Hillary Clinton’s promise on this matter has been out there for months, but a virtually unadvertised conference in Washington, D.C. this week has resurrected the Clinton quote from July 2011.
Back in July, at a conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Clinton pledged that the US would take action against “religious intolerance” in America.
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on that. Clinton said, in her remarks, “No country, including my own, has a monopoly on truth or a secret formula for ethnic and religious harmony.” But if any country comes close to having such a monopoly, it is, in fact, the United States. One of the core principles of our founding was religious freedom; the purpose of guaranteeing it was, explicitly, to discourage religious strife; and to fulfill that purpose, the drafters of the Constitution prohibited Congress from making any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
The US has not avoided religious enmity entirely, but we have kept the law and the government on the side of enforcing a peaceful, quiescent environment for the practice of religion, to a greater extent than any other nation that has ever existed. This environment has existed side by side with robust and sometimes disgusting criticisms of other people’s religions, which we have always allowed as free speech.
And it is worth taking another moment to remember why we determined to allow such free speech. We didn’t do it because it is “good,” in any positive sense, for people to say vile things about each other’s beliefs. It may be perfectly good, or at least not repulsive, for people to say reasonably critical things about religious beliefs. But whether it’s ridiculous allegations about Jews, absurd accusations against Catholics, or today’s fresh-milled 20-something atheists calling Christians “Christofascists,” the point of free speech was never to encourage idiocies of this kind on the theory that we need more of them.
The point of free speech is to keep the government out of the business of deciding whether they’re “bad” or “good.” Government is incompetent to decide such questions, and they should therefore not be within its scope of authority. Precisely because government has civic authority, its involvement in classifying critical speech should be somewhere between severely limited and non-existent. The step from government having an opinion to government repressing intellectual freedom is perilously short. Government can’t wave a magic wand to kindly and gently fix people’s thoughts; it has only the hammer of force and punishment, and that means making every unapproved thought into a “nail.” The American Founders understood this about government, and insisted therefore on keeping its powers limited, constitutionally explicit, and federally divided.
So when Hillary Clinton promises the following, she is on wholly un-American, anti-liberal ground (emphasis added):
In the United States … we are focused on promoting interfaith education and collaboration, enforcing antidiscrimination laws, protecting the rights of all people to worship as they choose, and to use some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming, so that people don’t feel that they have the support to do what we abhor.
OK, so the US government is going to use peer pressure and shaming on us. (The tools, by the way, of “worker soviets” in the sanguinary workers’ paradises of the last century.)
What exactly is it that we abhor? Elizabeth Kendal has an excellent summary at her Religious Liberty Monitoring website of the history behind the UN push to “combat religious intolerance,” and it is worth talking the time to understand how a number of terms – Islamophobia, “defamation” of religion, and “incitement” against religion – have been conflated over the last decade. Getting forms of intellectual discretion wrapped up in “what we abhor” is an ongoing project in the misnamed effort to “combat religious intolerance.”
But another entry point is the definition of “Islamophobia” cited by the typical Islamophobia watchdog. The definition was produced by a British think tank, The Runnymede Trust, in the 1990s, and was consciously constructed as an analogue to definitions of Judeophobia or anti-Semitism. These are its basic elements:
1) Islam is seen as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change.
2) Islam is seen as separate and “other.” It does not have values in common with other cultures, is not affected by them and does not influence them.
3) Islam is seen as inferior to the West. It is seen as barbaric, irrational, primitive and sexist.
4) Islam is seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism and engaged in a “clash of civilizations.”
5) Islam is seen as a political ideology and is used for political or military advantage.
6) Criticisms made of the West by Islam are rejected out of hand.
7) Hostility towards Islam is used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.
8) Anti-Muslim hostility is seen as natural or normal.
Most of these elements are susceptible of extremely ambiguous interpretation. Credentialed academics like Samuel Huntington and Victor Davis Hanson would be indicted by some of them. And in almost any case you can think of, deciding that these criteria correctly classify the actions of non-Muslims is a matter not of objective judgment but of partisan opinion.
Regarding #6, for example, both non-Muslims and Muslims are likely to reject some criticisms from each other out of hand – because our beliefs about some things are fundamentally different. There are Muslim leaders, after all, who constantly reject Western criticisms of sharia out of hand. And there are Muslim leaders who don’t. There is no valid reason why any Westerner should be charged with “Islamophobia” for ignoring or rejecting criticisms of Western practices by Muslims.
Consider the practice of veiling women. When an imam criticizes Western society for failing to veil women, I have no heartburn whatsoever in rejecting that criticism as invalid and inapplicable to my life and my society. How absurd to suggest that I am being “Islamophobic” by doing this.
I recognize, of course, that many Muslim women don’t wear a veil, and many clerics are fine with that. Muslims don’t do the same things in every part of the world. And I prefer civic approaches in the West that seek to live with the practice of veiling where it is important to some citizens. I disagree with the veil being imposed on women, but 99% of the time, the issue isn’t one that affects me directly or requires me to register an official political opinion.
But the fundamental issue here is the status of women. Declaring it to be a “phobia” when people adhere to their original opinions about that is something no government should be in the business of doing.
At what point would a government decide that it was not Islamophobia when a person “rejected out of hand” criticisms of the West made by “Islam”? Where would the line be drawn? Can I reject, for example, Islam’s criticism that the West doesn’t accept Mohammed as a prophet of God? Or does this criterion indicate that I am allowed to reject it, but only after giving some positive display of having considered it without “prejudice”? And if so, how will that work, exactly? Will I carry a card with me, certifying that I was observed by a competent authority to give due consideration to the criticisms of my society made by Islamic leaders?
This is not a laughing matter; the 20th century was a vast, vicious playground for exactly such measures of control over the intellectual lives of peoples and societies. The criticism we should be leveling here is not against “Islam” or “Muslims,” it is against our own government, and the factions of our own, Western/American political spectrum that conceive of government as a method of administering anti-phobia measures.
The idea of government, for too many in America, has gone wildly off-track. Hillary Clinton’s acknowledgment that the Obama administration can’t make black-letter laws against free expression about Islam, but that it will use peer pressure and shaming to try to shape and discourage the people’s expression, is a perfect example of the corruption of the governmental idea in our once-constitutional nation. Our basic problem in this regard is not Islam; our problem is the growing failure of our governments at all levels to adhere to America’s own standard of individual liberty and limited government. We chose that standard not because criticism of others is necessarily or absolutely “good,” but because intellectual liberty itself is.
Judaism and Christianity are, along with Western philosophy, the progenitors of that idea of liberty. The positive, absolute good of liberty is what we must proclaim and defend. And in our nation, on our terms, Islam has the opportunity to thrive as Judaism and Christianity have, by being consistent with it. It cannot be the other way around.