By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
If radical religion is the primary cause of religious violence, as asserted in last week’s blog, then political freedom and democracy are essential to lasting peace and justice. But what if radical Islamists are radical (violent) before they are religious, as suggested by Fareed Zakaria; or what if the violence is not related to Islam but caused by poverty, underdevelopment and despair, as asserted by the Aga Khan?
A recent survey taken in the Middle East “…suggests that religious fervor plays a secondary role” in regional violence, and that Arab youth “…use religion mostly as a rationalization” for joining ISIS. It also found that “…respondents tended to rank stability over democracy as a coveted virtue for an Arab state.” If radical Islamism is not at the root of Islamist terrorism, and if stable government and economic well-being are more important to Arabs than freedom and democracy, then promoting freedom and democracy should not be a strategic objective of the U.S. in the Middle East and Africa—or should it?
If lasting peace and justice could be achieved in Islamic cultures without the secular rule of law and libertarian human rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech, then strict enforcement of secular or religious laws that prohibit violence should be sufficient. But when authoritarian regimes use strict laws to prohibit violence and deny fundamental human rights, history teaches that there can be no lasting peace and justice. If Arabs don’t consider the freedoms of religion and speech a priority for their political stability and economic well-being, history indicates that they are mistaken.
To defuse the violence of radical Islamism in the Middle East and Africa, most Muslims must embrace a form of Islam that is compatible with libertarian democracy and human rights. The first step is to eliminate apostasy and blasphemy laws that preclude the freedoms of religion and speech, the first of those fundamental freedoms essential to libertarian democracy; but the survey indicates that Arabs prefer social and economic entitlements over libertarian freedoms as fundamental human rights.
The preference for economic and social rights (benefits) over political freedom is reflected in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The economic benefits of the ICESCR contrast sharply with the fundamental freedoms of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As a standard of human rights the ICESCR is preferred over the ICCPR in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, where Islam is the dominant religion and there is widespread poverty coupled with political oppression. The public preference for government benefits over political freedom in those regions may be explained by the lack of any experience with libertarian democracy.
The U.S. provides a poor example of libertarian democracy for the Middle East and Africa. The current political season has produced obnoxious and mean-spirited candidates for President like Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz. There is nothing new about such populist demagogues, but what is new and alarming is the number of their supporters. They reflect a growing self-centered decadence in U.S. politics that is interwoven with a corrupt form of evangelical Christianity that opposes communal ideals.
While mature democracies in the U.S. and Europe seem moribund by the fear of immigrants and an emphasis on individual rights at the expense of providing for the common good, political freedom in the fledgling democracies of the Middle East and Africa seems stymied by an emphasis on economic security (which is part of providing for the common good). The future of libertarian democracy is in peril in both the West and the East. Religion should provide a moral balance between individual freedom and communal obligations, but Christianity in the U.S. has evolved into sanctimonious individualism based on personal salvation that has neglected communal needs, while Islam neglects individual rights.
For there to be lasting peace and justice in a world of pluralistic religions, some of which assert the supremacy of religious law over secular law and human rights, religions must embrace fundamental human rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech. While libertarian democracy is preferable to authoritarian or theocratic regimes, any government that provides law and order and protects fundamental freedoms with human rights can be legitimate and provide a measure of peace and justice.
An authoritarian government that provides law and order and economic benefits for its people but denies them religious and political freedom cannot provide lasting peace and justice. Wealthy Arab nations can provide economic benefits, but when they maintain apostasy and blasphemy laws and deny women and non-Muslims equal justice under law they are oppressive regimes, even if most Arabs do not recognize that. On the other hand, when a democratic government like that of the U.S. emphasizes individual freedom at the expense of providing for the common good, it is corrupt and destined to fail.
Whether or not Islamist violence is caused primarily by radical religion or by secular causes, it highlights the dilemma of freedom and democracy in the modern era. In a world of pluralistic religions and violence, the legitimacy of any government requires that it provide law and order and fundamental human rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech, and it must balance individual freedom with providing for the common good for lasting peace and justice. That is a challenge for both fledgling Islamic democracies and more mature libertarian democracies like those in the U.S. and Europe.
Notes and References to Related Blogs:
On related blogs, see Religion and Reason, December 8, 2015; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect, May 2, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; Moral Restraints on the Freedom of Speech, May 17, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad Today, June 14, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; The European Refugee Crisis and Radical Islam, September 6, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, September 12, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; Taking Lives and Liberty in the Name of God, December 19, 2015; Resettling Refugees: Multiculturalism or Assimilation? December 26, 2015; Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; The American Religion and Politics in 2016, March 5, 2016; Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America, March 12, 2016; Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery, March 26, 2016; The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good, April 2, 2016; and The Causes of Religious Violence and Ways to Combat Them, April 9, 2016.
On Arab views that religion plays a secondary role in regional violence, next to criminality and economic deprivation, and that stability is favored over democracy as a coveted virtue, see
On Fareed Zakaria’s commentary on terrorists who were radical before they were religious, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/todays-new-terrorists-were-radical-before-they-were-religious/2016/03/31/9cb8e916-f762-11e5-9804-537defcc3cf6_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines.
On the commentary of the Aga Khan that “Islam and terror have not the slightest thing in common” and that poverty is a major cause of religious violence, see https://www.instagram.com/p/BDi1gCLvNqN/.
On the conflicting models of democracy and human rights represented by the ICCPR and ICESCR treaties, see Barnes, Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy, at pages 6-9 and end notes, posted at https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/files/5473-barnesreligion-and-conflicting-concepts-of.