"Deepening crisis": This phrase was used at a conference on international religious liberty at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12. The timing of the gathering, which included activists, diplomats and prominent religious leaders, took on a heightened significance, as it was held just hours after attacks against U.S. consulates and embassies in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, violent incidents that were ostensibly sparked by religious outrage.
In the midst of these attacks, which resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, among others, the mindset of the Obama administration was more fully revealed on the world stage. The initial reaction came in the form of a statement: "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims -- as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions ... Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."
This would later be amended by the White House, which was not consulted on the release -- but in the clarification, we actually saw a reinforcement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day ... But even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law. And we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful they may be."
"The evidence points to a crisis -- one that is not simply 'out there' in the Third World, but one whose symptoms are appearing close to home," Thomas F. Farr, a diplomat by training and director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, said at the CUA conference. "70 percent of the world lives in countries that have severe restrictions on religious freedom," Farr noted. It's a problem that is "particularly acute in Muslim-majority countries, but also countries such as China, India and Russia." It is "getting worse" and that is "having an impact on Western countries, including the United States; worldwide, Christians are the most vulnerable to persecution."
Farr focused on a 14-year-old girl with Down syndrome, Rimsha Masih, a Pakistani Christian. She was reportedly searching the trash for items to help her poor family and happened upon pages of the Quran, which were either already burnt, or would be because of where she unknowingly put them. "Then this child, utterly incapable of discerning what she had done, if anything, was arrested, charged with blasphemy and put in prison," Farr explained. "In Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East, blasphemy is a crime which can bring many years in prison, torture and even execution."
She's been released on bail and is being held at an undisclosed location on account of concerns that mobs similar to the type that attacked U.S. embassies might attack her and her family.
This is a "humanitarian outrage," Farr said, and it's also a dangerous trend. "No one should insult the sacred beliefs of another. It is an assault on human dignity and respect for others. But the malevolent idea that the proper response to defamation of religion is criminal prosecution, let alone violence or murder, is a dangerous problem in the Muslim-majority world," he continued.
"My religion is insulted regularly by The New York Times and The Washington Post," Farr, a Catholic, said. "I frequently am outraged. But I try to respond with my voice or my pen. That is the only way people with deep differences can live together in a civilized society."
It is imperative, Farr believes, that the United States "become more effective at supporting in these countries those Muslims who know that Islam can be defended without violence, and that embracing religious freedom is in their vital interests." Which brings us back home.
At a speech at Georgetown, Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl pointed to a "gathering storm" that "has not been created by religious influence on policy, which has been a part of the American experience since the very beginning," but by an "increasingly bold ideologically driven and progressively intolerant secular humanism" that insists that it is the only legitimate voice in the public square. Religious faith has always acted as a "conscience" in our nation. In marginalizing that voice, we lose our grip on traditional norms.It will become increasingly difficult for Americans to articulate these values, as we saw in that initial U.S. embassy statement and Secretary Clinton's near-apology for the freedom of speech, if we don't understand this. Each man and woman has an innate dignity granted by God. Once we've relegated that to just another opinion, we've lost the civic religion upon which we were founded. Once we've surrendered our moral voice, Rimsha's best advocate will be lost to history.