Jewish World Review August 21, 2002/ 13 Elul, 5762

Wesley Pruden

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A dead mouse on
the sawdust trail | Americans are instinctively nervous about talking about religious faith in secular settings, and we're particularly squeamish about listening to criticism of the faith of others (unless we're talking about evangelical Christianity, and then anything goes).

The editors of the New York Times, a citadel of tolerance for everyone who agrees with its editorial page, are angry not only at George W. Bush for trying to rid the world of Saddam Hussein, but at North Carolinians who are upset at having to pay for what they suspect is the attempted religious indoctrination of their children at the University of North Carolina. The university wants to explain the religion with a bowdlerized version of Islam on the eve of September 11.

The professors at Chapel Hill assigned a book by a Haverford College instructor that actually attempts to make the Koran politically correct. Thus the book leaves out the verses that the Islamist zealots of September 11 used to justify their murder and mayhem. Academic freedom or not, you can't blame the North Carolinians for smelling a dead mouse. Naturally the New York Times, without a clue to how the rest of us live, sees not concerned parents and taxpayers, seeking the redress set out by our laws, but a lynch mob at the ready.

"The protesters, some of whom have sued the university, said that assigning a religious book in a public university violated the Constitution's separation of church and state," huffed The Times. "What they really oppose is the effort to study Islam objectively, without presuming at the outset that it is inherently evil. Let's hope for the sake of the students and the state as a whole that their despicable efforts fail. Those seeking to stop a thoughtful learning exercise are mangling free speech and academic freedom in the bargain."

This is the usual liberal argument, that "we're good, and you're despicable, so we don't have to argue with you. So just shut up and pay up."

No one's free speech has been "mangled"; the professor is perfectly free to preach anything he wants to preach, whether Islamic, Hardshell Baptist, Buddhist, Hottentot or none of the above. The Constitution guarantees that the government can't prohibit his speech, but nowhere does it say that the government - meaning you and me - must pay him to do it. The administrators of the university are no doubt prepared to restrict the "academic freedom" of any or all of its professors, depending on how they exploit their freedom. Let one of them teach white supremacy, flat-earth science, gracious female submission to patriarchy and he'll see soon enough what it feels like to have his speech and academic freedom mangled.

Since we don't like these discussions of creed and dogma in secular places, Americans are eager to give all religious expression a pass. The Islamists are just like Methodists, right? So when someone speaks up to state the perfectly obvious, that the version of Islam practiced by the terrorists of September 11 is evil, and demands to know why mainstream Muslim clerics have not said so, he can expect to be jeered at by those who take no religious faith seriously.

You could ask the Rev. Franklin Graham, who, choosing his words carefully, said in the wake of September 11 that the Islam practiced by the murderers of 3,000 Americans (including Muslims) is "a very evil and wicked religion." This is something we thought the clerics of the Islamic religion of peace and tolerance - the one we're told is out there - would have shouted from the mosquetops.

Instead, the most prominent Muslim clerics shout "bigot!" at anyone who notices the Muslim silence in the face of the Islamic world treating the September 11 killers as "martyrs." This was Dr. Graham's point, that after September 11 there were only a few half-hearted clerical expressions of regret, no calls for revival and repentence. There was not even the mildest scolding of those who hailed the killers as heroes.

It's not difficult to imagine the universal condemnation that would rain down on rogue priests who in the name of Christ plant bombs in a Muslim center, or on crazed members of the Ministerial Alliance who to glorify God commandeer a Saudi airliner and fly it into a Riyadh skyscraper. The pope, Billy Graham, the archbishop of Canterbury and Pentecostal preachers by the dozens would jostle each other out of the way to be the first to demand rough justice for the perps. Anyone who tried to make martyrs of such priests and pastors would be shunned, silenced and otherwise stood clear of. When John Brown carried his faith to unreasonable lengths, even to abolish the evil of slavery, as William F. Buckley observes, "we hanged him."

The lawyers for the North Carolina parents have taken pains to say that their clients do not oppose a neutral, disinterested study of Islam. Indeed, who would oppose that? But they suspect that the university wants to do more than that, and the selection of the text, with its selective editing, offers persuasive evidence.

Muslim clerics in America insist that they should be treated like everyone else, with their faith honored, their convictions respected. And indeed they should be. It's the American way. And the American way to get that honor and respect is to act as if they respect the faith and feelings of others.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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