Michael Gerson

Muslim societies, of course, have no monopoly on religious repression, which is practiced with enthusiasm from Hindu India to Buddhist Sri Lanka to atheist China, where many of the victims are Muslims themselves. But Islam is conducting a lively and sometimes deadly internal debate on religious liberty. Modernist theologians argue for tolerance based on the Koran's assertion that there is "no compulsion in religion." Fundamentalists point to a long tradition of severe treatment for apostates, and they have gained the upper hand in many parts of the Muslim world.

Few things are more frightening in a traditional society than the prospect of the young abandoning the faith of their fathers. For many in conservative cultures, religion is not primarily the belief of an individual but the definition of a community -- not a choice but an identity. The very idea of changing your faith is bewildering to many, like changing your ethnicity or hiring new parents. In Turkey, converts are often referred to as "foreigners" who have repudiated Turkishness itself.

But however controversial religious liberty may be, it is not optional in a democracy. The practice of freedom is ultimately inseparable from individualism -- a belief in the right and ability of men and women to govern their own affairs. And individualism means little without the ability to choose one's own creed about God, morality and the universe. For traditional societies, this is a difficult adjustment. For every free society, it is a necessary adjustment.

The Malatya murders acted like the flash of an X-ray, revealing some hidden and disturbing trends in a close ally. But the shock of that violence also provoked a counter-reaction. After the murders, Ali Bardakoglu -- the highly respected Sunni theologian who heads the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate -- was asked if missionary work was a danger to Turkey. He replied, "No, it is their natural right. We must learn to respect even the personal choice of an atheist, let alone other religions."

That kind of clarity from a Muslim leader is the reason that Turkey, if it did not exist, would need to be invented.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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