The sign of a first-rate intelligence, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, is “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” When it comes to Islam and blasphemy, many Americans are having trouble accepting even consistent ones.
Under the law, blasphemy is fully protected speech, precisely because there is no public orthodoxy. Elevate the crucifix in a processional or dip it in urine — the state neither genuflects nor cringes. The defense of unpopular or offensive speech plays a particularly important role in our constitutional order; it defines the expansive boundaries of First Amendment guarantees. Religious people of all backgrounds should recognize that this legal neutrality on religion has produced a society remarkably amenable to religion. Those who attempt to intimidate or silence the believer or the blasphemer are attacking a central tenet of the American creed. And if they resort to violence, they may end up as chalk outlines on the pavement. At the same time: Under most moral codes, setting out to demean or mock the deepest, defining beliefs of your neighbor is rude and cruel. While permissible in our constitutional order, it is ethically disordered behavior — malicious and dehumanizing. It violates the Golden Rule and all its variants across the faiths. It deserves protection but not sympathy.
There is no contradiction between First Amendment absolutism and a moral commitment to the cultivation of mutual respect among the Abrahamic faiths (and outside them). Just as there is no inconsistency between the vigorous defense of the United States against terrorists and a respectful engagement with Islam. They are, in fact, inseparable.
I can hardly be described as a softy when it comes to the global war against terrorism. I participated in an administration (headed by President George W. Bush) that pursued this war aggressively. Precisely for this reason, I know that it can’t be won without Muslim allies — loyal U.S. citizens who report suspicious activities; allies and proxies who fight against violent Islamism; hundreds of millions of people around the world who repudiate Salafism by the peacefulness and tolerance of their daily lives.
When Americans engage in high-profile, attention-seeking acts of blasphemy, they are not joining U.S. military and intelligence forces at the front line; they are complicating and undermining their work. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State thrive on the narrative of the West vs. Islam. The United States and our Muslim allies benefit from the narrative of civilization vs. barbarism. Both radical Islamists and some of their most vociferous American critics share the same conviction: that the most authentic form of Islam is the most violent form. If this view prevails in the Muslim world, no amount of drone strikes or commando raids will shield America and our allies from eventual and serial catastrophe. The isolation rather than elevation of radical Islamism is essential to the successful conduct of the war against terrorism.
Modern technology has made the job of ideological containment much harder by creating a forum for endless provocation and offense taking, not to mention radicalization and recruitment. The alternative, however, is not to demand that religious people become less religious — a hopeless task when much of the world will become less secular in the 21st century.
What is needed is “theological work,” according to the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks. Speaking at a recent conference of the Faith Angle Forum, Sacks argued that religion remains “the most powerful creator of groups, stronger than ideology, race, nationalism.” When monotheism is tied to dualism — the belief that history is a cosmic conflict between the children of light and the children of darkness — it becomes “the most dangerous doctrine ever invented,” allowing people to “commit evil with a clean conscience.”
Both Judaism and Christianity have made progress over the centuries in weeding out dualism — reinterpreting their violent scriptural texts and finding resources of “respect for the other.” For Christianity, this transition wasn’t easy, involving the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War. But this bloody, chaotic process eventually produced a flowering of powerful ideas in the 17th century: the social contract, human rights and liberty of conscience.
Islam is a younger faith, going through a similar internal struggle. Sacks believes that serious, sympathetic dialogue among the Abrahamic faiths can “speak to our better angels” and challenge the violent narrative of sibling rivalry. He may prove naive, but it is certainly a better strategy than mockery.