If you happen to find yourself in Saudi Arabia driving down the highway toward Mecca, you will eventually encounter a big sign advising you that Mecca is for Muslims only. The other road is “obligatory for non Muslims.”
Penalty for taking the wrong road? Officially, there is “no set punishment for this offense,” though incarceration followed by a large fine and expulsion are not uncommon. One source of advice for travelers offers the friendly tip that non-Muslims avoid Mecca (and Medina, where similar restrictions apply) because “Severe punishment is given to the non-Muslims if they are caught inside Mecca.” The 19th-century traveler Richard Burton took the precaution of having himself circumcised before sneaking into the city in 1853 disguised as a Muslim pilgrim. Notwithstanding the lack of official sanctions, he wrote, “nothing could save a European detected by the populace, or one who after pilgrimage declared himself an unbeliever.”
Perhaps this seemed quaint and romantic in the 19th century. What I find remarkable is with what equanimity we–meaning we idolatrous Christian, Jewish, and atheistical Westerners–accept this prohibition. Imagine, if you will, that there was an analogous sign as you approached New York.
What wailing and gnashing of teeth there would be over that outrage! The lawsuits would pile up quicker than you can say “ACLU.” But why? The usual line is that, being a freedom-loving lot, we prefer let other people do what they like, even if what they like doing is curtailing the freedom of others–e.g., us, their own women, etc.–to travel where they like, when they like, with whom they like.
But hasn’t this asymmetry gone too far? I have no particular desire to go to Mecca–indeed, I would pay a tidy sum not to visit that locus of lunacy–but supposing I did wish to book the family into the Mecca Marquis for a spot of holiday fun and fanaticism? Why should that be forbidden? Because the Koran (9:28) says Christians and other low-lifes are “unclean”? Because Muslims regard the city as a sacred spot, bound up with the core beliefs of their religion, which we idolators do not share?
Well, couldn’t we with equal justice argue that New York (to say nothing of London, Paris, and dozens of other spots) are sacred to us idolatrous Westerners? Do they not, each in its distinctive way, epitomize some central aspect of our core beliefs, for example, the belief that one should be free to worship, or not worship, as one pleases? What city better sums up the untidy dynamism of modern democratic capitalism than New York? I do not say New York is beyond criticism, only that it embodies a way, indeed a philosophy, of life. Why should it welcome those whose fundamental outlook is not merely indifferent but ostentatiously hostile to everything that makes New York a lower-case mecca for enlightened secularists of all religions?
I sometimes ask my friends such questions. Most of them think I am just joshing. I’m not. I also ask them if they know, in rough numbers, how many Christian churches and Jewish temples there are in Saudi Arabia (to take one example)–just a ballpark figure, I tell them. Many are surprised when I tell them that the number is zero. Such institutions, and the symbols and documents that accompany them, are verboten. Yes, that’s right: Bibles, Crucifixes, the Star of David, and other such infidel religious paraphernalia are illegal there.
OK, then why are we so accommodating about Muslims’ building mosques, many of which are breeding grounds of Islamic extremism (more), in the West. As of 2004, there were more than 2000 mosques in the United States. I haven’t counted, but the number of mosques in Great Britain makes for an impressive, by which I mean long, list.
Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Muslim activist and impresario, sent shivers of delight through Western liberals when he called for a “moratorium” on the application of Sharia law–you know, stoning adultrous women to death, cutting off the hands of thieves, executing apostates, that sort of thing–in places like Western Europe that were not (or not yet) fully under the sway of Islam. Good old Tariq, who by the way, is a grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, neglected to mention exactly how long he thought his moratorium (“moratorium” n.: “a temporary reprieve or suspension”) should last: until next Tuesday? A year from Wednesday? But I would like to propose a different moratorium: a temporary reprieve or suspension of mosque building in the West until there are, say, 20 Christian churches and 20 temples in Saudi Arabia. That’s only a hundredth of the number of mosques there are in the U.S., but I don’t believe in making grandiose demands.
Again, when I mention this idea to friends, many just chuckle, thinking I am not in earnest. Why shouldn’t I be? “Oh, well, we aren’t a country like Saudi Arabia. We believe in freedom of religion,” etc., etc. Precisely. Because we believe in freedom of religion, we must be on guard against those activities which, unchecked, would spell the abolition of freedom. “There is,” said G.K. Chesterton, “a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.” Freedom–religious, economic, social–is a marvelous thing. And that is why ideologies bent on using and abusing freedom in order to destroy freedom must be carefully scrutinized and, at times, curtailed.
Unfortunately, the West’s response, increasingly, has been a long preemptive cringe. Just last week, the BBC reported that a story based on the Three Little Pigs was turned down by the government for an award because the subject matter could “offend Muslims.” Note well: the report didn’t specify any actual Muslims complaining about the porcine fairy tale. Those denying the award already knew how an offended Muslim acted–who can forget the conflagration that followed the publication of those cartoons of Mohammad? No, instead of vigilance, supine resignation is the order of the day. Better capitulate now and get all that unpleasantness out of the way. It is a habit that breeds first apathy and then contempt, including self-contempt. The tonic of offending and being offended is part of the price we pay for living in a free, secular society. Those who pretend that their sensibilities are too delicate to withstand the affronts of ordinary daily life are not asking for religious freedom: they are aiming to abolish it. That must end, and soon.