As the furor over the construction of Islamic places of worship heats up in the United States, especially over the proposed mosque at Ground Zero, religious conservatives have spoken out against what they see as the “Islamification” of America through sharia law, while liberals view this doomsaying as an example of increasing “Islamophobia”, contrary to the very values conservatives seek to protect. Undergirding the conservative argument against the growing presence of Islam is the assumption that it is incompatible with individual liberty, which many conservatives attribute to the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, democratic values derive not from Jewish and Christian theology, but rather largely from Greco-Roman thought, so the view that Islam threatens a tradition of Christian democratic values is unfounded and irrational.
Anybody who knows a thing or two about democracy understands that the core values of this philosophy originated among pagans, polytheists, and other heathens of the ancient Mediterranean world. Granted, while women and slaves were not citizens in ancient Greek society, the origins of democratic thought emerged there; succeeding civilizations merely borrowed from this legacy and touted them as their own. As Stuart Whatley of the blog Truthdig points out,
Notions of equality and individual liberty in Western thought have roots in Greco-Roman thinking that far predated and had already seeped into 1st Century A.D. Roman imperial society, wherein Christianity arose under the ambitious precentorship of the apostle Paul. Namely, it appears as though Paul borrowed in bulk from the writings of Epicurus, a historically maligned Greek philosopher (much of that maligning came from later Christians seeking to cover-up the heathenish connection) who emerged during the rise of Alexander in the 4th Century B.C.
Whatley then goes on to explain how the values which many “Christian nation” enthusiasts extol are actually the brainchild of Epicurus, who believed strongly in the rights of the individual and small government: “the individualistic and humanistic values to which many modern Christians now claim a copyright are those that Epicurus most emphatically espoused.” Quoting scholar Norman Wentworth DeWitt, he explains that Epicurus “favored a minimum of government control and a maximum of individual freedom”, unlike Plato’s more communistic view of individual rights and the role of government.
In addition to the fact that democratic principles are largely a Greco-Roman conception, religious freedom and tolerance is hardly the pioneering accomplishment of Christians—indeed, the current Islamophobia in America only highlights the hypocrisy of conservative Christian Americans who invoke religious freedom as a cherished right. Historically, many societies have shown a laissez-faire attitude towards different religions. Whatley illustrates this point when he explains,
Historically, institutionalized religious tolerance is by no means an exclusively Christian claim either, as evidenced by the care the Greek historian Herodotus took in documenting religious permissiveness in the ancient Persian Empire under Cyrus, six centuries before Paul. Moreover, Christianity’s own track record for defending religious freedom hardly sets a desirable standard. It took over 1,000 years after the movement went mainstream for such notions of tolerance to emerge from within.
Ironically, while ancient Persia showed this permissiveness towards people of different faiths, the United States was failing to live up to its own expectations in this regard very early on in its sordid history. In support of this assertion, Whatley notes how “the first century of public education in America required that all who attend be inculcated with strictly Protestant mores, much to the chagrin of the burgeoning Catholic population (to say nothing of members of any other religious minorities or nonbelievers).” While the United States officially prescribed the separation of church and state at its inception, it did not do a very good job of putting it into practice. Thus, American Christian Islamophobes not only lack any claim on democratic principles, but they are in no position to decry the influence of religion in government.
Finally, the backlash by conservatives against mosque construction is simply hypocritical and repeats the mistakes of history. In fact, the right-wing opposition to the free exercise of religion mirrors the policy of imperial Rome, which, ironically, repressed the very Christians who now seek through political means to suppress the influence of Islam in the West. Citing historian Justo Gonzalez, Whatley explains how
[I]t was Roman imperial policy during the 2nd and 3rd Centuries not to actively hunt Christians for being Christian, but still to punish an individual for that offense if and when his identity became known. Christians were allowed to practice their faith, but if they projected their identities to the general public, they would suffer that society’s wrath.
Besides, even if these Christians were not being hypocrites, but were practicing what they preached, their fears still do not prove that interfering with mosque construction is lawful. Their rationale still conflicts with the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—which allows for the free exercise of religion insofar as this does not impinge on another person’s guaranteed rights. So, no, right-wing Christian Americans are in no position to tell moderate Muslims who respect the civil liberties of others that they cannot worship in peace at a mosque located next to the 9/11 attacks.
Americans should have no conflict of interest with Muslims anyway (especially since some Americans are Muslims). The Universal Life Church Monastery blog has repeatedly emphasized the non-Christian roots of the United States by citing the following passage by John Adams from Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
Now, if the proposed mosque at Ground Zero is being endorsed by radical Muslims who seek to weasel sharia law into the American legal system, the solution to this problem is quite simple—reject sharia law. That’s right. That’s all it takes. Congress can allow Muslims to worship at the Ground Zero mosque without cow-towing to sharia law. A very easy compromise to make.
It is disturbing to observe the glaring xenophobia the right-wing has embraced, and the chimera they have created out of the most moderate of Muslims. Ultimately, the mosque construction debate is redundant—it should be a non-issue in a nation which is founded on the official separation of church and state as well as freedom of and from religion. As long as this is the case, there is no basis for such quarrelling.
What do you think? Does mosque construction threaten some fundamentally Judeo-Christian political system in America?