Archive - May 2016

Are There Still Just Wars? New Catholic Thinking on Peace
European Federalism is Catholic — So Brexit is Not
Obama at Hiroshima (longer version)
Yes, Apologize for Hiroshima, President Obama
China’s Coming Clampdown on Religion
German Muslims Defend Religious Freedom, Support Constitution
Is the Problem Really Religious Freedom?
Egyptian Parliament Attempts to Repeal Blasphemy Law
Germany Trying to Squeeze Round Mosques into Square Church Structures
Religious Freedom Is For Muslims

Are There Still Just Wars? New Catholic Thinking on Peace

Maria Stephan, a policy analyst at the United States Institute of Peace, has written a fascinating piece about voices in the Catholic Church who are calling for the Church to move past thinking about a just war and to focus far more on building just peace.  The Church has allies in such a quest among other Christians and other faiths as well as secular voices.   The movement comes mostly from peace activists and is not on the verge of leading the magisterium of the Church to jettison the classic doctrine of a just war, dating back to St. Augustine.  Still, its message finds echoes among recent popes and now Pope Francis as well as among leaders and activists throughout the world.

I do not think that the Church should abandon is doctrine of the just war, for sometimes war is just and necessary, but still find Stephan’s message compelling insofar as possibilities for non-violent action are worth developing, pursuing and enacting.  Stephan’s book with political scientist Erica Chenoweth, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, is a landmark.  An article version of it opened my eyes to see that non-violent movements are not the rarified exceptions of a King or a Gandhi but rather part and parcel of global politics.  They are common; they work; and they produce better and more lasting change than violence.

Now she situates her thinking in the Catholic context:

But it seems that Pope Francis – who is by all accounts a progressive thinker, unafraid to challenge old Church doctrines – might welcome a debate over the church’s foundational tenets on war and peace.

“Faith and violence are incompatible,” he repeated in a 2013 mass prayer gathering at the Vatican. Like his predecessors of the past 50 years, he has called for the abolition of war. But this pontiff has gone one step further in pressing for nonviolent alternatives.

She continues:

The concept of “just peace” is not new. It first emerged in the United States in the mid-1980s, when an interdenominational group of Christian scholars advanced alternatives to war that culminated in a just-peace framework.

It included practices like supporting nonviolent direct action; cooperative conflict resolution; advancing democracy, human rights, and religious liberty; fostering just and sustainable economic development; and encouraging grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.

She reports on a conference at Rome that she recently attended:

or some at the Rome conference, the pope’s endorsement of the gathering was long overdue for the church. Many of those in attendance, like Sister Nazek Matty from Erbil, Iraq, had known war for years and were sick of it. She and other participants pressed the church to place greater focus on nonmilitary responses to the Islamic State and expand the creative imagination to fight injustices with active nonviolent means.

During one of the plenary sessions, Father Francisco José de Roux, a Jesuit priest from Colombia, decried how, since the mid-1960s, supporters of both the government and FARC insurgents, including local priests, have justified violence in the name of a “just war.” The outcome? Nearly 50 years of civil war.

Other Catholic leaders in Colombia have supported nonviolent civic action and “zones of peace” to keep armed groups out of local communities and have helped advance peace talks expected to culminate in a final settlement later this year. By putting a just-peace approach at the center of its work, the Catholic Church in Colombia opened multiple avenues to effective nonviolent action.

There is much more that is worth reading in this provocative piece.

European Federalism is Catholic — So Brexit is Not

It is often forgotten that the founding of European federalism in the late 1940s and early 1950s was supported disproportionately and enthusiastically by the Catholic Church and Catholic-inspired Christian Democratic parties.  So it is not surprising that Britain’s bishops are now against Brexit.  See this fascinating piece on the subject in The Catholic Herald.  The origins of the Church’s position, according to the piece:

The most intellectually respectable of these strands leads back to the European Coal and Steel Community, formed after the Second World War by Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi. Of these, only Monnet – the French political economist who became the community’s first president – was not a conspicuously devout Catholic. (His private life was complicated: he was married to a woman who left her husband for him and had to travel to Moscow to obtain a divorce; the Monnets could not have a Catholic wedding until the first husband was dead, by which time Jean was 85. The ceremony took place in the basilica at Lourdes.)

