By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The recent massacre in Paris and continuing violence in Islamic nations is a reminder that Islamic law (Shari’a) conflicts with the freedoms of religion and expression and inspires terrorist acts. It illustrates why all religious standards of legitimacy must be voluntary moral standards of behavior rather than coercive laws to be compatible with political and religious freedom.
Jesus was a Jew, and for the Jews of his day Mosaic Law was the ultimate standard of righteousness and legitimacy. Jesus emphasized the supremacy of reason and love over religious law, as summarized in the greatest commandment, and to make that point he often violated religious laws and was criticized by Jewish teachers of the law for his ”civil” disobedience.
On one occasion Jesus was criticized for picking grain on the Sabbath and he told his critics, The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The word religion or law can be substituted for the Sabbath to illustrate the point: Religious laws can rob us of our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness if we allow them to do so.
On another occasion Jesus was criticized for violating purity and dietary laws and he told his critics, Nothing outside a man can make him unclean by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of him that makes him unclean. (Mark 7:15) Jesus later told his disciples: What comes out of a man makes him unclean. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man unclean. (Mark 7:20-23) This saying illustrates how religious laws can distort reason and common sense.
Blue laws that once prohibited business activities on Sunday in South Carolina have since been repealed. Blasphemy laws that violated the freedoms of religion and speech were eliminated in the U.S. in the 19th century, but they continue to be enforced in Islamic cultures where, sanctioned by Shari’a, they are considered to be part of God’s immutable law.
Shari’a incorporates ancient Mosaic Law that made blasphemy a crime punishable by death (Leviticus 24:16). Shari’a makes any criticism of Islam, the Qur’an or Muhammad blasphemous, and also makes any assertion that God has a family or that Jesus was the son of God blasphemous. Today Islamic nations such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt use apostasy and blasphemy laws with severe penalties to protect the sanctity of Islam against any criticism.
Like ancient Judaism, Islam is a deontological religion and makes Shari’a its standard of legitimacy. The teachings of Jesus are more teleological and assert the timeless principle of love or compassion over religious laws. Perhaps that is why Christianity has proven to be more compatible with democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law than Islam, but that has not always been true. Before the Enlightenment made democracy and human rights prerequisites for Western governance, the Church used heresy and blasphemy laws to promote its worldly power at the expense of political and religious freedom, just as Islamic rulers now use the Shari’a to promote their political agendas. It is axiomatic that there can be no freedom of religion or expression where apostasy and blasphemy laws protect the sanctity of any religion.
The Founding Fathers who drafted the U.S. Constitution, most notably Thomas Jefferson, understood the conflict between religious law and libertarian democracy. Jefferson might be considered a hypocrite on matters of individual freedom since he was a slaveholder, but his advocacy for the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence and for the freedoms of religion and speech in the First Amendment to the Constitution continue to resonate in U.S. politics and law, and for the vast majority of American believers, political freedom trumps coercive religious laws.
Globalization has forced competitive religions into closer proximity, escalating religious polarization and violence around the world. World peace requires religious reconciliation, but it must be based on the primacy of human rights and the secular law of libertarian democracy over Islamist theocracy based on Shari’a. The two concepts of legitimacy are mutually exclusive, as indicated by a popular Islamic scholar from Egypt who asserted that “God is the only legislator.”
Interfaith dialogue that seeks to address such contentious issues should acknowledge that dichotomy on issues of legitimacy. Meaningful dialogue requires a commitment to justice based on the primacy of human rights and secular law over religious law. Then there should also be an affirmation of the moral primacy of God’s love over lawas expressed in the greatest commandmentto love God and our neighbors as ourselves, including our unbelieving neighbors.
Even though Paul could not have foreseen how democracy and human rights would set new standards of legitimacy and law, he rejected religious law as God’s immutable standard of justice when he wrote to the Romans that “…love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10)
The truth is that God did not give us an ancient and immutable code of sacred law, but instead a timeless and universal principle of altruistic love by which to measure the legitimacy of our governments and their laws. It is largely up to those Christians and Muslims who make up over half of the world’s population to ensure that their governments and laws provide justice through laws that are consistent with love for others. That principle is at the heart of legitimacy.
Notes and References to Resources:
This topic is related to Lessons #4 and #5 at pages 31-38 in the J&M Book and previous blog topics.
On Islamic Law and Mosaic Law, see the Appendices to the J&M Book at pages 469-651.
On the moral teachings of Jesus selected by Thomas Jefferson and their application to politics, religion, legitimacy and law compared with the teachings of Muhammad, see the Introduction to the J&M Book at pages 10-15; see further discussion in Religion, Legitimacy andthe Law.
On human rights from a Muslim perspective, see Muhtari Aminu-Kano et al., Islamic and UN Bills of Rights: Same Difference, April 15, 2014, at https://www.opendemocracy.net/openglobalrights/muhtari-aminukano-ayaz-ali-atallah-fitzgibbon/islamic-and-un-bills-of-rights-same-d.
For a criticism of blasphemy laws, see Fareed Zakaria, Blasphemy and the law of fanatics, Washington Post, January 8, 2015, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/fareed-zakaria-blasphemy-and-the-law-of-fanatics/2015/01/08/b0c14e38-9770-11e4-aabd-d0b93ff613d5_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
For a Muslim perspective that opposes blasphemy laws, see Ali Mamouri, Islam preaches tolerance of critics, no matter what the Charlie Hebdo attackers believed, Washington Post, January 8, 2015, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/01/08/islam-preaches-tolerance-of-critics-no-matter-what-the-charlie-hebdo-attackers-believe/.
For more articles on religion and human rights, go to Links and click on Open Global Rights: Religion and Human Rights (at Open Democracy).
On the comments of Pope Francis on how love over law relates to the freedom of speech and violent responses to blasphemy (Killing is not justified, but punching someone for insulting my mother would be OK), see http://rt.com/news/222935-pope-religion-freedom-insulted/.
A recommended purpose and process for interfaith dialogue is provided at Interfaith Fellowship: Seeking Reconciliation through a Common Wordof Faith.