Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Power of Freedom over Fear

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The power of freedom over fear was a major theme in President Obama’s address to the nation on December 5.  He said: “Let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional.  Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.”  The problem is that U.S. foreign policy does not reflect the priority of freedom.  In Egypt the U.S. is providing $1.3 billion in annual military aid to an authoritarian regime that uses apostasy and blasphemy laws to stifle opposition.  As a result the U.S. has little credibility advocating freedom in a region where allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan deny freedom with apostasy and blasphemy laws.

            Apostasy and blasphemy laws are an integral part of ancient Islamic law known as shari’a.  While most Muslims in libertarian democracies embrace the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech, in Islamic cultures the authoritarian laws of shari’a remain the lifeblood of fundamentalist Islam and are the ideals of Islamist terrorists.  If and when most Muslims worldwide reject apostasy and blasphemy laws and embrace the freedoms of religion and speech, then radical Islamism will lose its legitimacy and Islamist terrorism will likely wither and die.  Promoting those freedoms should be a primary objective of U.S. national security strategy.

            The President is right to condemn those who claim that we are at war with Islam.  Moderate Muslims are our most important ally against Islamist terrorism, since they are in the vanguard of the battle to define shari’a and Islamic standards of legitimacy.  It is a battle between the authoritarian laws of shari’a and the libertarian values of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.  Islamist terrorism cannot survive in a political environment of libertarian values.  While we must defend ourselves and others against the violence of radical Islamist terrorism, we must also support moderate Muslims and avoid religious polarization.

            What kind of strategy does this require?  First, we must support moderate Muslims in their battle of legitimacy with Islamists for the heart and soul of Islam.  Second, we must fight radical Islamist terrorism where it festers and grows overseas as well as here at home.  In the process we cannot let fear overcome our freedom; but unprincipled politicians like Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz have tried to capitalize on public fears by advocating that Muslims not be allowed to enter the U.S. (Trump), and carpet bombing be carried out in territory held by ISIS (Cruz)—measures calculated to inflame fears and cause further religious polarization.

            More security measures will be required to protect against domestic terrorism, but if they restrict our fundamental freedoms then ISIS can claim a victory of fear over freedom.  ISIS seeks to create a theocratic state, or caliphate, in which the harsh laws of shari’a—including apostasy and blasphemy laws—are brutally enforced to produce moral purity through the fear of punishment.  By way of contrast, immorality is inevitable in libertarian democracies where morality is governed by the voluntary standards of legitimacy promoted by religion, not by coercive laws which remain the exclusive province of the state through democratic processes.

            The teachings of Moses and Muhammad emphasized obedience to God’s law and the fear of God’s wrath for disobedience.  Jesus emphasized love over law as summarized in the greatest commandmentto love God and neighbor.  For Jesus, there was no fear in the love of God (see 1 John 4:16-21), while Moses and Muhammad relied on the fear of God’s judgment to motivate obedience to religious laws.  The emphasis on freedom over coercive religious law began with the Enlightenment, and at the outset of World War II President Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  Islamism has yet to accept that credo of libertarian democracy and continues to emphasize the fear of God’s judgment over the liberating power of God’s love.

            The future of Islam depends upon how it relates shari’a to freedom—whether it is considered a voluntary code of moral standards for believers, or coercive laws to be imposed on all.  Islamism promotes the latter view and uses the fear of punishment, both in this and the next life, to subordinate individual freedom to God’s immutable laws.  By way of contrast, religions in libertarian democracies have embraced libertarian democracy and human rights as matters of faith as well as law.  If and when most Muslims do the same, then Islam will deny legitimacy to Islamist terrorists and religious reconciliation and peace will be possible—but not until then.

Notes and References to Resources:           

Previous blogs on related topics are: Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing, June 7, 2015;  Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict, August 23, 2015; A Containment Strategy to Defeat Islamist Terrorism, November 1, 2015; Tough Love and the Duty to Protect, November 8, 2015; and Faith, Hope and Love in a World of Fear, Suspicion and Hate, December 5, 2015.

For the highpoints of President Obama’s Oval Office speech on freedom over fear, see

On the need for Muslims to deny legitimacy to Islamists and ISIS, see Thomas L. Friedman at

In How Anti-Blasphemy Laws Engender Terrorism (Harvard Law Review, May 2015), Amjad Mahmood Khan has described how blasphemy laws in Pakistan, Indonesia and Nigeria support radical Islamist terrorism.  See

On how Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has actually helped clarify issues on religion and freedom, see

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