Schuman, twice prime minister of France, and De Gasperi, eight times prime minister of Italy and founder of the Christian Democrats, were men of such personal holiness that there have been calls to canonise them. Adenauer, the scheming first Chancellor of West Germany, is not a candidate for sainthood – but he was a trenchantly Catholic statesman during a political career lasting 60 years.

For Schuman, Adenauer and De Gasperi, the European Economic Community was fundamentally a Catholic project with roots that – in their imaginations, at least – could be traced back to Charlemagne.

Protestant Britons smelled a rat. They portrayed the new alliance as an attempt to re-establish the Holy Roman Empire. There was a grain of truth in this charge – though this “imperial” realm was little more than a patchwork of quarrelsome German principalities. To quote Voltaire, it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

Likewise, there was always an element of fantasy in the goal of “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, first set out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. But the Catholic inspiration for the EEC, left unstated in treaties, was anything but frivolous.

In 2008 the Catholic historian Alan Fimister published a book arguing that Schuman’s plans for Europe were “to a remarkable degree, the conscious implementation of the Neo-Thomistic project of Pope Leo XIII”.

Schuman, De Gasperi and Adenauer all believed that the answer to totalitarian ideologies lay in Leo’s vision of the restoration of “the principles of the Christian life in civil and domestic society”.

But Schuman went further: he subscribed to the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s notion of supranational democracy as the foundation for a new Christendom. “He held fast to the magisterium’s demand that the final destination of Catholic political action must be the recognition by the civil order of the truth of the Faith,” writes Fimister.

And how was this to be achieved? By the voluntary submission of non-Catholic Europeans to the spiritual authority of Rome.



Obama at Hiroshima (longer version)

Here is a longer version of the op-ed I published at The New York Daily News arguing that President Obama should apologize for Hiroshima, with references to Catholic thought.

Once, in a talk to school students about sex, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said the following:

When, I wonder, did we in America ever get into this idea that freedom means having no boundaries and no limits? You know I think it began on the 6th of August 1945 at 8:15 am when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. That blotted out boundaries. The boundary of America that was the aid of nations, and the nations that were helped. It blotted out the boundary between life and death for the victims of nuclear incineration. Among them even the living were dead. It blotted out the boundary between the civilian and the military. And somehow or other, from that day on in our American life, we say we want no limits and no boundaries.

In dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sheen reasoned, the U.S. had incurred a moral corruption that could not be easily contained.

As the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, Barack Obama has insisted that he will not apologize for the bombings, doubtless aiming to ward off the domestic criticism that such contrition would garner.  Early in his presidency, his foes on the right lambasted him for an “apology tour” overseas.  A 2015 Pew Research Center Survey showed that 70% of Americans over 65 considered the atomic bombs justified, while 47% of 18- to 29-year-olds thought the same.

Would Obama be wrong to apologize, though?  When Archbishop Sheen called Hiroshima the destroyer of moral boundaries, he was speaking not from the left or the right side of the political spectrum, but rather from the heart of his church and from the standpoint of the natural law.  It is always wrong intentionally to kill an innocent person – that is, to murder.  And one should never adopt an immoral means to one’s end.  These are the precepts behind centuries-old laws of war, which have distinguished combatants, who may be targeted lawfully, from non-combatants, whose death one may never intend.

The deaths of non-combatants, the U.S. manifestly did intend when, for the first and only time in history, it used nuclear weapons.  Historians do not dispute that the primary reason for the bombs was to destroy the morale of Japan by killing its civilians, thereby hastening the end of the war.  Killing non-combatants – murder – was a means to an end.  The same reasoning had underlaid the United States’ obliteration bombing of Japanese cities, including Tokyo, as well as the Allies’ bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, Germany, earlier in the war.

Armchair analysts! will come the response.  Professors with their principles looking back 71 years later may well condemn the bombings but have considered little the pressures that President Harry Truman was under when he had to make his terrible decision of summer 1945.  Nor have the denizens of the faculty lounge come to grips with the number of lives of U.S. soldiers that would have been lost in a conventional invasion of mainland Japan, which some historians estimate to be 500,000, the charge will run.

