The Bush administration has decried the threatened execution of a Christian convert from Islam in Afghanistan as a violation of universal democratic principles. While we should applaud the administration’s expressions of outrage, we must lament the inaccuracy of the reason cited for it.
The principle of democracy is majority rule. Does anyone deny that the overwhelming majority of Afghanistan’s population is Muslim? It is also likely that a majority of the Afghan population supports the decision to bring charges against the Christian convert, and even to put him to death when he is found guilty as charged of abandoning Islam.
This case is not about respect for democratic principle. It is about respect for the principles of unalienable human rights from which the preference for democratic self-government ultimately derives. The doctrine of unalienable rights, which requires that government be based upon consent (i.e., elections decided by majority vote) also prescribes limits upon the legitimate uses of government coercion. Even with the support of an overwhelming majority, government cannot legitimately use or threaten to use force to destroy the unalienable rights of individuals.
The right to individual self-determination in matters of conscience is the first and foremost of these rights, and the one on which depends the very possibility of individual liberty in other respects. There can be no liberty without choice, and there can be no free choice when the threat of violence holds conscience in the iron grip of fear. This is why Jefferson wisely swore “eternal enmity against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
It is also why terrorism poses a threat to humanity that goes beyond the destruction of physical life. Terrorists seek to inspire fear by systematically employing violence against the innocent, with the ultimate aim of bending to submission the mind and will of targeted populations. In a sense, terrorism is the common principle of all physically despotic regimes, the naked truth at the heart of violent tyranny. If in Afghanistan the United States tolerates the threat or use of force to coerce conscience, we are allowing the principle of terrorism to triumph once again in the very country we say we are reclaiming from the terrorist scourge. Given the sacrifice of life good people have already made, this would be more than tragic irony – it would be criminal neglect of duty.
We cannot, of course, ignore the fact that insistence on respect for the rights of conscience in this case may fuel an uprising against the American sponsored government in Afghanistan. Leading Islamic clerics have declared that if the Christian convert is set free, they will not allow him to leave the country, but will incite Muslim believers to seize and tear him limb from limb, until there is nothing left. They contend that God requires his death, since his apostasy from Islam is an affront to God that demands the severest punishment. The doctrine of unalienable rights thus comes into conflict with the doctrine of absolute fidelity to the god of Islam. If indeed God requires that such absolute fidelity be enforced by human law, this not only implies the death of the Christian convert, it implies that the doctrine of unalienable rights is a false doctrine, incompatible with the true religion.
In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration has acted on the assumption that Islamic faith is not incompatible with the possibility of democratic self-government. The truth is, however, that if Islam demands the use of force against believers who leave its ranks, it may equally sanction the use of force against unbelievers who refuse to join them in the first place. In the one case, as in the other, we see a religious doctrine that not only sanctions terrorism, it makes terrorism a holy obligation of the faithful. Such a doctrine is an inherent threat to peace, both within countries that may subscribe to it, and toward other countries that do not acquiesce in their fanatical commitment to the forceful imposition of Islam. We may not wish to make the war against terrorism a matter of religion, but if Islamic clerics promote this doctrine of coercion in matters of conscience, they will force the issue.
Key elements of the American elite recoil in horror at this prospect. Why? Because it will force the American people to face a truth these elites are working hard to erase from our consciousness. The doctrine of unalienable rights is not a secular insight, justified by some purely materialistic scientific proof. According to the American credo, we are all created equal and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. The Islamic clerics who insist that God requires the destruction of the rights of conscience do so in the name of a very different deity than the one the American Declaration of Independence invokes as the authoritative source and sanction for our unalienable rights. The wishful thinking of liberal atheists, sexual hedonists and anti-Christian extremists provides no substitute for this understanding of our claim to liberty. The secular obsessions of liberal judges offer no replacement for it.
