The Catholic Thing
Silenced Print E-mail
By Robert R. Reilly   
Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Whenever Benedict XVI speaks on the subject of dialogue with Islam or directly addresses Muslims, he invariably emphasizes the acknowledgment of freedom of conscience and religion as the prerequisite for dialogue, not as an outcome from it. The new book, Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide, by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, shows in dramatic detail how very far many Muslim-majority countries are from meeting this prerequisite.

Silenced is an indispensable book and an invaluable reference for anyone interested in sustaining freedoms of conscience, speech, and religion. It is as thorough as it is devastating in its survey of Muslim-majority countries and their strictures on these freedoms, and on the influence that these very same countries are attempting to exercise, with some success, on the West’s discussion of Islam. 

If you want to understand the significance of the manufactured incitement against an otherwise insignificant fourteen-minute movie trailer, The Innocence of Muslims, you will need the perspective that Marshall and Shea provide. This recent episode is simply one of many that have been used in a broad campaign to silence the West. The book lays out the details of many preceding incidents that are part of this pattern, and that have been used with varying degrees of success.

Silenced does not analyze the roots of Muslim intolerance, which are ultimately to be found in Islams profound denigration of reason, but to examine its effects on the world today. Marshall and Shea give detailed descriptions of how the main Muslim countries treat or restrict the freedoms mentioned above. 

It is a variegated picture: Saudi Arabia, for example, is far away from Indonesia, not only in geographic but in cultural terms.  The authors are careful not to homogenize the Muslim world and labor to be specific in their treatments of each country and of the variety that exists within Islam itself. 

Therefore, the book is not polemical; it is descriptive and analytical. What makes it so compelling are the many biographical stories of individuals, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who have fallen victim to the apostasy and blasphemy laws in these countries. Some of these are well known; many are not. They are mostly harrowing. 

The stories include, of course, many Christians, but also groups like the Ahmadis in Pakistan and the Bahais in Iran. Almost everywhere, converts from Islam to Christianity or to any other religion are severely penalized, if not formally by the governments under which they live, then by the general Muslim culture, sometimes to the point of vigilante murder. 

After detailing the repression, Marshall and Shea describe at length the attempts to legitimize it – and, in fact, to export it – through the United Nations and other international fora, most especially the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). These efforts have encouraged Muslims and their sympathizers living in Western countries to go after those in the press, clergy, or political life whom they consider Islamophobic – i.e., to have spoken ill of Islam or Mohammed. 

While convictions in the ensuing legal proceedings are few, the process itself, as described by one Canadian victim of it, is the punishment – the defense can be very costly and injurious to one’s reputation. Along with legal prosecutions, there is the disturbing matter of vigilante violence, as murderously practiced against the translators of Salman Rushdies book and against Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, which has exercised a substantial chilling effect on publishers, performers, and writers alike in the form of self-censorship.

There is another aspect of the issue that Marshall and Shea emphasize to good effect. American-Turkish Muslim Zeyno Baran comments, By tolerating intolerance, many in the West make it harder for moderate and reformist Muslims to succeed. By bending over backward to accommodate the sensitivities of certain Muslims in terms of what can and cannot be said regarding Islam, Western governments may be inhibiting the very thing the Muslim world needs most – reform.

A few of the most powerful sentences in the book are provided by the late Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, an Egyptian professor of Arabic studies:

charges of apostasy and blasphemy are key weapons in the fundamentalists’ arsenal, strategically employed to prevent reform of Muslim societies and instead confine the worlds Muslim population to a bleak, colorless prison of sociocultural and political conformity. . . . Such laws play directly into the hands of Islamic radicals who seek to unify and politicize Muslim societies not only against the West, but also against the very concept and principles of modern life, such as freedom, justice, human rights, and the dignity of man, which are themselves inseparable from the right to freedom of conscience and expression.
For his views, Abu-Zayd was declared an apostate and had to flee Egypt.

In other words, the last thing we should do is to conform ourselves to the demands of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to extend, much less approve, the blasphemy laws imposed in its member countries. In the beautiful foreword to this book, written by the late Abdurrahman Wahid, the former president of Indonesia and spiritual guide to the largest Muslim organization in the world (Nahdlatul Ulama) advises, Rather than legally stifle criticism and debate – which will only encourage Muslim fundamentalists in their efforts to impose a spiritually void, harsh, and monolithic understanding of Islam upon the world – Western authorities should instead firmly defend freedom of expression, not only in their own nations, but also globally, as enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This noble book is the very defense that Wahid recommended. 

Robert Reilly is a former director of the Voice of America. He has taught at the National Defense University and served in the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. His most recent book is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Achilles, October 31, 2012
This is a very interesting article- Something lurks under the surface. That Islam can be changed or that the West can help the “progressives” of Islam “reform” it to protect us from it is a disturbing thought. We are all mired up in platitudes about Islam because the new virtue of “tolerance” is insidious and has permeated most facets of our psyche. How any of us can think that if we tweek, or reform, or impose the West’s traditional ideas about freedom onto the Frankinstinian Monster of radical Islam and that somehow radical Islam will be no threat to our way of life, is at least somewhat guilty of wishful thinking at the least and outright delusional at the other end of the spectrum.