The history of what did not happen, though, is always debatable.  Historical counterfactuals – what would have happened if X did not occur – are notoriously uncertain, perhaps just as uncertain as predictions about the future.  Even the assumption of a colossally bloody invasion of Japan rests upon the fixity of U.S. war aims such as unconditional surrender and the deposing of Japan’s Emperor.  Had war aims been relaxed, might an alternative peace have been possible?  The answers can only be speculative.

Far more certain is the moral law, which the Apostle Paul taught is inscribed on the heart.  If it is wrong without exception to kill civilians as the object of one’s action, then targeting the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must be ruled out apart from how persuasive this or that historian’s counterfactuals may be.  The principle of non-combatant immunity is not the conclusion of a speculative university seminar but is rather a law that every soldier, including the commander in chief, is expected to know and follow.  General Curtis Le May, the architect of the campaign to bomb Japanese cities – no armchair analyst he – acknowledged as much when he quipped after the war that “if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”

While the arguments against the bomb can be rendered through reason, it is worth noting that those reasoning from the heart of the same tradition as Archbishop Sheen – the Catholic tradition – have reached the same conclusion that he did.  Courageously, theologian John Ford, S.J. wrote an article in 1944 – during the throes of the war – explaining why obliteration bombing could never pass moral muster.  Oxford philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a Catholic and one of the greatest philosophical minds of the twentieth century, refused to attend the ceremony when Oxford awarded President Truman an honorary degree, explaining her decision in a pointed essay.  The great document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, the “magna carta” of modern Catholic social and political thought, condemned the bombing of cities outright, indenting the text, “[a]ny act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.”  Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical of 1993, Veritatis Splendor, rejected the proportionalist method of moral reasoning that would replace moral absolutes with a weighing of goods – the kind of reasoning that is required to justify the bombings.  John Paul II spoke about Hiroshima directly when he said to the Japanese ambassador to the Holy See in 1999, ““The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a message to all our contemporaries, inviting all the earth’s peoples to learn the lessons of history and to work for peace with ever greater determination. Indeed, they remind our contemporaries of all the crimes committed during the Second World War against civilian populations, crimes and acts of true genocide.”

War crimes leave wounds.  When a nation places its patriotism and its policy behind a gravely immoral deed and continues to justify this deed, it invites its citizens to commit further grave wrongs on the proportionalist rationale.  Not long after Hiroshima, the U.S. government rested the nation’s very defense on the threat to kill innocents in its policy of massive retaliation.  Again, Anscombe diagnosed the problem in an essay, “War and Murder,” which she concluded by writing, “[t]hose, therefore, who think they must be prepared to wage a war with Russia involving the deliberate massacre of cities, must be prepared to say to God: ‘We had to break your law, lest your Church fail. We could not obey your commandments, for we did not believe your promises.’”

In renouncing a moral wrong and inviting citizens to share in the contrition, a head of state can help to heal historical wounds and to nullify historical rationales for future crimes.  President Abraham Lincoln exercised such moral leadership when he called Americans – from both North and South – to repent for slavery.  More recently, President George H.W. Bush officially apologized to Japanese-Americans interned in World War II and President Bill Clinton apologized to Guatemalans for U.S. complicity in human rights violations during the Cold War.

The U.S. also has every right to ask Japan to apologize for its attack on Pearl Harbor and its atrocities during the war.  Such an apology from Japan may well be unlikely.  The apologies that Japanese prime ministers voiced in the 1990s for Japan’s crimes in the 1930s and 1940s provoked a nationalist backlash and public controversy as much as they did greater national contrition.

A U.S. president’s apology for the atomic bombs is also likely to provoke opposition from many American citizens, who will say that an apology for Hiroshima and Nagasaki breaks faith with the U.S. soldiers who fought and died in World War II.  An apology, though, does no dishonor to these soldiers, who fought a war whose cause was just.  Contrition would not detract in the slightest from the imperative of remembering and honoring their sacrifice.

Rather, were the lone superpower to apologize for its violations of the law of nations, it could set an example for other nations to follow.  It might deprive Japan’s latter day nationalists of some of their best arguments for rejecting contrition towards their own country’s history and make it easier for Japanese prime ministers to extend apologies to the U.S. as well as to China and Korea.  An apology for the dropping of the atomic bombs would elicit ire and fury in the short run, but with the passing of time may come to be seen as one of President Obama’s greatest acts of leadership.

