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Originally published in the McGill Daily

“There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom,” Barack Obama said hours after Hosni Mubarak resigned. Those were the same words Martin Luther King Jr. spoke upon the birth of an independent Ghana. That was – like today – a time of great upheaval. The peoples of Africa had spent decades trying to liberate themselves from underneath the boots of Western empires. Then post-war Europe retreated, and they were finally free. Two decades later, another wave of euphoria swept the world. Eastern Europeans clamoured for freedom, tearing down the walls dividing the world between Marxism and liberalism.

It was then that Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, famously proclaimed that history had ended. The end of history did not mean that the world would come to a grinding halt, but that the ideological struggle throughout human history to establish the best form of human government had ended. Western liberal democracy had triumphed. Today, few would argue against the claim that people have a universal right to freedom and that they should be governed by consent. Admittedly, the claim sounds generic, if not meaningless – but that is only a testament to how deeply liberal democratic discourse has crept into the political lexicon around the world.

The euphoria for liberal democracy, however, has subsided as illiberal democracy takes hold in places like Russia, Zimbabwe, and Iran. The states have crushed the rule of law and eroded basic human rights. Worse, democracy has seemingly failed to penetrate China and much of the Arab world, where autocrats cling to power with the help of brutal security forces. The greatest blow to liberal democracy came from its loudest proponent, President George W. Bush. His “freedom agenda” confused the laudable goal of promoting liberal democracy with that of invading – without provocation – sovereign states. As a result, democracy was sullied. It certainly didn’t help that although Fukuyama opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he had signed a letter in 1997 – along with architects of the war, including Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz – urging Bill Clinton to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime.

What then was to become of liberal democracy? Historian Robert Kagan, a fellow signatory to that infamous letter, informed us of “the return of history and the end of dreams” in a 2007 essay and 2008 book. He argued that liberal democracy would not, after all triumph. Autocracy and Islamism had replaced Marxism as the main ideological opponents to the liberal democratic order.

Then, Tunisia suddenly erupted. Tunisians came out into the streets in droves to oust a decades-old regime. Egyptians followed. Mubarak refused to budge, so they too would not budge from Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square. They defeated the Egyptian security state. Like fire, the spirit of liberation has spread across the Arab world: protesters are calling for democracy in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Yemen. In Libya, protesters are braving death to confront a brutal, maniacal dictator – and they’re succeeding.

Whether these movements ultimately overthrow the Arab world’s autocrats remains an open-ended question. An ancillary question is whether repressive, illiberal democracies-in-name will replace them. Detractors will likely point out that 84 per cent of Egyptians favour the death penalty for apostates – a sign that illiberal democracy will follow. Yet, 90 per cent of Egyptians also believe in freedom of religion. The contradictory responses reveal still unformed views about what their democracy will look like.

But whatever the outcome, what is clear is that – by risking their lives for the simple idea that people should govern themselves and be free – millions of souls across the Arab world have cried out for freedom. History may not yet have come to a halt, but the potent appeal of liberal democracy pushes it ever closer.

Joining the greatest intellectuals of our time–including constitutional law expert Sarah Palin and Camus scholar Newt Gingrich–Sam Harris courageously opposes the construction of the infamous Ground Zero Mosque.

See, Harris isn’t like those pansy moderate Muslims who fail to “condemn extremists and try to seriously reform Islam.” He calls it like it is. Say thank you Muslims, he just saved Islam. Done and done.

Harris’ argument in opposition to the mosque is a simple one: Islam, as it currently exists, is objectionable. And “freedom-loving” Muslims haven’t done enough to change it. We can’t be sure what this Islamic cultural centre represents, because, well, we can’t trust what kind of Muslims these people are. Do they like freedom or do they hate it? Who knows? How can one trust the insidious claim that this mosque “seeks to actively promote engagement through a myriad of programs, by reinforcing similarities and addressing differences?” Like, do they mean reinforcing similarities by imposing Sharia law on Americans??