This all puts into my mind the university crowd that would like to progressivize Orthodox Catholicism so that so called “social justice” takes precedence over real justice and true love.
written by Barbara, October 31, 2012
"Whenever Benedict XVI speaks on the subject of dialogue with Islam or directly addresses Muslims, he invariably emphasizes the acknowledgment of freedom of conscience and religion as the prerequisite for dialogue, not as an outcome from it."

This is an interesting statement. I'm taking a chance and going to state that what the Holy Father "emphasizes" is not the right thing. I believe this is a split from Tradition as expressed by Popes in the not too distant past....that there is no freedom for error.

Why is there "dialogue" between Truth and error? What is there to talk about in this way? In my opinion Islam would be better off it we told them the truth - that they believe in a false religion - that the Catholic Church holds Truth and they must convert if they want to save their souls.

Yet I can see how crazy this sounds!!!! In this world speaking such truth gets you shouted down as a bigot or worse. But don't we have to preach the Gospel message in season and out? We must help people form their consciences, not reinforce the message that they are "free" to follow a false one.

Where is the fruit of this kind of dialogue?
written by Ernest, October 31, 2012

Yours is the most insightful, loving comment I have read in years! Thank you.
written by robert reilly, October 31, 2012

You advise taking the approach to Muslims that most of them take with us -- telling the other that his or her religion is false. That makes for a very short conversation.

When Thomas Aquinas was asked by his fellow Dominicans: how are we supposed to deal with these Muslims, he responded, “we can’t deal with them from our revelation because they do not accept it; and we cannot deal with them from their revelation because we do not accept it. Therefore, we must treat them as natural men.” By this he meant—through reason. We must reason with them. That is what the Pope is trying to do – but first by being sure that his Muslim interlocutors accept the status of reason as capable of coming to know the truth. If one can reach an understanding of logos, the door is open to the incarnate Logos.
written by Manfred, October 31, 2012
Do I sense a polemic here, Mr. Reilly? When the Vatican goes to the UN to attempt to restrict abortions in the world, only some Muslim coutries ever support it. No Western countries do.
Would you say that abortion is a Muslim or Western "thing"? Germany suppresses Scientology. Israelis will admit they have an apartheid state (see vis a vis the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank which are soon to be incorporated into Greater Israel. How much freedom of speech do Palestinians enjoy? The Mormons had to abandon their practice of polygamy in order for Utah to become a state in the 18th century. They were told that this was "a Christian country" and the Mormons wished to join the Union. Proponents of aberrosexual "marriage" will explain that the door for this to be accepted stems from contracepted heterosexual sex in marriage or out. Fecundity is deliberately negated. Even Catholic moral theologians say they have to agree that this argument is "logical" even if we can't accept it. Can you imagine how much free speech we will have in this country if Mr. Obama is re-elected? He and Ms. Sebelius of the HHS rolled over the Catholic Church like a truck. Do you recall Mr. Obama's pledge of a "national police force" numbering more than the military combined? We will see this implemented if Mr. Obama is re-elected. Now, let's review where the threat of curbs on free speech are the most worrisome to Americans. Thank you.
written by robert reilly, October 31, 2012
Yes, the impending dangers you mention are real, but at least we have constitutional principles to which we can appeal against them. Restoring those principles is the task at hand in a culture corroded by moral reltivism.

There are no such principles in Islam, which does not recognize freedom of conscience. Arabic did not even have a word for conscience. This is not a polemical point but a factual one.
written by Gian, October 31, 2012
Aren't the Muslims merely a few centuries behind West regarding freedom of conscience and expression?

Did historic Christendom value the freedom of conscience and expression as much and in the same way as modern West?
Or is it more of an Enlightenment innovation that is yet to permeate through the Muslim world?
written by robert reilly, November 01, 2012
Rights that we possess by our nature are an emanation of natural law – the recognition of which preceded the Enlightenment in the West.

Mainstream Sunni Islam does not recognize the existence of natural law. That is the foundation of the problem.
written by Phenobarb, November 01, 2012
The distinction the Holy Father makes is VERY traditional, going back to St. Irenaeus and st. Justin Martyr as well as St. Paul. It is a distinction between the belief of a human person and the person her or himself. A belief may be error, and the person who holds it may be mistaken, but to enter into dialogue with such a person is to challenge them to reason about their mistakes (and perhaps to subject my own ideas to the test of reason). Yes, error has no rights, but human persons do. They need to be respected and reasoned with. That is the Roman Catholic Church's position.

Now sometimes a person is so wedded to an erroneous belief that no dialogue is possible. And in more difficult situations the error-clad person holds political power. Then Roman Catholics must pray that God's will be done and hold fast to the truth. God will not let evil stand forever.

In most Muslim countries the situation is pretty much in this second case. There are some indications that Islam is on the decline (which is why it has become so militantly defensive). In every case, we can have complete confidence that God will not let error stand forever. Roman Catholics need not be afraid of dialogue and the process of reason as long as they remain faithful to the teachings of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

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