China’s Coming Clampdown on Religion

The Chinese government’s demolition of churches and removal of crosses over the past couple of years are a run-up to a much more systematic, nationwide clampdown, a New York Times piece reports today.

Here is how the piece describes the coming change:

But people familiar with the government’s deliberations say the removal of crosses here has set the stage for a new, nationwide effort to more strictly regulate spiritual life in China, reflecting the tighter control of society favored by President Xi Jinping.


In an image from video, a Catholic church’s cross was toppled by a government worker in Zhejiang Province last year. Over the past two years, officials and residents said, the authorities have had crosses from 1,200 to 1,700 churches torn down.CreditDidi Tang/Associated Press

In a major speech on religious policy last month, Mr. Xi urged the ruling Communist Party to “resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means,” and he warned that religions in China must “Sinicize,” or become Chinese. The instructions reflect the government’s longstanding fear that Christianity could undermine the party’s authority. Many human rights lawyers in China are Christians, and many dissidents have said they are influenced by the idea that rights are God-given.

In recent decades, the party had tolerated a religious renaissance in China, allowing most Chinese to worship as they chose and even encouraging the construction of churches, mosques and temples, despite regular crackdowns on unregistered congregations and banned spiritual groups such as Falun Gong.

Hundreds of millions of people have embraced the nation’s major faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Christianity. There are now about 60 million Christians in China. Many attend churches registered with the government, but at least half worship in unregistered churches, often with local authorities looking the other way.

But Mr. Xi’s decision to convene a “religious affairs work conference” last month — the first such leadership meeting in 15 years — suggested that he was unhappy with some of these policies. People familiar with the party’s discussions say it intends to apply some lessons from the campaign in Zhejiang to rein in religious groups across the country.

Bracing news.


German Muslims Defend Religious Freedom, Support Constitution

Muslims in Germany have launched a petition calling on all citizens of Germany to support the German legal system, especially the German Constitution, including its protection for religious freedom.

This comes at a time when an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany, appears to be in ascendance. Alternative for Germany is known by its German acronym AfD, i.e. Alternative für Deutschland. The more AfD argues against treating Muslims as equal citizens before the law, the more support it gains from non-Muslims (a trend familiar to those watching Trump in the U.S. today).

At the recent AfD party convention, AfD supporter Hans-Thomas Tillschneider proclaimed, “Islam is foreign to us and for that reason it cannot invoke the principle of religious freedom to the same degree as Christianity”; this resulted in loud applause.

In the May 2016 AfD Party Platform, the intention of the AfD to exclude Muslims in Germany from religious freedom protection is explicit.

Section 7.6.1 is titled, “Islam Does Not Belong in Germany.” (Bizarrely, this section goes on to proclaim, “The AfD espouses unrestricted freedom of belief, conscience, and religion, but…” with a “but” so vast as to make this unrecognizable as having any relation whatsoever to freedom of belief, conscience, and religion.)

Section 7.6.3 states, “The AfD rejects minarets, and along with this the call to prayer, as a symbol of Islamic supremacy, according to which there is no deity other than the Islamic Allah.” (If exclusivity is so problematic, it is then entirely unclear how the exclusive claims of Christians and Jews that God is one, and the exclusive claim of atheists that God does not exist, pass Constitutional muster in Germany while a parallel Muslim belief poses a “threat” to the Constitution.)

Section 7.6.5 calls for banning facial veils and banning the wearing of headscarves by government employees at work, including those employed at public schools.

Section 8.2.7 calls for “closure of Quran schools” and replacing Islamic religious education in public schools with generic ethics classes (whereas apparently Christians would still be allowed to hold religious education in public schools). Section 8.2.7 concludes,”So long as Islam has not gone through a true reformation, we demand the closure of Quran schools due to the uncontrollable danger of radical indoctrination hostile to the Constitution.”

The irony of this is stark. Muslims are the ones standing up in public for constitutional democracy at a time when some non-Muslims are beginning to abandon constitutional democracy because, they claim, Muslims are a threat to constitutional democracy.

One cannot help but question who the real threat to constitutional democracy is, and where the true “danger of radical indoctrination hostile to the Constitution” lies.