So, since Muslims haven’t done enough to change their religion and to encourage peaceful co-existence, we should deny them a tolerance-promoting mosque in Manhattan. Yeah, that’s really airtight logic: stop Muslims from building institutions that encourage reform because they haven’t encouraged reform!

Next, Harris proceeds to argue that true Islam is the vision advocated by al-Qaida and their ilk, not the mushy stuff moderates espouse.

The first thing that all honest students of Islam must admit is that it is not absolutely clear where members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamas, and other Muslim terrorist groups have misconstrued their religious obligations. If they are “extremists” who have deformed an ancient faith into a death cult, they haven’t deformed it by much. When one reads the Koran and the hadith, and consults the opinions of Muslim jurists over the centuries, one discovers that killing apostates, treating women like livestock, and waging jihad—not merely as an inner, spiritual struggle but as holy war against infidels—are practices that are central to the faith.

This line of argument I call the Bible Test, famously discredited by Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet on The West Wing.

Bartlet asks a Bible-thumping radio “doctor” if it’s okay to sell his daughter into slavery or to kill his Chief of Staff for working on the Sabbath, as the Bible prescribes, exposing the absurdity of taking religious texts literally. Harris is like the doctor in this case. He employs the same kind of literalism that al-Qaida does, which begs the question: is Harris a member of al-Qaida?

Harris then pulls out the big rhetorical guns and makes a last-ditch attempt to convince us to stop the mosque. He argues that “the erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory—and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.” In other words, the terrorists win if we build the mosque!

Yes, it’s undoubtedly a sign of cowardice to allow the free exercise of a faith with which you may not agree, but allow the free practice of. And it speaks to the decadence of a society if it does not judge people on the basis of their origins or their religious faith, but on their moral character and their adherence to law and liberty.

Stowed away in a drawer beneath a pile of ties is my Pakistani passport. Green with fading gold ink, it’s a passport I take out once a year for reluctant pilgrimages back to Karachi. Yesterday, I ruffled through my drawer to confirm that my passport was still valid–that the Islamic Republic would indeed allow me back in. For now, I’m safe: it expires at the end of July. But its fast approaching expiration forces me to think about the next time I have to apply for a Pakistani passport, and the morally unconscionable statement I will be required to sign in order to get it.

Since the rule of Islamist-generalismo Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistanis have had to declare their religions on their passports. And for 95 percent of Pakistan’s Muslims that means signing the following statement:

1. I am a Muslim and believe in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad the last of the Prophets.
2. I do not recognize any one who claims to be a prophet in any sense of the word or any description whatsoever, after Prophet Muhammad or recognize such a claimant as a prophet or a religious reformer as Muslim.
3. I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani to be an impostor prophet and an infidel and also consider his followers whether belonging to the Lahori, Qadiani or Mirzai groups, to be non-Muslims.

Notwithstanding the absurd declaration itself–who gets to define what makes a Muslim anyway?–I have serious problems with the Government of Pakistan requiring me to declare my religion. As the country’s founder very clearly told the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, “I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal [of equal citizenship] and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.” That was an unambiguous plea for a secular Pakistan, where the equality of all citizens would be recognized. And if in the “political sense” we should “cease to be Hindus and Muslims,” then why the draconian passport rule?

Of course, those who hold dearly to Pakistan’s Islamic identity would argue that the declaration of religion is necessary because, in Pakistan, for the full functioning of Sharia law, one’s religion needs to be clearly stated. Well, let me pick apart that straw man with a simple fact: the country’s ID cards (the much-beloved shinakti cards) don’t state our religion. I’m not even going to delve into the multitudinous reasons why Sharia law–as it currently exists in Pakistan–is a wholly unjust enterprise. If the various provincial and federal bureaucracies have no use for our religion, then why does the passport authority require it?

