For the past few years I have been taking my Catholic school students over to the nearby Mosque, as part of their World Religions research. It has gone well, everyone is on their best behavior, and it gives the students a chance to hear about Islam from devout Muslims, in their own place of worship. I also have visited the Mosque and Islamic community during the time of my run for public office to speak and dialogue about issues where we would find some common ground. It has all been a very positive experience, but there is one large elephant in the room that must be paid attention to.
During the class visits the question of terrorism and jihad always comes up and that isn’t the big problem for the Islamic representative as one might think. They distance themselves from an interpretation of the Qu’ran that allows for the killing of innocents- and jihad is usually described as an internal struggle inside each man’s heart for moral purity. Most Muslims seem to go along with a rough sketch of the Catholic Just War Doctrine, which allows them to support military “resistance” such as in Palestine and elsewhere, but not to agree with all the tactics of warfare conducted as such. Similar to what many Catholics would say about America’s involvement in World War II, but not agreeing that the dropping of nuclear bombs on civilian centers was legitmate. So much for that hot button issue.
The other issue which I brought up this year, is not so easily deflected. During one of the Q & A’s I asked about the problem of reciprocity. This theme was one that the Pope and others have brought out for particular and keen attention. I relayed my view that here in the U.S. and most of Europe, there is a freedom to express their religion openly and worship publicly. I said that, for example, the Muslim who spoke to us was a convert from Christianity, he joined a community that freely built a Mosque to worship in, and if they wished they could hand out literature, and speak to anyone they wanted to about the truths of Islam. But this type of freedom is not respected in Saudi Arabia, for example, and I think American Catholics would like to know if it is the goal of American Muslims to re-make the laws and customs of America to be like the Saudi model?
The response I received was one I had heard before- it must be in the talking points for American Muslims somewhere. The Muslim presenter tried to make the comparison of Saudi Arabia with Vatican City- one couldn’t build a mosque in the Vatican afterall. I let him off the hook at that point, but I did some research on a real-world comparison of Saudi Arabia and Vatican City to come up with some solid factual challenges to this type of argument. I told my students about the problematic response from the Mosque- unfortunately most of the students just accepted the Muslim argument without any discernment. I put down on paper my research and sent it off to the local Imam to get his thoughts, and told my students that I would update them with any further response to this important question relating to reciprocity of religious freedom. It has been over a month and there has been no response- I think we need to press this issue within our own Catholic, and Catholic-Muslim dialogue circles. Here’s why the Saudi/Vatican equivalence argument doesn’t work:
Vatican City is more of a religious compound than a true nation. A better comparison would be made with the actual religious sites in Mecca or Medina. Vatican City has 840 residents, Saudi Arabia has 27 million people. Vatican City exists upon 110 acres, Saudi Arabia has 830,000 square miles.
If one was to compare Italy to Saudi Arabia you could look at the laws allowing for religious expression. The Italian Constitution gives all religions and creeds the rights to be freely practiced. The Constitution of Saudi Arabia is said to be the Qu’ran, and the public practice of non-Muslim religions is prohibited. The same prohibition holds for public preaching, and conversion from Islam to another faith carries a death penalty possibility. In Italy there is conflict and controversy over the building of mosques in particular places, but overall there are 214 Islamic places of worship for the 1% of Italy’s population that is Muslim. In 1995 Europe’s largest mosque was opened in Rome, and it was largely financed by Saudi Arabia- of course!
I just read an interesting piece that someone can link to from William Mann of the AP News Service- “Saudi Arabia and China Among 13 Countries Cited by a U.S. Panel as Serious Violators of Religious Freedom”. It begs the question as to why it is that the U.S. talks the talk about being the biggest promoter of liberty around the world, but our two biggest buddies on the economic front seem to be Saudi Arabia and China. Shall we talk about gaining the whole world, but losing our souls?? Our Government’s own panel on Religious Freedom has criticised our inconsistency by targeting a few of the other deniers of religious freedom for sanctions and tough talk, but Saudi Arabia has had any sanctions waived indefinitely. And China is the best little supplier of cheap labor ever- don’t you like your cheap shoes and toys?
I think there are two lessons in all of this for American Catholics to consider. One we need to press our Muslim brothers to be more forthcoming on their longterm mission in this country- if indeed they are honest about wanting to re-make America into a larger Saudi Arabia- then we should consider more limitations in terms of immigration and student visas- as much as I am loathe to recommend such things. The message must be clear to the world- by “world” I mean the huge chunks that have sizeable Saudi and Chinese influence. Religious liberty is a top shelf priority- preaching the Good News is the first condition of Christian discipleship, and we cannot sit back and watch as more and more Christian minorities grow increasingly fearful for their livelihoods and lives across those lands with heavy Saudi/Chinese pressures.
The second lesson to be drawn is the absolute need to reinvest our economic theories with solid moral principles like basic human rights, the celebration of freedom of religious expression and worship, and the right to life and support for traditional families- these basics should be covered by America herself, along with all trading partners- that dream will never be realized if we don’t start objecting to the lack of reciprocity in religious freedom as with Saudi Arabia, or with the lack of religious and human freedoms period- in China.