Faith and Freedom

On the streets, giant menorahs jostle for space with Santa and Rudolph. On the airwaves, President Bush issues Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa messages. At the mall, you can buy dreidels to stuff in your stockings or lights to decorate your Hanukah bush. For better or worse, the American model of religious freedom has now evolved, after hundreds of years of careful honing, from the Puritans’ desire to ban singing and keep Sunday holy into something best described as “religion a la carte”: You pick and choose, take a bit of this and a bit of that, then go home and celebrate whatever you want.

Purists don’t like it — I’m not sure I like it — but I have to concede that at some level, our sort of holiday season works. At least we don’t all fight about it. At least we all can, in the privacy of our homes, keep our own holiday as traditionally as we want — or not, as the case may be.

Our model won’t work everywhere, of course, and it’s certainly not going to work in Afghanistan or Iraq, two countries that are writing new constitutions and wrestling with the issue of religious freedom. Given their histories and cultures, and given Islam’s concern with state power, we would be wrong to insist that either country adopt our fastidiousness about the separation of church and state, let alone demand that Iraqis put up red-nosed reindeer in front of their mosques.

Nevertheless, if there is one new element we should try hard to leave behind after American troops withdraw or U.S. occupation ends, it is a far more basic notion of religious freedom. By this I don’t mean simply that both countries should allow Christians, Jews and other religious minorities to practice; such laws are important. But the real issue is even more fundamental: Both countries need rules that ensure religious freedom for Muslims, both to practice different versions of Islam, whether Shiite or Sunni, and to debate openly the tenets of their own faith.

Although the Afghan constitution has yet to be finalized, some who are following its progress fear that it is heading in the opposite direction. Many celebrated the absence of the word for Islamic law religious law, sharia, from the draft. But if the word is gone, some of the spirit remains. Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, notes, among other things, that the draft leaves all unresolved issues to be decided in accordance with “Hanafi jurisprudence,” a school of sharia, and bans any political party whose ideology is “contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” That could give clerical courts the ability to rule on blasphemy cases or allow the state to ban a political party that advocates women’s rights. Extreme language can also be applied loosely, depending on who winds up ruling the country. But concerns that Afghan interpretations will be rigid are not merely theoretical: Blasphemy accusations have dogged Sima Samar, the former Afghan minister for women, and have shut down at least one Kabul newspaper.

It now appears that some Iraqis are interested in adopting a constitution with similar language. Although we can’t and shouldn’t impose a particular system, let alone a particular set of religious practices in Iraq, we must persuade them to leave space for religious debate in whatever system they adopt, after the occupation ends. President Bush has talked a good deal about “democracy” in Iraq, and many speak optimistically of a “moderate Islam” developing there in the future. But what good are elected leaders if they have to answer to clerical courts? What good is guaranteed “freedom of speech” if you can be arrested for discussing the role of women in your society? Moderate schools of Islamic thought will not grow if Islamic thought itself is forbidden.

As I say, I wouldn’t wish our peculiarly American form of religious freedom on anybody else, let alone our mechanical dancing snowmen. There are other models available: Plenty of democratic countries have state religions, and there is such a thing as a secular Islamic society. But if we have any influence over the Iraqis and Afghans now planning their futures, we should, if nothing else, use it to ensure that their views be allowed to evolve and change as ours have.

*References to the “Iraq Foundation” in last week’s column should have been to the “Iraq Memory Foundation.”