The bearded Mullahs would now retort: our passports must declare our religions, because how else would our patrons, the Saudis, know who is a Muslim and who is not for Hajj (Islamic pilgrimage) visas? Ah yes, we have the silly rule in place for the convenience of the Saudi government. Lovely. Except, there are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world whose passports don’t call them Muslims, and yet they still find their way to Mecca.

If the government doesn’t require our religion to be stated, and if foreign governments don’t require our religion to be declared either, then for what purpose does the infamous religion column exist? To make life easier for U.S. immigration officials at JFK? At present, U.S. authorities don’t need to think too hard about who goes in for a “secondary-screening.” The Government of Pakistan has already done most of the work by blatantly stating our religion. I’m in favour of screwing with them a bit and removing the religion column.

Plus connu à titre de BHL, Bernard-Henry Lévy, intellectuel français et écrivain prolifique, s’implique toujours aux coeurs des débats qui ont rapport à l’islam et la laïcité dans l’espace publique française. Hier soir, je l’ai vu passer à la télévision sur l’émission, On n’est pas couché, où il défendait son nouveau livre, intitulé “Pièces d’identité.” J’avais, je continue d’avoir, beaucoup d’admiration pour cet homme, qui je considère un des plus grands partisans de la laïcité–une philosophie auquelle je tiens fortement.

Mais, en lisant sa dernière chronique, “Pourquoi je suis favorable à la loi burqa,” je suis un peu sceptique de ses idées, et si on était jamais semblable. Il y a quelques semaines, j’ai expliqué mon opposition au projet de loi proposé par une mission de l’assemblée nationale française qui vise à banir la burqa dans les espaces publiques. Mon argument a souligné que la burqa n’est qu’un vêtement, et que l’état démocratique ne pourrait jamais justifier contrôler la liberté d’expression, de porter un tissu qui n’empiète pas sur les droits des autres.

Par contre, BHL dispute: “On dit : « la burqa est un vêtement ; tout au plus, un déguisement ; on ne va pas légiférer sur les vêtements et les déguisements »… Erreur. La burqa n’est pas un vêtement, c’est un message. Et c’est un message qui dit l’assujettissement, l’asservissement, l’écrasement, la défaite, des femmes.” Je lui demande à répondre à cette question: que donne le gouvernement et les cours français le droit de déterminer qu’est-ce que c’est l’assujettissement? Il répondrait que “tous les anti-esclavagistes du monde nous donnent tous les arguments possibles contre la petite infamie supplémentaire qui consiste à faire des victimes les propres auteurs de leur malheur.” Ben, le contraire–que c’est la France, un ancien empire colonial, qui veut coloniser et asservir les corps des femmes mussulmanes–est autant possible, non?

De plus, il nous assure que “[l]e port de la burqa n’est pas une prescription coranique.” Merci Ayatollah Lévy de l’avoir confirmé pour nous, vos fidèles. L’état n’a pas l’autorité ni le mandat de se prononcer sur les prescriptions religieuses dans une société laïque.

En définitive, je reste un fan de votre mode et l'(h)air intellectuel.

In an expected move, the French National Assembly’s commission on the burqa–“Mission d’information sur la pratique du port du voile intégral sur le territoire national“–yesterday recommended banning the burqa in public places. The commission’s appalling conclusion undermines religious freedom and the principles of liberal democracy in France. After the referendum banning the construction of minarets in Switzerland, this is the second such blow dealt to religious freedom in Europe. It is part of a disturbing trend to suppress from public view Islamic symbols, and to justify such limits on religious displays by explaining that Islamic extremism threatens European democracy. The proponents of the ban argue, quite paradoxically, that to protect vital liberties it is necessary to curb some other liberties.

In this instance, the burqa—a black garment that covers the entirety of the body and the face, with a slit left open for the eyes, and worn by some but few Muslim women—threatens freedom for two reasons. Those for the ban believe the burqa undermines the equality between women and men because it restricts a woman’s ability to move freely and to participate fully in society. The burqa also represents a certain intolerant, extremist Islamist ideology that runs counter to liberal democracy. Caroline Fourest, a French journalist and a loud critic of Islamism, describes accepting the burqa as tantamount to tolerating the intolerant. Islamic extremists reject our society, so we should reject them, she argues.

