This time of year I tend to reflect on freedom and fear, two concepts that often appear in direct opposition. In three weeks, I will celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover, in remembrance of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, and of the Exodus that ensued. Within that dramatic story lies the very basic concepts of freedom that define not only my people but all who see themselves as liberal in the true sense of that word.
It is ironic that, as I prepare my home for this festival of freedom, Sweden moves to outlaw religious education, as the ruling Social Democratic Party has changed its official stance on the matter in an attempt to “break the chain of segregation.” What that means, in effect, is that 71 Swedish schools — 59 Christian, eleven Muslim, and one Jewish — would have to either close entirely or be “reformed” and secularized in accordance with a proposed new law.
That proposal comes on the heels of several revelations concerning Muslim schools’ engaging in segregation between boys and girls. Public discussion of that practice is the result of a massive backlash against the wave of immigration to Sweden over the past five years. It has shaken Swedish society to its core. With a Muslim population nearing 10 percent and a national election less than six months away, the political parties are falling all over themselves in an attempt to “own” the issue of immigration without actually touching it. It has turned into a political game of Old Maid, where no one wants to get stuck holding the card of responsibility.
The proposed new law is superfluous. Plenty of legislation to protect Swedish children from religious indoctrination already exists. Swedish schools, religious as well as secular, distinguish between “education” and “learning,” as odd as that may sound. The former is the curriculum; the latter, the time spent, for example, at recess, lunch, or social gatherings — outside the context of teaching. Religious education and practice are allowed only outside the highly regulated curriculum. Even then, any religious activity, such as school prayer or the lighting of Shabbat candles, must be voluntarily undertaken. In each case, it is up to the parents either to include their children in the activity or to opt out.
This means that there is in fact no religious education in Swedish schools — it is legal only outside the state-mandated curriculum — and so there is no religious education to outlaw. What the state would now outlaw, however, should the proposed legislation pass, is the opportunity for Christian, Muslim, and Jewish children to feel part of a group they can identify with, to learn about their religious and cultural heritage, and to partake of a value system that isn’t built on a belief in the almighty state, blessed be its name.
The proposed legislation is based on fear, ignorance, and an astounding lack of national identity. As we all know, it is much easier to outlaw liberty — that has always been Sweden’s default choice — than to struggle with the questions it raises and the perils it poses. The real reason that the Social Democrats are proposing their new law and that most other major political parties are supporting it is that they dare not speak the name of what they really fear and are hoping to conquer. The reaction against religious schools stems from a general unease not about having Swedish culture taken from us, or even about abandoning it or giving it away, but rather about not knowing what it was to begin with.
American integration works because every American is an American first, and so American values are well defined and proudly held. One can be Muslim American, Jewish American, and so on, because a clear social contract is signed on entry to the country. It is understood by all that the contract is valued and upheld by all citizens. Once you have a clear understanding of your nation’s founding values, other cultures and beliefs are no longer seen as an existential threat.
Along with most of post-war Europe, Sweden deems patriotism, national identity, and religion obsolete, scoffing at them and embracing a new ideology based on a secular striving for liberal consensus. It has become painfully clear to us over the past few years that those values and ideas are still vital, no matter how emphatically we may deny and denounce them. If there were such a thing as Swedish values and they were clearly defined for any immigrant, regardless of religion, we could have a society of Swedish Jews, Swedish Muslims, and Swedish Christians living side by side, as strangers and neighbors, in true liberal fashion. If we dared have a social contract whereby we agreed to obey Swedish law without exception, we could release ourselves from the weight of the state and enjoy the freedom that Sweden is famous for but never really was able to deliver.
If there were such a thing as Swedish values clearly defined for any immigrant, we could have a society of Swedish Jews, Swedish Muslims, and Swedish Christians living side by side, as strangers and neighbors, in true liberal fashion.
Religion is not our enemy, but apathy truly is, and that is why this country is quickly coming undone. Rather than face the consequences of the immigration crisis, Sweden is outlawing culture and religion. Legislation is easier than liberation, because the former asks nothing of you, whereas the latter requires your active participation. True liberalism is hard, but the lesson that Sweden is about to learn will be far harder, that I know, when we’ve run out of rubber stamps and are run over by those unafraid to define their values and their worth. Sweden accepted mass immigration in the name of liberal values and freedom, but now that the consequences of that wave are being felt, the government chooses to replace freedom with the state, and liberalism with legislation, so it won’t risk having to call the problem by its name.
Scripture tells us that, as they were about to flee Egypt, before Moses parted the Red Sea, the Jewish people fought among themselves, as many feared freedom more than they did the slavery they knew. Freedom would throw them into the ever-changing and unknown. We see that same struggle play out now, across the political spectrum. Sweden failed to integrate its Muslim immigrants, to teach them what they were expected to be and how they were expected to live. To compensate for that failure, the Swedish government now proposes to outlaw the very lessons of faith that give people the values and identity they themselves need but lack. That is the essence of fear, and the opposite of freedom.
It is a shameful course of action for any society that dares to call itself liberal and free. I don’t fear religion or its values, for those are the walls that made our house a home. What I do fear is a society in which those values are deemed obsolete — a hollow, historyless society, where the one-eyed man is king. We need the lessons of faith, if not faith itself, more than ever, for a society that stands for nothing will eventually fall for everything.