In 2012, a Pakistani woman named Walaiha Arafat was accused of desecrating the Koran. Court documents claim that Arafat was found sleeping atop pages of the Islamic scripture, prompting her arrest on blasphemy charges. Arafat was detained for almost 42 months in Central Jail Lahore, a detention facility in the province of Punjab, before being released on bail in what amounted to a rare display of leniency from the nation’s supreme court.
New York treats its blasphemers better than Pakistan does, but neither society seems eager to tolerate those who offend its most basic religious convictions.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the volunteers for Samaritan’s Purse, an Evangelical relief organization run by the televangelist Franklin Graham, have been the most notable heretics in New York City. After weeks of protest from the city’s diversity clerics, the volunteers are at last collapsing the group’s field hospital, disinfecting its tents, and leaving New York City in apparent disgrace. In two weeks, the volunteers will return home, shunned by the city whose sick they treated free of charge without regard to race, religion, or sexual preference. The city officials who usher them out offer the group nothing but scorn: A statement released by New York City council speaker Corey Johnson instructed Samaritan’s Purse to leave Central Park, calling the group’s presence in the city “an affront to our values of inclusion.”
New York is an inclusive city, he says: Get the hell out.
The demonstrations outside the Samaritan’s Purse COVID-19 field hospital have been covered, perhaps too closely. Many of the protesters were clearly disturbed. Their anger at an innocuous group of religious volunteers provided a window into some of the excesses of LGBT politics and the desperation for enemies in a moment in history when enemies are scarce. But the protesters were a small, if vocal, group without much pull. The way in which the presence of Samaritan’s Purse has exercised the organs of government, however — the city council, the mayor’s office, and even the federal government — is another issue entirely. As the volunteers prepare to depart, it is worth pondering what this entire debacle says about the state of religion and culture in New York City.
It is now clear — if it wasn’t before — that the leaders of our cultural revolution are not interested in coexisting with their perceived enemies. So appalled were the city’s leaders by the mere presence of volunteers with traditionalist views on marriage and sexuality that they refused their help in the middle of a lethal pandemic. Johnson conceded that the “battle against COVID-19 is still ongoing,” and the city “still needs support” in defeating the virus. Even with lives on the line, Johnson resolved that “a city that values diversity and compassion for all” could not, in effect, defile itself by coexisting with the ideologically unclean. Metaphors abound, but practically speaking, what message are Johnson and New York’s elected officials sending to the observant Jews, Christians, and — yes — Muslims in the city who hold beliefs identical to those espoused by Samaritan’s Purse?
One marvels at the abuse of language by protesters and elected officials. State senator Brad Hoylman, for instance, claimed that the city’s mere “association with Franklin Graham and Samaritan’s Purse” inflicted “reputational harm with LGBTQ New Yorkers and the wider public.” The suggestion that Samaritan’s Purse — an organization that brought volunteers to the front lines of a collapsing hospital system at no charge to the city — was somehow inflicting harm on New York was remarkable. The “harm,” here, was forcing LGBTQ New Yorkers to endure the thought that somewhere in the city of New York, someone might have had an opinion about their sex lives.
In this telling, the charity’s offense was requiring its volunteers to affirm the Samaritan’s Purse statement of faith, which contained blasphemous views on LGBT issues. New York City effectively banished Samaritan’s Purse for failing to adhere to its own de fide commitments.
Most striking was Johnson’s decision to defend “inclusion” and “diversity” by excluding those with unfashionable views from the city. This Orwellian sense of “inclusion” recalls Herbert Marcuse’s essay on “repressive tolerance” — a defense of a “liberating tolerance” that requires “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left” to facilitate “progress in civilization” (my emphasis). G. K. Chesterton said that the “thought that stops thought” was “the only thought that ought to be stopped.” German political theorists from Karl Loewenstein onward have spoken of streitbare Demokratie: militant democracy, the notion that the liberal (or “inclusive”) order requires taking illiberal (or “exclusive”) action against those who would subvert it. Would-be excluders must themselves be excluded for inclusion’s sake.
In a 1968 postscript to “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse wrote,
There are issues where either there is no “other side” in any more than a formalistic sense, or where “the other side” is demonstrably “regressive” and impedes possible improvement of the human condition. To tolerate propaganda for inhumanity vitiates the goals not only of liberalism but of every progressive political philosophy.
The ill-treatment of Samaritan’s Purse and its selfless volunteers demonstrates that officials in New York no longer view the “other side” of the marriage and sexuality debates as anything but obstacles to the “inclusive” society — a goal apparently more precious even than the lives of New York City’s COVID patients.