The Middle East concept of freedom

Posted: Nov 11, 2003 12:00 AM

President Bush delivered a speech last week to the National Endowment for Democracy. Quoting Ronald Reagan's 1982 address at Westminster Palace in which Reagan spoke of a turning point in history, Bush noted Reagan had argued that Soviet communism had failed "precisely because it did not respect its own people - their creativity, their genius and their rights."

The Bush address understandably came from a Western perspective. But, as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher noted at a U.N. disarmament conference more than two decades ago, we in the West make a mistake when we "transpose" our morality on those who don't share it.

President Bush asked, "Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty?" It depends on the meaning of liberty. What if the Islamic nations of the region define liberty differently from us? Suppose they see our liberty as something corrupting to faith and morals and our culture as something they do not wish to import, but oppose as inimical to a healthy life on Earth and an impediment to an afterlife?

The president asserted that Islam "is consistent with democratic rule," and he listed as examples several states where non-radical Muslims live (Turkey, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Indonesia and Niger). These states are not a threat to the United States. The threat comes from states dominated by extremist Muslim militants, especially the Wahhabi brand. To draw a comparison between atheistic communism and radical Islam and to suggest that what happened to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe can be replicated in the Middle East is dangerous. The New York Times reported last Friday (Nov. 7) that commentators across the Middle East dismissed the president's speech as primarily for domestic consumption.

Secular societies, even those presided over by an openly Christian leader like President Bush, risk lulling their people into complacency when they offer bromides instead of calls to civil defense and appropriate responses during war. As Giuseppe De Rosa, S.I. writes in the Italian publication La Civilta Cattolica (,2393,41931,00.html): "all of Islamic history is dominated by the idea of the conquest of the Christian lands of Western Europe and of the Eastern Roman Empire, whose capital was Constantinople. Thus, through many centuries, Islam and Christianity faced each other in terrible battles, which led on one side to the conquest of Constantinople (1453), Bulgaria and Greece, and on the other, to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the naval battle of Lepanto (1571)."

That warrior spirit, or jihad, continues today. The president said there is "democratic progress in many predominately Muslim countries," such as Niger. He also said Muslim men and women are "good citizens" of a number of other nations, including South Africa, Western Europe and the United States. Would it be indelicate to note that Muslims do not (yet) direct the political destiny in those nations?

The president left out Nigeria, which borders Niger. Many regions in Nigeria have introduced Sharia as state law, which has been used to persecute thousands of Christians. Major attacks against Christians have occurred in the Philippines, Pakistan, Indonesia, Java, East Timor and the Moluccas. In the northern Arab and Muslim portion of Sudan, genocidal war continues against the black and mostly Christian south.

To fundamentalist Muslims, liberty is not found in democracy. It is found in Allah and actions they believe please their god. The most extreme of them, who seem to be growing in number and influence, plant the idea in the minds of children (see a number of Palestinian videos and textbooks) that this life is nothing and that they should "seek Shahada" (martyrdom) and "ask for death," which they teach is true liberty.

In his speech, the president said that securing democracy in Iraq is "a massive and difficult undertaking." He is right. It will be made even more difficult if Westerners think that Islamic nations want what we have. In their sermons, in editorials in their state-owned newspapers and on television and in the actions of the most radical among them, their objective is clear - to defeat and subjugate all nations and all thinking to their religion and their way. To them, it is we who live in bondage and they who are ultimately free. It will take more than speeches to convert them to America's point of view.