These are legitimate concerns. For many Muslim women, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, the burqa represents oppression. It is forced upon them. Even in Muslim families and communities in the West some women are compelled by threat of force to wear the burqa. But banning the burqa will not alone protect these women. Instead, it distracts public attention away from the real struggles of immigrant and Muslim women in the West, who confront domestic violence, forced marriages, and fewer economic opportunities. It confuses the symptom for the disease.

The other criticism of the burqa arises from its association with fundamentalist and extremist Islam. Firstly, the proponents of the ban assume that a woman wearing the burqa subscribes to a violent, extreme Islam. That’s a foolish assumption that is mostly never true. Even if it were true, what gives the government the right to restrict an individual’s free speech and religious freedom? The point of living in a liberal democracy is that such liberties are protected. However egregious our views and speech, they are considered our legitimate rights. The burqa and Islamist ideas may offend us, but that isn’t reason enough to ban them. Anarchists reject what our corporate, bourgeois pseudo-democracy stands for, but they enjoy its fullest protections. The irony and beauty of liberal democracy is that it tolerates opposition to itself—and I hope none of the irony is lost on anarchists and Islamists.

A ban on the burqa also restricts the rights of free, practicing Muslim women to live their lives as they choose. Would we stop a woman who feels that she must wear a purple hat out of personal conviction—no matter how grotesque it looks—from wearing that hat? The burqa is just that: an article of clothing. It may symbolize religious obligation to a private citizen, but it should only be black cloth to the state. The National Assembly’s commission actually argued that the burqa was not a theological requirement, and thus was not legitimately protected as religious expression. Not only has the French parliament proposed obstructing a Muslim woman’s right to wear the burqa, but it has bizarrely become a theological authority. It’s not the Assemblée Nationale anymore; it’s the Majlis-e-shura. The state can’t decide what constitutes a legitimate religious belief because it doesn’t have the credentials or the authority. More importantly, we consider religious freedom at its core an individual right—the right of an individual to believe whatever he chooses. The ultimate victim of this misguided assault on Islamic symbols in Europe is liberal democracy. A ban on the burqa would erode the right of individuals to live freely and would certainly further alienate Muslims in the West. The supporters of a ban fail to understand the nature of liberty. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. In that same vein, the loss of religious liberty for one spells the loss of liberty for all.

Update:

Caroline Fourest writes: “Peut-on, pour autant, tout régler par l’interdit ? C’est là que le débat devient plus complexe. Il est possible d’interdire un signe religieux inégalitaire à l’école publique, au nom de sa vocation émancipatrice. Ainsi que dans les services publics et les lieux représentant la République, à cause de cette symbolique. Mais dans la rue ? Ici, le choix d’un individu – fût-il aliénant – prime.” While she believes the burqa is a slight to gender equality, she also disagrees with an outright ban on it in public spaces, except when a person represents or works for the state, because such a ban would limit a woman’s individual choice.

Watch/listen to Daniyal Noorani’s Find Heaven.

La Gendarmerie nationale française organisera des pèlerinages à la Mecque pour ses soldats mussulmans. L’idée a été proposé par des aûmoniers militaires (Imams) afin d’éviter des difficultés en voyage et de les protéger.

As we approach the eight-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, one question lingers in my mind: how could we have not known to the extent to which Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and Afghanistan were soon to become some of the most daunting foreign policy challenges?