I see the title of this petition, “Today We, Tomorrow You” (#HeuteWirMorgenDu) as a reminder that once a society abandons equality of citizens before the law, subsequent exclusion of one group before the law seldom ends with just that one group. Once it is O.K. to exclude people group by group, other groups will follow, one minority after the next. Thus warn Muslims of Germany, in effect, today we are the ones being threatened with exclusion, tomorrow it could be you.

What is the “alternative” (so to say)? These Muslims remind us the real alternative is to maintain and protect the great innovation of constitutional democracy, with its core principle of religious freedom, protecting all of us — all of us equally before the law.

Below is my own (unofficial) translation of this petition.

Today We, Tomorrow You

Together for the Constitution and against Political Instrumentalization of Islam by the AfD

This is not about Islam, this is about Germany: 

An open letter regarding the AfD Party Platform

With the populist proclamations of the AfD, the debates in Germany about Islam have reached a low point. Discreet as well as public resentment against Muslims has become a political agenda.

Islam, however, is the religion of many citizens, women and men, who, out of a sense of ethical responsibility, are engaged for the well being of our society. We live in an open, tolerant society, in which the multiplicity of opinions and lifestyles is and must remain a core achievement. We commit ourselves to this with all our energy, because there can be no alternative to a Germany like this.

As citizens we must therefore raise our voices. As for the propagandists, it is not a matter of an Islam which is transforming Germany. Rather, cloaked under a supposed critique of Islam, what this is actually about is transforming Germany at its foundations.

It must be the case for all — including the AfD — that the binding framework of our lives together in society is the German legal system. In this all people, with their own convictions and their own lifestyles, can give full expression to who they are. It is precisely this which distinguishes our country.

Religious freedom is a basic right in this legal system, granted to each person without exception. Those, however, who begin to speak of “foreign bodies,” in order to deprive people on a selective basis of their basic rights, have turned themselves against our Constitution itself. Those who, moreover, pretend that they are doing this for the well-being of democracy and of our country, understand neither democracy nor the democratic and free legal system of our country.

Only when all, without regard to their belief or absence of belief, or heritage, are equal before the law, can the freedom of each individual flourish.

We, as the Muslim signatories initiating this, call on all citizens to engage actively on behalf of these principles. We must stand together in opposition to all those who seek through populism to define some people in a way which excludes them from the scope of protection of our legal system. We are not going to surrender the core achievement of enlightened democratic culture to the self-proclaimed “Saviors of the West.” In the end this is not about Islam. This is about Germany.

And this is about constitutional democracy and religious freedom, not only in Germany, but everywhere else too.

Is the Problem Really Religious Freedom?

This fall, The Review of Faith & International Affairs  will be publishing a review of two important new books, from critics of the freedom of religion or belief: Saba Mahmood and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. My full review will be in that issue. One of the orienting questions I had reading these books was: what exactly is the problem with religious freedom? Why, of all the human rights available on the panacea of rights advocacy, has this, still relatively minor right, managed to achieve the status of a super-right worthy of such sustained criticism? To read these books and then to hear, for example, Thomas Farr’s testimony in 2013 that it is ..

difficult to name a single country in the world over the past fifteen years where American religious freedom policy has helped to reduce religious persecution or to increase religious freedom in any substantial or sustained way…

is an exercise in contradiction. Which is religious freedom advocacy? An industrial complex and career maker, or an obscure if rising corner of human rights advocacy in the political offices of the globe?

That empirical puzzle is the least interesting part of these books, however. It is, I think, fair to say that the problem is not religious freedom at all, or even human rights, but liberalism and the secular state. Religious freedom is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface lies the religious and the secular itself, the Treaty of Westphalia, and a whole genealogy of “the constitutive values” of liberal democracy. From the forthcoming review:

Hurd’s conclusion is that religious freedom privileges some forms of religion, whether beliefs, modes of being or knowing, and dis-privileges others. Is that really the fault of religious freedom, or is that the natural consequence of sovereignty and of political secularism?

The state, Hurd is at pains to show, is not neutral because it privileges certain kinds of beliefs and being. But of course it does. The ‘neutrality’ of the secular state is not an intellectual innocence. It is a political community that has very definite opinions about certain kinds of beliefs and behaviours, and the suggestion that it was ever intended to be an open-cosmopolitan social space seems historically naïve. That, for example, Hurd could write “the wrong kind of religion is an object of reform and discipline” (27) and this could shock us means we missed the prior postmodern lesson that politics are always moral, that what a political community means by justice – the good of politics – is hardly “neutral” in an intellectual sense. There is no such thing as good or bad religion, argues Hurd (Hurd, 120), except – of course – when we get busy situating ourselves in a tradition, or moral position, then some kinds of belief and being and knowing are good. And some are bad.

