived of without boundaries between public and private, and the State must be conceived of in the context of freedoms and rights which precede it.  This means the State must be secular so as to preserve the rights of its people to be devout - in public and in private - and to enjoy the dignity their devotions confer.

This is why I support the decision not to run these cartoons in our papers.  This is why I am not Charlie.

[This first appeared in my column "Politics for the Rest of Us" at Communities Digital News.]

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