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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Forest and Trees

Dear Amnesty International:

That big green thing in front of you?  The one with some brown lines running up and down, and the furry animals moving in and out?  Yeah, that's the forest.  The one you seem to have a little trouble seeing through the trees.

In your recent report, Choice and Prejudice, you presented a strong case that some Muslims in Europe are discriminated against on the basis of their religion.  Some countries have laws against headscarves, one doesn't want mosques with onion domes.  All true; and all, as you rightly point out, a violation of the right to a free exercise of religion, and of any number of European Union standards for human rights.

So you're right.  As far as you go.

But can we be serious here?  Three things need to be said, loud and clear:

1.  The discrimination against Muslims in Western Europe pales by comparison to the discrimination against non-Muslims in virtually all of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.  Some Spaniards won't build a prayer room in a public school?  How does that compare to, say, the death penalty for a religious conversion?

2.  Some of the discrimination you complain about is aimed at people of all faiths, and not only Muslims.  The French and Belgian laws which ban headscarves in school also ban crucifixes.  We Americans may think that Gallic laicism is misguided but, in its own cultural context, it makes an important kind of sense. Britain and Europe were devastated by two centuries of bloodthirsty religious warfare, and in response they have developed systems to limit the direct influence of religious institutions in the public square.  Given the current state of affairs in Africa and the Middle East, in which religious warfare is often presented as an acceptable and even desirable state of affairs, it is quite reasonable for them to strengthen those systems.

3.  Your report only makes sense -- indeed, it is only possible -- because of the extraordinary religious tolerance of the Western legal tradition and of modern Western societies.  You judge the West against its own standards, and find it wanting, which is certainly fair.  But those standards have rarely been lived out, and indeed rarely even been held up as valuable, outside the West.  The very idea of human rights that you promote developed in the countries you criticize, and to this day has little currency outside their cultural family.

So, sure, you're right.  Many European countries could treat Muslims better.  Incidentally, many European countries could treat their other religious minorities better; this includes, for what it's worth, Protestants in Romania.  For that matter, many officially Muslim countries could treat their Muslims better, too.  And let's not even talk about China.

On the other hand -- and this is the forest that we would like to make out through the trees -- Muslims in Europe don't do so badly.  A lot of them seem to like the place; some could probably make more money in Bahrain, but choose to stay in Berlin or even Brighton.  And why?  Because nobody in Europe (except other Muslims) cares if they are Shiite or Sunni.  Because in Europe, they can grow their beard or cut their beard without being assigned to a political party.  Because even with a little discrimination in the workplace and some skinheads in the next neighborhood, their lives and incomes are more stable in England than Egypt.  Because the countries you beat up in your report are among the very small number anywhere on earth that believe a right to religious freedom exists, or should exist.

Oh, Amnesty.  We love you, and we love your work.  But ... seriously.  This is like picking on the Pope because he isn't Catholic enough.  The guy should at least get credit for trying.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

well said. thank you. kc