Just a while back someone forwarded an email with a short opinion piece about Australian Prime Minister John Howard. The piece focused on some amount of controversy generated by remarks Howard had made in criticism of Islamic clerics, residing in Australia and advocating among their followers for the rule of Sharia law. Howard had pointed out that Australia was a secular state and that it's laws were made by Parliament. (OK...) Those who question that or suggest that "there are two laws governing people in Australia," that of the secular government and that of Sharia, those people "should consider leaving," Howard was quoted as saying.
Strangely enough, from there the author of this piece went on to congratulate Howard for an earlier interview in which he directly contradicted this reminder to the clerics about a secular state. In past public comments Howard had said he was "sick and tired" of the "politically correct" notion of a multi-cultural Australia. The country was founded by Christian and White men and women who speak English, claimed Howard. (I guess the indigenous Aboriginal culture had become invisible to him) "Learn the language!" he was quoted as saying and "If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture."
The piece concluded with these words from Australian Prime Minister John Howard; "This is our country, our land, and our lifestyle, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all this. But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about our flag, our pledge, our Christian beliefs, or our way of life, I highly encourage you take advantage of one other great Australian freedom, 'the right to leave'!"
Oh yes, and this coda, these words from the essay's anonymous author: "Maybe if we circulate this amongst ourselves, American citizens will find the backbone to start speaking and voicing the same truths."
The essay piece was anonymous. The email had been forwarded to me by someone, let's just say their political outlook is somewhat different from mine, with only this comment: "America needs a leader like this."
I know I've set up something of a straw man here, but really! America needs a leader like this?
The thinking is a little like a dull double bladed axe. It's a little like hitting yourself in the face with one. It takes a challenging question that confronts us as a nation, and as members of a larger democratic culture, and it turns it back on ourselves, as a tool to sever us (somewhat bluntly and brutally) into supposed camps.
The kind of extremists who advocate an absolute and extreme reading of Sharia, do so because they view democratic principles like an individual's civil liberties, or a culture of tolerance and pluralism, as decadent and morally compromised. They see their truth as an absolute and anything that questions or undermines it as simply an obstacle evil to be removed. I read this article and I found myself wondering whether the author rejected such thinking or embraced it.
I can't speak with any real expertise about Australian democracy (they lose me when they start pledging allegiance to their queen). But I do have an understanding (perhaps it's just my own) of American democracy. As I take it, central to that democracy, from its very founding, was a libertarian ideal that held that the state had no business anywhere between a human being and his or her god (or goddess, any such divinity). That's why we made it explicit in the earliest charter of this country that we would have no church of the state.
We considered and opted not to adopt an official language at about the same time (that's lucky too, a strong contender at the time was German, ümlaüt's and all).
I think it's fairly safe to say that a majority of those who put in place our Constitution and signed our Declaration of Independence were Christians. But they understood democracy as something more than plurality. And they saw the sacred as a concern for the individual conscience, not the consensus of a committee, no matter how large or well intentioned that committee might be. The individual conscience, with its own freely chosen concept of Creation, outside the coercive authority of government, even a democratic one: They saw this as the core truth in their understanding of freedom. In my estimation, they got that one right.
So what is a pluralist, tolerant, democratic society to do when one group within that society advocates an opposed way of thinking? It might feel good to pretend that the answer is easy and obvious, but that doesn't make it right.
If we're going to answer that question honestly, as Americans, if we're going to face that challenge to our principles (rather than surrender those principles), aren’t we supposed to figure out how to abide by a place for those differing beliefs? 'Tolerance' doesn't mean acquiescence, not to violence, not to oppression, not to hatred. But it does require faith and some amount of courage.
When I was a kid my father read a newspaper story to me about an ACLU lawyer, a Jew, who went to court defending the rights of a group of American neo-fascists to march in some small town parade. This group wore armbands with swastikas on them. That lawyer won that group their right to march in a parade and advocate their hateful ideas. He did so because of his own ideas, his very American, democratic ideals. That lawyer knew that those ideals were sometimes contradictory, and difficult, even dangerous. But they were what he believed in.
"Now, there's an American!" my dad said. As my father explained it, that particular American saw a far greater threat in actually abridging our freedoms, than in tolerating the free (albeit abhorrent) speech of a few ignorant bigots. I didn't always agree with my father, but in my estimation, he got that one right.
I don't think this a question about liberals versus conservatives. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we pretend it is. The dull blade of that double axe hits us square in the face. A pluralist, tolerant, democratic society isn't some "politically correct" notion at odds with our founding principles. It is actually one of those principles. We do allow for people to choose their own "higher" laws, within the more purposefully liberal and limited precepts of our government's laws. Catholic catechism, Kosher orthodoxy, Sharia, Buddhist practice: these all contain laws and disciplines worthy of respect and honor in the hearts of those who choose them as their faith. In the democratic spirit, these faiths find even greater meaning in the fact they are chosen, freely.
There is a delicate balance here, one that is constantly challenged, one that gives rise to contentious debate. It is difficult, dangerous and gray at times. That is democracy.
Personally, I still have faith in the ideals of freedom and democracy, in social justice, human dignity. And I think our strongest weapon against ideological hatred, intolerance and violence is our capacity to maintain the integrity of those ideals. When we try to circumscribe those ideals and define them in limited terms, as the cultural property of one race or creed, we end up the ones doing them damage.
With that double axe in hand, we had best be careful. I guess that's all I'm asking.