The threat posed by Islamist radicals was not considered to be negligible even at the time preceding the attacks. Many foresaw the genesis of a struggle against and within the Islamic world. Samuel Huntington famously envisaged conflict on the “bloody borders of Islam” in his essay A Clash of Civilizations. Benjamin Barber wrote about the explosive encounter between modernity and tradition, about the reigniting of ethnic and religious passions in an increasingly globalized world, especially in the Muslim world. On a more practical level, it was an open secret that the Taliban in Afghanistan were supporting a network of international terrorists. Jeffery Goldberg, Peter Bergen and many other journalists had travelled to the region and they returned with strong messages and warnings from Al Qaeda. Goldberg saw the maddresah infrastructure that was training thousands of holy warriors. Thus, we had both an understanding of the historical dynamics at play and relevant and immediate information about Al Qaeda’s threats.

I believe that American anti-terrorism and National Security experts knew that Al Qaeda had the motivations and the manpower to become a serious threat. But they did not believe that it had the capability to attack the United States itself–they were brushed aside as too incompetent or too under-resourced to do so. That Ahmed Ressam, the terrorist caught at the Port Angeles border crossing on his way to Los Angeles, was so easily apprehended mislead officials to believe that they had control over these groups.

We have to acknowledge that the 9/11 attacks and the events that have unfolded since were never improbable nor unpredictable. Keen observers saw the big picture of a coming clash with the Muslim world (no, I do not mean a war with the Muslim world in the sense that Islamists would have you believe, but a long conflict with Muslim societies that pose a threat to American security). That leads me to ask: what will be the next foreign policy challenge?

La France, comme plusieurs pays européens, fait face au défit d’intégrer les communautés mussulmanes et de redéfinir–ou re-comprendre–la laïcité. Actuellement, la France considère bannir le port de la burqa dans les lieux publics; L’Italie et la Suède l’ont déjà banni.

Pour la plus parte de l’histoire occidentale moderne (précisement, durant le XXeme siècle), la foi était un acte privé, rarement exprimée dans les sphères publics à cause de la séparation de l’état et de l’église. Cette battaile a profondément marqué la société française en la plus rendant hostile aux pouvoirs religieuses. Aujourd’hui, l’antognisme contre la religion se traduit comme une antognisme contre les fidèles eux-mêmes. Malheursement la triomphe de la laïcité en France (et parallèlement ici au Québec) a laissé les cicatrices sur ces sociétés et leurs définitions de la liberté de la foi.

Une analyse de l’histoire française de la laïcité dévoile, c’est-à-dire, cette fausse interprétation. Alain Gresh écrit que le but de la séparation n’était pas de supprimer toutes expressions religieuses mais de soustraire les pouvoirs de l’église catholique et du clergé. C’est intéressant de noter que le premier gouvernment français qui a mis en oeuvre la laïcité a aussi consacré les fonds pour bâtir une mosquée.

After 62 years of independence, Pakistan’s raison d’etre and the role of Islam in government are still debated. The crucial question that divides liberals and conservatives in Pakistan is whether Pakistan was founded to be an Islamic state or a secular state for the Muslims of India.

I recently ran into a report commissioned by the Government of Punjab in 1953 concerning the riots against the minority Ahmadi sect. It is probably the most thoughtful and eloquent document ever published in Pakistan about the role of religion in the Pakistani state. It also discusses the dangers of martial law, which the Government of Punjab had easily declared during the riots; the habit of reverting to martial law would, in subsequent decades, unravel democracy in Pakistan.

On defining a Muslim, a requisite for defining an Islamic State:

Therefore the question immediately arises : What is Islam and who is a momin or a Muslim ? We put this question to the ulama and we shall presently refer to their answers to this question. But we cannot refrain from saying here that it was a matter of infinite regret to us that the ulama whose first duty should be to have settled views on this subject, were hopelessly disagreed among themselves.

And on the two irreconcilable visions of the country:

It is this lack of bold and clear thinking, the inability to understand and take decisions which has brought about in Pakistan a confusion which will persist and repeatedly create situations of the kind we have been inquiring into until our leaders have a clear conception of the goal and of the means to reach it. It requires no imagination to realise that irreconcilables remain irreconcilable even if you believe or wish to the contrary.

The report also delves into the purpose of the state and the meaning of life.

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