This is where postmodern polemics sometimes hit a snag, because we know that we are already situated in such a sense, whether we are busy attending to it or not. This is Charles Taylor’s point in A Secular Age about the “modern social imaginary” that we were in the business of having understandings of and practices in the world long before we got into the business of theorizing about them. What is Hurd’s social imaginary, then?

I believe it is one whose moral hierarchy counts diversity and equality as its chief aims. The fundamental problem with religious freedom, then, is the same as the problem with human rights generally. Quoting Talal Asad, she writes that religious freedom “usurps the entire universe of moral discourse, capturing the field of emancipatory possibility and effacing the distinction between law and justice” (Hurd, 64). This approach is deeply democratic, but it is not necessarily liberal. In fact, quoting Asad again, she writes “the modern idea of religious belief (protected as a right in the individual and regulated institutionally) is a critical function of the liberal-democratic nation-state but not of democratic sensibility” (Hurd, 108).

Therefore, if we disagree with Hurd about the conceptual use ‘religion’ as a category for international politics the fulcrum of that disagreement becomes clear: it is probably because, like me, you are a liberal democrat, the values of liberalism accompanying and qualifying your democratic enthusiasm, whereas she is unapologetically a democrat. A democrat is a good thing to be, and I respect a thoroughgoing defense of values I also believe in, I just happen to think being a democrat, untethered from the limits of what Taylor calls the “constitutive values of liberal democracy” is a little riskier politics than I like to play.

The full review is forthcoming, but both these books are already available and for sale.


Egyptian Parliament Attempts to Repeal Blasphemy Law

Guest post by Areej Hassan

ِA fierce debate is currently taking place in Egypt’s Parliament over whether the country’s blasphemy law should be repealed. In response to the recent rise in blasphemy accusations against religious, political, and media personalities, as well as some of the country’s Christian minority, 100 out of a total 596 Egyptian Members of Parliament (MPs)s support a proposed bill to repeal the law.

The blasphemy law, or Article 98(f) of Egypt’s penal code, states:

Detention for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding five years, or paying a fine of not less than five hundred pounds and not exceeding one thousand pounds shall be the penalty inflicted on whoever exploits and uses the religion in advocating and propagating by talk or in writing, or by any other method, extremist thoughts with the aim of instigating sedition and division or disdaining and contempting any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto, or prejudicing national unity or social peace.

The most famous of the MPs who support the proposed bill is Dr. Amna Naseer, who is also a teacher of Islamic Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. She is highly regarded by many Egyptians. With regard to the bill, Dr. Naseer stated that “Islam urges people to believe and does not call for imprisonment as punishment for anyone’s thoughts. For the sake of protecting my religion and the freedom of the Shari’a, I agree that the defamation of religion law should be repealed. This bill would also ensure that three of the freedoms enumerated in the constitution– thought, speech, and artistic expression– are protected.”

Standing in opposition to this bill are members of the Islamist Al-Noor Party, such as MP Muhammad Ismail. Ismail explained that calling for the repeal of the law would essentially be a call to chaos. He believes that the repeal would be extremely harmful to society, though he doesn’t explain how any harm could arise. He rejects the concept of challenging ideas with other ideas, arguing that insults to religion should be an exception to that concept.

Between these two positions are those who want only to amend the law. Those who are in this camp acknowledge that the current law is problematic. However, because they also believe that a blasphemy law for the protection of sacred beliefs is necessary, they argue that the current law need only be amended so that it is not applied unfairly to those undeserving of its punishments.

Imad Jad, a Christian MP who also supports the bill’s adoption and the blasphemy law’s complete repeal, said, in response to those who want to only amend the law, that if Parliament does not repeal the law in its entirety, he and other MPs will try other means to repeal the law. He has expressed his support of Dr. Naseer’s statement and also believes that the law’s existence serves to harm more than help the Islamic religion.

