As Egypt moves away from Mubarak’s dictatorship to a democracy (hopefully), I am reminded of this conversation between Peter Robinson and Dinesh D’Souza about what America’s. role should be in the Middle East:
Peter Robinson: Dinesh D'Souza's new book, which is entitled, What's so Great About America--proposition one--Dinesh, I'm going to quote, you explain briefly what you mean, and then we'll ask for a comment. Proposition one of two: "America's goal is to turn Muslim fundamentalists into classical liberals." What do you mean by that?
Dinesh D'Souza: The idea of liberalism is the idea of consent. You can't force your religion on somebody else by beating it into them. Islam has ruled historically by the sword. That's how the Islamic empire was established. Osama Bin Laden has said confidently that that is a legitimate way of doing business in the Islamic world. I'm saying that our long-term goal is not just to root out the Al Qaeda terrorists; we have to somehow convert the Islamic fundamentalists. We don't want to stop them being Muslims of course, but we want them to be Muslims in the liberal way. And by that I mean look at the way Christianity has changed. In the time of the Crusades, Christians were very happy to shove their religion down somebody else's throat, to impose it by force. They thought they were doing the other people a favor. But Christianity has changed so that today both in the Catholic and the Protestant world there's a widespread understanding that you have to convince people, you have to appeal to freedom and to consent. That's the missing idea.
Peter Robinson: And we do this how? We do this how?
Dinesh D'Souza: Well we have to do it through education. We have to do it in part by destroying hostile regimes that have become Jihad factories, indoctrinating young people in these vicious ideas of totalitarianism. In part we have to work with friendly governments that are also doing the same thing.
This is Bush’s Freedom Agenda in a nutshell. Thomas Madden, in his book Empires of Trust, explains how the Romans had to deal with a similar problem when it came to the ‘Sicarrri’, a group of Jewish terrorists during the Roman Empire: “They had to change the religion itself. Judaism was changed. It became a faith, not a kingdom; a system of beliefs, not a government.” (286).
Madden continues to say that this is what must happen to Islam too: “Islam must change. Islam must become-as it has already become for millions of Muslims worldwide-a personal faith, not a system of government.” (287-288)
And like D’Souza, he points out that this is exactly what the Enlightenment project did to Christianity: “Even the Catholic Church, which gave birth to the modern world, took several centuries to adapt to it. But in the end crusades, inquisitions, and the papal monarchy were left behind because, although they made sense in the medieval world, they had no place in the modern.” (287)
While Freedom Agenda is appealing, it is an open question whether defanging a religion is actually an attempt to kill it altogether. Aren’t modernized Christians really just ‘practical atheists’? In other words, studies show the decline of religious practice in modern countries such as Europe and America. If this is what it means to be a ‘modern’, it is hard to see why any serious Muslim would be interested. An endorsement of the Freedom Agenda would require the following caveat then:
The outcome depends on the willingness of the West and of international agencies to reconsider the values and assumptions that drive globalization, and the sort of culture it favors as a consequence. The acid test will be the capacity of globalization to take religion seriously. The faith at the center of people’s lives in non-Western cultures has to be respected and engaged so that the extension of freedom and prosperity that globalization seeks can be realized through genuine participation.
The real question is whether the West can overcome its secularist bias to achieve this. Leaving room at the center of the culture “for the experience of faith and the interior life” does not mean pandering to theocracy. Truth and freedom is not an either/or proposition. Democracy needs to rediscover this, and globalization needs to learn it. For the fatal conceit is not that freedom can succeed against religion, but that it can do so without it.