Re: American Conservatives, Islam, and Religious Realism in U.S. Foreign Policy

by Andrew C. McCarthy

I appreciate Thomas Farr’s response to my critique of his original argument, but I still respectfully submit he is not practicing the realism he preaches.

Just to be clear, I was moved to reply because Mr. Farr expressed astonishment that Abdul Rahman could be put on capital trial for apostasy notwithstanding a constitution that, as Mr. Farr summarized it, expressly guaranteed the “protection of human rights” and “a civil society free of oppression” – a constitution the U.S. ambassador, who had midwifed it, praised for the “broad religious freedom” it enabled. I countered that this was an unrealistic depiction of the Afghan constitution, which is a sharia supremacist document through and through. Mr. Farr does not appear to contest this point in his latest post.

We should be able to agree, then, that there is nothing astonishing about Abdul Rahman’s apostasy trial or about the craven way the otherwise certain death penalty was circumvented. The Afghan constitution makes crystal clear that, regardless of its “human rights” bunting, no law can contradict sharia. Apostasy is a capital offense under sharia – not “extremist” sharia, as Mr. Farr refers to it in his latest post, but regular old mainstream Middle Eastern sharia. And finally, since our government was complicit in the installation of a sharia-supremacist constitution, and since our officials lack the courage to confront the incompatibility of sharia and religious liberty, the only alternative to letting Abdul Rahman be executed was to whisk him out of the country.

On that last point, I could not agree more with Mr. Farr’s complaint that obtaining the “release of victims so they may flee their own countries in the dark of night” is not the way a serious government deals with an issue of immense importance – the issue of religious freedom. It was embarrassing to find our officials patting themselves on the back. But Mr. Farr errs profoundly when he writes of freedom, including religious freedom, as if there were one universal understanding of it. There is not.

In 1990, what is now called the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (the 57-government bloc that at the time called itself the Organization of the Islamic Conference) issued its Cairo Declaration on Human Rights In Islam. The reason there had to be a separate declaration of human rights in Islam, is that mainstream Islam – not al Qaeda Islam, mainstream Middle Eastern Islam – does not accept the West’s conception. The Islamic conception of freedom is total submission to Allah’s law, sharia – the notion Islamic scholars over the centuries have described as “perfect slavery.” Sharia does not embrace the principles of freedom of conscience, freedom to worship, and equality of all religious believers (or, for that matter, of all people) under the law. Consequently, if you accept that Islam is a religion and that sharia is part of its core, any policy of promoting international religious-freedom that does not discriminate between religions is doomed to fail because of its internal contradictions. If you are going to enable sharia, other religions cannot be freely preached and practiced.

Mr. Farr concludes by asserting, “No highly religious society is likely to change its religious practices unless it concludes that the tradition itself supports those changes, and that they are in the interests of the society.” That is sensible, but it moves us to a dead end as far as religious liberty is concerned. To apply Mr. Farr’s formula concretely, Abdul Rahman could safely live as an apostate in Afghanistan’s society only if Afghans concluded that their sharia tradition supported changing the religious practice of condemning apostasy. It most emphatically does not.

This is not a matter of U.S. policy or anything that a vigorous freedom policy could alter. It is simply a brute fact of sharia law. I am not saying things can never change, but that one hasn’t changed in fourteen centuries, and obviously change is not coming any time soon – not when the State Department is writing sharia into constitutions because we lack the will to challenge its freedom-devouring premises.

Like Mr. Farr, I believe legitimate, stable democracy requires religious liberty. Such a democracy cannot be built on a sharia foundation. Any democracy promotion strategy worth having must start with honesty on that point. I would love to see Egypt become a real democracy, but unlike Mr. Farr I do not believe the achievement of democracy in Egypt or elsewhere in the Middle East is “vital to our security.” Indeed, if terrorism is the principal threat in one’s environment, terrorists have shown themselves especially adept at exploiting the freedoms available in democratic societies in order to attack those societies (9/11, for example, was planned in cities across our nation and in Western Europe for two years). That is not a reason to refrain from promoting real democracy. After all, democratic countries tend to have better mutual counterterrorism cooperation. It is a mistake, though, to overestimate the connection between democracy promotion and national security.