When Egyptian scholars of Islam were asked for their opinions regarding this new bill, Al-Azhar University’s Deputy, Abbas Shouman, explained that Al-Azhar is opposed to blasphemy against all religions, regardless of whether there is a blasphemy law in place. However, because Al-Azhar scholars themselves are not members of Parliament, they will not interfere in Parliament’s decision-making.

The fact that the proposed bill has the support of a highly respected MP like Dr. Naseer is a very promising sign. What makes this current debate so significant is the absence of the “Islamic vs. secular” division that has plagued Muslim-majority countries for so long.

The participation of mainstream Muslim scholars like Dr. Naseer in such a debate is extremely powerful in shifting people’s attitudes towards certain issues. Had the likes of Dr. Naseer been absent from this debate and had the only parties debating this issue been members of the Islamist Al-Nour Party vs. members of secular parties, the debate would have been unproductive. In such a scenario, the Al-Nour party, no matter how extreme, would have been presented and viewed as representing Muslim interests, while those from the secular parties, no matter how moderate, would have been viewed as representing any number of anti-Islamic interests.

It is refreshing to see scholars of Islam and other Muslims standing in opposition to Egypt’s blasphemy law on religious grounds, arguing that such measures are actually harmful and even antithetical to their religion, thus wresting power from parties like Al-Nour and their purported claim to speak as the sole voice of Islam and Muslims in Egypt.

Though it’s still uncertain whether this debate will lead to an actual repeal of Egypt’s blasphemy law, the fact that a debate is taking place at all, and with such nuanced arguments, is definitely a step in the right direction.

Areej Hassan is Director of Media and Research at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom. She has a B.A. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University.

Germany Trying to Squeeze Round Mosques into Square Church Structures

A Lutheran bishop in Germany, Ilse Junkermann, has called on Muslims in Germany to organize themselves the way the major, i.e. Catholic and Lutheran, churches in Germany are organized, namely top-down in a single organization, or at least in denominational organizations.

The presumption that the structures of the major Christian churches should be accepted as normative and demanded of other religions in Germany deserves rigorous, critical questioning. For one thing, not even all the Christians in Germany accept these structures (Evangelical and other Christians tend to opt out of the state-recognized churches). Plus, significantly, when Germany became a nation-state, these structures for the Catholic and Lutheran churches were already in place. These already-existing church structures shaped the way the state structured its relations with these two church groups, not vice versa.

Trying now to impose the structures of Catholic and Lutheran Christians on Muslims in Germany is, moreover, risky. As I have observed previously, “Entangling … explorations of Islam with governmental attempts to sanction one viewpoint over another…is more likely to stifle than encourage the much needed open, free public space for explorations of the meaning of Islam.”

In Sunni Islam, the branch followed by most Muslims in Germany, the capacity to accommodate internal diversity has developed organically over 1,400 years. While the coming and going of local political powers as well as empires led from time to time to relative centralization of religious structure, overall the broad distribution of authority in Sunni Islam is inherent to its vibrancy and flexibility.

Today the Muslim-majority countries with the most rigid centralization of religion tend also to be among the most theologically stagnant, where religion is often reduced to a political tool of the state, and the main concern of the state when it comes to religion is control. Many of the theologically dynamic minds of modern Islam tend to flee from such restrictive settings to open, free, diverse environments, without a religious hierarchy oriented to the needs of the state trying to establish an artificial uniformity of thought.

The reason Bishop Junkermann gives for Muslims in Germany to organize centrally is unsettling. She asserts, “Precisely at times of religious pluralization, the state has an interest in religiosity not being relegated to back alleys and clubhouses.” Her concern here is the interest of the state, not the interests of Muslims, nor the protection of religious freedom in Germany. By contrast in countries such as the U.S. and Canada, Muslims organize themselves however, and in as many different ways, as they themselves determine is appropriate; in these countries Muslims institutions are numerous and they are flourishing participants in and contributors to society.

It is unlikely that an artificially, externally imposed hierarchy could have serious credibility among all of Germany’s ca. 4.5 million Muslims, who are diverse not only in ethnic background but, not least of all, in their theological schools and interpretive approaches. The diversity among Germany’s Muslims is part of Islam itself.