The critical threat to the rights of conscience in Afghanistan suggests that the ability to defend the principles of freedom against the claims of oppressive faith is not a matter of abstract concern. If we are not sure of the premises for our opposition to religious oppression, how shall we maintain our resolve against fanatics who are deathly certain of their obligation to promote it? If all we have to offer against their claims of divine sanction is the feeble notion that we like tolerance better, with what authority shall we defend with force what they so eagerly seek to destroy with violence? If an otherwise innocent Christian convert must die because the god of Islam demands his sacrifice, why is it wrong to kill innocent unbelievers when the god of Islam demands they perish in a holy war?
The simple answer is that the god of the Afghan inquisitors, like the god of the Spanish Inquisition, is not God at all, but a ferocious figment of man’s evil imagination. God does not require human sacrifice. God does not demand vicious war against everyone who refuses His call to worship. God does not require human violence to vindicate the glory that belongs to Him in spite of any human power, choice or will. On the contrary, God has endowed each and every human being with the will to choose, and the right to exercise that will. He has called to every conscience, but sanctions no human violence to enforce that call. He has offered His truth to human understanding, but its hold upon will and conscience needs no human executioner. The true God is not a god of violence, terror and death, but the God of peace, justice and liberty.
The brainwashed sensitivities of many contemporary readers will react with unease to this contrast of truth and falsity with respect to God. After all, Oprah says each person must find his or her own truth, which implies that others cannot condemn the falsity we find in it. As the plight of the Afghan convert illustrates, however, one’s understanding of truth has consequences. When their “true” god requires violence against the innocent, when he demands that death stand guard over the prison house of conscience, when his minions incite unbridled atrocity against anyone who disavows their faith, someone must claim the right to assert against their tyrant god the superior claims of the God whose discipline is mercy and who is so far from demanding human life as the sacrifice for apostasy that He offers Himself to provide the price of every sin and the redemption of every sinner’s bond.
The right basis for opposition to the deadly ferocity of the terrorist clerics is not that they are intolerant, but that they are wrong. It is strange hypocrisy indeed to tout the claims of tolerance in the very circumstance where we must be adamantly intolerant of their religiously inspired demand for innocent blood. The simple fact is that we reject the bloodthirsty concept of God that they invoke to justify this demand. No muddled stew of secular jargon about democratic principles and universal tolerance can substitute for the straightforward willingness to challenge their deadly lies about the Deity, and invite the conscience of humanity to choose between a false god whose demands of faith snuff out the life and spirit of humanity, and the true God who offers by faith a path to more abundant life, in spirit and in truth.
This true God is the patron of American liberty, and of the hope for human decency and dignity that we strive to encourage around the world. We obviously cannot claim the right to impose by force the regime of liberty that reflects His patronage, but we cannot shirk the responsibility to oppose, by force if necessary, those who make terrorist war on behalf of its destruction. This responsibility to defend the claims of decent conscience against the systematic perpetrators of atrocity is what brought us into Afghanistan in the first place. We cannot now retreat from it. We shall not extinguish the threat of terror until by our actions we have rebuked the false doctrines of religious fanaticism that embolden and justify its perpetrators.
It turns out that the war against terror – like the battle against communist totalitarianism that preceded it – is not just a physical and material struggle, it is a battle for the heart, mind and spirit of humanity itself. The question we must put to the government and people of Afghanistan, and indeed to peoples everywhere, is not a choice between fanaticism and tolerance, but a choice between the truth that tugs at every human heart and conscience – and the seductive lies that fuel violent passion and pride, but in the end betray all decent hope. Whatever religious label they wear, these lies cannot be tolerated – not if we want peace and justice to prevail. Ironically, then, truthful intolerance, not timid toleration, must be the principle of our battle against the fanatics of religious terror. We must boldly and forcefully say no, both to the atrocity they propose to perpetrate against an innocent Christian man, and the false religious doctrine that gave rise to it.
If the Bush administration fails to act on this necessity, it will destroy the moral basis of the war against terrorism. As things stand, this will be a greater default of responsibility for the national security of this nation than the day itself when the Towers fell. I pray that the president understands the gravity of the crisis we are in if Abdul Rahman dies.