Sunday, December 10, 2006

Clarifying Freedom

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Yet it more than anything defines liberal democracies, and differentiates us from many of the “un-free” Muslim and Arab societies with which we are at odds.

Throughout Western Europe, which is experiencing an influx of largely unassimilated Muslims, there is the perception that some freedoms need to be curtailed in order to ensure that Muslim immigrants conform to European norms. In the Netherlands the Dutch have just passed a law banning the burqa and other types of Muslim clothing, and France has already banned the Muslim headscarves in schools. (In one of the biggest infringements of free speech in a liberal democracy, the Austrians have made it a crime to deny the Holocaust.)

While some of these laws are understandable from the standpoint of a people worried that its cultures and traditions are slowly being eroded by a foreign illiberal wave, they are largely misguided. What is needed is a careful clarification of what freedom means in the context of liberal democracies, including which ones are non-negotiable and which are more fungible. Tony Blair has begun to lay out such guidelines, making a point of which aspects of liberal democratic society in Britain all immigrants must respect if they are to be welcomed.

The bedrock principles of liberal democracies are equal rights for all, including women and minorities. Also, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from unlawful persecution, and freedom of association. The Western powers should go out of their way to make clear to the Muslims and Arabs who live in their societies that these elements are non-negotiable for all members of society; that where these principles conflict with Islamic principles, it is the principles of freedom that win out. The tenets of no religion or culture can supersede these basic freedoms.

At the same time it should also be made clear that all aspects of a person’s culture and way of life that do not conflict with these basic freedoms are left entirely up to them. If women freely chose to wear burqas or headscarves, fine; it is only when they are coerced that it is wrong. People are free to celebrate whatever holidays they want, and to practice their religion openly and freely; the West welcomes new cultures with open arms. (Keeping in mind of course that limits on freedom of speech and association for those who incite violence have always been a part of liberal democracies, and are not aimed at Muslims or Arabs).

In summary, there are fundamental rights that must be honored by everyone in a liberal democracy, and these need to continually be repeated and reinforced. However, members of other cultures should not be made to feel that all aspects of their cultures are under attack by the West.

Putting this in the context of American society, where we have been much more successful at assimilating minority religious and cultural groups, it is the U.S. Constitution that lays down these liberal democratic principles while it paves the way for an ever-evolving American culture. Those who argue that we are a Christian nation are wrong; we are a constitutional democracy that does not draw whatsoever on Christianity for its structure. However, it is correct that America’s cultural mores have predominantly been of the Judeo-Christian variety, including our holidays, slogans, and dominant religion. This can and likely will change. As the makeup of the American population changes so will our culture; we will further integrate the Hispanic and Muslim cultures, all the while maintaining our constitutional tradition.

A side note: It is ironic that demagogues such as the rightwing radio host Dennis Prager, who confuse and obscure the difference between our liberal democratic legal foundations and our cultural history, advocate contradicting our legal statutes in order to promote a narrow view of American culture. Prager caused a stir when he recently said that the new Muslim Congressman-elect must take his oath of office on a Bible and not a Koran. In reality, our legal tradition requires neither, nothing more than one’s right hand held in the air, and the Congressman has every right to choose to use a Koran for symbolic purposes as a representation of his culture. Prager’s insistence demonstrates that the right wing only believes in freedom of religion when it is Judeo-Christian religion; it is quick to call for unconstitutional rules, which infringe on religious freedom, when other religions seek a place within American culture. (The American Family Association is lobbying for a new law that requires swearing on the Bible for public office.)

Jason Scorse

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