Thankfully, Koran-torching moron Terry Jones has come and gone as a news sensation, at least till his next Muslim-baiting stunt. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Islamist fury that Jones all too easily tapped. With or without the pyromaniac pastor, tensions between America and the Islamic world would still be burning steadily. It is time for President Barack Obama to do one of the most positive, if counterintuitive, things he could do to put out this fatal fire: Stand up for Christians.
Lord knows they need it. So far this year, Pakistan has seen the assassination of two very senior officials — one of them Muslim — for opposing a long-standing law that prescribes the death penalty for blasphemy against Islam. In Afghanistan, even under the American-influenced constitution of 2009, apostasy, or conversion out of Islam, is a capital offense; one man jailed for this “crime” has recently been spirited to Europe, but another still faces possible execution. In Iraq, the burning of a Baghdad cathedral made headlines in October, while the continuous quaking of nuns in their convents garners no attention. One of the first post-Mubarak stories out of Egypt was about a church being set on fire, and Muslims attacking Christians who protested.
If all this indicated nothing but a violent assault on religious freedom, it might rate a mention from the leader of the free world. Of course, it indicates much more: An assault on any chance that these turbulently transitioning states may ultimately have to function, let alone contribute to regional stability or American security. The plight of Christians not only exposes the resilience of the faith-based fanaticism that brought us 9/11 and thus the “war on terror,” it also shines the clearest possible light upon the potential of that fanaticism to ensure that the war doesn't do too much about terror. At the very least, in the places in question, the persecution of Christians can very accurately be seen as the canary in the coal mine of repression. For if such is the vulnerability of Christians, who enjoy at least theoretical solidarity with millions of coreligionists who populate the world's superpower, God help Jews, polytheists, and atheists. Even more important from a nation-building perspective, it isn't just the targeted few who are scared silent by extremists; it's the reasonable many. To terrorize religious minorities is also to intimidate moderate Muslims, who may very well wish for an atmosphere of tolerance but are not going to risk their lives to say so.
If he plays his rhetorical cards right, as he is so famously capable of doing, the president doesn't even have to risk his political capital. He could start — but only start — by pointing out, as Christopher Hitchens has done in Slate, that while it is an insult to destroy a holy book in the name of religion, it is an atrocity to destroy human lives. “I have heard, and joined in, the chorus of objections to high-profile insults to those who are Muslim,” Obama could say, referring to Jones and his like. “I would now like to hear a few stanzas from my Islamic counterparts on the harassment, ostracism, and murder of those who are not.”
Far from drawing a line between Christians and Muslims, Obama could explicitly draw the line between normal people and nut cases. Of course, Obama, like George W. Bush before him, has tried to do this in the past, but mainly by way of emphasizing — alas, mistakenly — that violent Islamism can be fought without the slightest disturbance to the social and legal conditions that give it rise. This time, Obama should state in no uncertain terms: Just as it is an insult to presume most Muslims to be capable of murder, it is an insult to presume them incapable of reason. It is not a compliment to Muslims, but an act of supreme condescension, to proceed as if they cannot hear mention of other religions without collapsing in an apoplectic fit.
Of course, the president should reiterate that at many points in history, it was the Muslim world that put Christians to shame in terms of tolerance; that when, for instance, Jews were being driven out of Christian Europe, they were allowed into the Islamic empire of the Ottomans (where they were discriminated against, of course, but not slaughtered). But rather than ending on the customary kumbaya note of placating “good” Muslims, he should end on the robust — and thus infinitely more respectful — note of challenging them. “Do you really want to see your societies descend to the level of Christianity at its worst,” he could ask, “rather than rising to the level of Islam at its best?”
If Obama were to contemplate making such a speech, there would be two main veins of objection to the idea: The softhearted and the hardheaded. The softhearted concern would be that, no matter what homages to the Prophet it included, an overt defense of Christians would be taken as an offense to Muslims, thereby inflaming suspicions that the war America is really waging is a war on Islam. Practically, since 9/11, this shadow has stalked U.S. foreign policy, and it is well past time to vanquish it in some clarifying light. Nearly 10 years into two wars that have sent Christians running for their lives, those who still believe that America is engaged in some sort of reverse jihad would believe it if Obama swore allegiance to the Prophet live on Al-Jazeera. But at least the fanatics are consistent. Those who supported the Taliban, after all, must be pleased to know that in Afghanistan today, a Christian can still be killed for being a Christian — and not by those who are breaking the law, but by those who are enforcing the law. Those who toppled the Taliban, however, should be appalled. Why aren't they saying so?
“It's the security, stupid,” would be the hardheaded response, which would go along the lines that war is an ugly business that comes complete with ugly foes, ugly friends, and ugly moral compromises: victory today, civics lessons tomorrow. Sure, on any given day, the immediate need to root out an imminent threat can trump any larger, long-term aspirations. But if the open, escalating, and unchecked hostility toward Christians is any indication, those aspirations have long since been tossed off the back of the Hummer. That can only make sense to those who believe that religious hatred, socially sanctioned and violently expressed, had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks America sustained on 9/11, and the threats it faces now. Those who believe that, raise your hands.
Meanwhile, as America has seen fit to dodge the “neo-Crusader” label at all costs, there has grown a parallel perception that has both a far greater basis in reality and a far greater potential to do serious damage. It is the rare geopolitical perception that is genuinely shared by the peoples of the Islamic world and the West. This is the perception of the U.S. having spent so much blood, treasure, and time in an effort to replace one nightmare scenario with another.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- After Ferguson: Stop deferring to the cops
- Ferguson riots were terrible — but this racist reaction was worse
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Don't argue about politics this Thanksgiving. Just don't.
- Is it now OK to have sex with animals?
- The hilarious hypocrisy of Republicans complaining about the imperial presidency
- In Ferguson, Michael Brown lost his life — and America's police lost the benefit of the doubt
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
Subscribe to the Week