Religious Freedom Is For Muslims

This blog has given much attention to the religious freedom of Christians.  A human right, religious freedom is for everyone.  Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty — whose 50th anniversary was celebrated in December in Rome at the conference of Under Caesar’s Sword — teaches that religious freedom arises from human dignity.

Today, the religious freedom of Muslims merits attention.  U.S. politicians direct angry rhetoric against Muslims for political gain.  Donald Trump has called for an end to Muslim immigration into the United States.  He extolled an early twentieth century incident where an American general summarily executed Muslim prisoners in the Philippines with bullets “dipped in pigs’ blood.”  31 governors have refused to allow Syrian refugees into their state, often appealing to anti-Muslim sentiment.  In 2009, Tennessee residents sought to block the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on the grounds that Islam is a violent philosophy, not a religion (while others supported the Mosque).  The list goes on.

Two recent pieces are worth reading on this issue.  One is by Chad Bauman, professor of religion at Butler University in Indianapolis, one of our Under Caesar’s Sword scholars, and an expert on the religious liberty of Christians in India.  Writing for Religion Dispatches, he recounts an incident at a backpacker’s hostel where a Hindu proprietor, seeking to elicit solidarity, said to him and his friends, “Americans hate Muslims, too.”

Bauman explains:

Still today, when I travel in India, Hindus presupposing my agreement frequently make off-handed and derogatory comments about their Muslim neighbors. For those concerned about the effectiveness of the United States’ advocacy for religious freedom around the world, the perception that “Americans hate Muslims, too” should be a matter of great concern.

As I have written elsewhere, India’s Christians suffer from various forms of social and legal discrimination, and are vandalized, kidnapped, or attacked (occasionally even fatally) about 250-350 times a year. This is a serious problem, and one deserving international approbation. However, the repression and persecution of India’s Christians pales in comparison to that of its Muslim minority.

The perception that “Americans hate Muslims, too” helps to feed the view that American advocacy of religious freedom is little more than Christian advocacy:

In fact, Indians are also widely aware of the problem of hate crimes committed against Muslims in America, where, according to FBI statistics, and proportional to the respective national populations, they are roughly as common as attacks on Christians in India. (One of the reasons that this problem is of particular interest in India, of course, is that those intending to attack Muslims in America often mistakenly attack Indian American Sikhs or Hindus, as reported in this Times of India story.)

All of this, of course, simply serves to confirm the impression of many Indians that “Americans hate Muslims, too,” and that our advocacy for religious freedom is really just Christian advocacy. Overcoming this impression, so that the United States might become a more effective, credible advocate for religious freedom in India will require consistent, intentional work.

In my view, it is worth stressing that U.S. religious freedom policy is not just for Christians. By law and in practice, the U.S. government offices that promote religious freedom cover all religions, everywhere, and do a remarkably thorough job of it.  The annual reports of the U.S. State Department Office of International Religious Freedom and of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom are the best reports of international religious persecution and discrimination that one will find anywhere.  Bauman’s point is well taken.  For the U.S. to merit an international reputation that matches the balance of policy, it must publicly denounce the curtailment of the religious freedom of Muslims — and of everyone — with focused effort.

The other piece, by Laurie Goodstein in yesterday’s New York Times, details the efforts of imams in the West to teach a theology that counters that of ISIS.  At a time when so much attention is focused on ISIS and when such attention reinforces a view held by many that Islam is hard-wired for violence and intolerance, the piece documents intensive and courageous efforts by imams to offer a different voice.  The imams have suffered death threats from ISIS:

It is a religious rumble that barely makes headlines in the secular West since it is carried out at mosques and Islamic conferences and over social media.The

Islamic State, however, has taken notice.

The group recently threatened the lives of 11 Muslim imams and scholars in the West, calling them “apostates” who should be killed. The recent issue of the Islamic State’s online propaganda magazine, Dabiq, called them “obligatory targets,” and it said that supporters should use any weapons on hand to “make an example of them.”

The danger is real enough that the F.B.I. has contacted some of those named in the Islamic State’s magazine “to assist them in taking proper steps to ensure their safety,” said Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the F.B.I.’s field office in Washington.

It is critical that we hear all Muslim voices and encourage those who take risks for peace.  To do so will not hurt, but rather will give credibility to, the cause of persecuted Christians.  And, on account of human dignity, it is just the right thing to do.


© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.