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Religious Experience

The riots currently engulfing the Islamic world, prompted by a Danish newspaper’s decision to caricature the Prophet Mohammed, require two responses. The first is easy: horror. In the physical assault on Denmark’s embassies and citizens, and in the diplomatic assault on Denmark’s government—all because a free government won’t muzzle a free press—multiculturalism has become totalitarianism. Religious sensitivity, say the zealots marching from Beirut to Jakarta, matters more than liberty. Indeed, it matters more than life itself. To which the only answer, from democrats of all religions and of none, must be: In this matter, we are all Danes.    

So responding to the thuggishness is easy. Responding to the cartoons themselves is harder. It is hard to condemn them when the barbaric response in parts of the Islamic world so vastly dwarfs the initial offense. And yet, the cartoons should be condemned nonetheless. Of course, the Danish newspaper had the right to publish them. But, in doing so, it revealed a particularly European prejudice, one that the United States must take care not to repeat.

The prejudice is not simply against Islam. Rather, it stems from Europe’s— or at least Western Europe’s—inability to take religion seriously at all. As my colleague Spencer Ackerman has written (“Religious Protection,” December 12, 2005), one reason Muslims find it harder to integrate in Western Europe than in the United States is that, in Western Europe, integration is often presumed to mean secularization. In defending his decision to print the cartoons, the culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten declared, “This is about the question of integration and how compatible is the religion of Islam with a modern secular society.” In defending its decision to reprint them, the French paper France Soir wrote, “No religious dogma can impose its view on a democratic and secular society.”

But most Americans—like most Muslims—do not think “modern” and “democratic” equal secular. In France, educational integration means public schools can expel Muslim girls for wearing headscarves. In Denmark, economic integration means employers can fire Muslim women for doing the same. Neither is conceivable in the United States, where the right to be openly religious is considered precious. And, if an American leader criticized “these people for whom religion is their entire life,” as the Danish queen recently did, she would be out of a job fast.

So it’s not surprising that U.S. newspapers have been less willing to publish the cartoons than their European counterparts. And it’s not surprising that the Bush administration quickly called the cartoons offensive, even as it defended the right to free speech. As Ackerman wrote, a key U.S. advantage in the war on terrorism is America’s capacity to be both religious and ecumenical. And few public figures encapsulate that better than George W. Bush, a man who has helped turn the Republican Party into a multi-denominational coalition of the devout.

The intriguing question going forward is whether Bush’s brand of conservative ecumenism—at least as it regards Muslims—will endure. Ever since September 11, many conservatives have derided his insistence that “Islam is peace” as naive at best. “I have taken issue with our esteemed president in regard to his stand in saying Islam is a peaceful religion. It’s just not,” declared Pat Robertson several months after the attacks. “To a greater extent than we have permitted ourselves to say,“ added William Bennett, “this war has to do with religion.”

And, since the cartoon wars broke out, some conservatives have suggested that, since Islam is not a peaceful religion like Judaism or Christianity, there’s nothing wrong with depicting Mohammed as a terrorist. As one article in National Review put it, the violent protests in the Islamic world proved that the “cartoons depicting Muhammed as a dangerous man of arms ... had a good point.” On Fox News, Fred Barnes declared that many “Muslims all over the world are certainly enemies of Western civilization.” Fox and conservative bloggers have been more willing to show the cartoons than their liberal counterparts.

Indeed, despite Bush’s universalism, clash-of-civilizations thinking is deeply ingrained on the American right. In the first decades of the cold war, conservatives frequently described the fight against communism as a struggle not merely for freedom, but for Western civilization. That’s why so many conservatives opposed the rapid decolonization of the Third World. They saw it not as a triumph for democracy—which they considered unlikely to take root in non-Western soil—but as evidence of civilizational retreat, an alarming sign of what longtime National Review editor James Burnham called “the suicide of the West.”

This darker conservatism—with its suspicion of the capacity of abstract ideals to transcend cultural barriers— remained strong through Ronald Reagan’s election. “Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits” of democracy, wrote Jeane Kirkpatrick in “dictatorships and double standards”—the essay that led Reagan to name her ambassador to the United Nations. It was only several years into the 1980s—as pro-American democracies took shape in East Asia and Latin America—that Reagan and large numbers of conservatives embraced the culturally (and religiously) universalist rhetoric that Bush has made his own.

Now, in the wake of the cartoon saga, the election of Hamas and the ongoing trauma in Iraq, that universalism is being challenged, and the older, more pessimistic conservatism is resurfacing. And that’s a very bad thing. No matter what you think of the religious right’s domestic agenda, the United States is much better off with a religious right than with a Christian right or a Judeo- Christian right. When conservative American Christians lose their ability to identify with conservative Muslims—to imagine their faith as in some basic way the same and deserving of the same basic respect—the United States will find itself less able to speak to the Muslim world, and less able to listen to it. It will find itself, in other words, in the place Europe is now. And that’s a place no American should want to be.

This article appeared in the February 20, 2006 issue of the magazine.