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FIRST-PERSON: Militant Islam vs. democracy

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–In the most recent communiqué from Osama bin Laden’s band of murderous thugs, Ayman al-Zawahiri — the brains behind al Qaeda — denounced attempts by the United States to encourage reform in the Middle East.

Mind you, al-Zawahiri’s tape aired on al-Jazeera, the propaganda machine for militant Islam, while President Bush was trying to patch things up with the leaders in Europe. Bush rightly conveyed to Europe that the United States was about the business of spreading democracy.

Where people are not self-determinative, but wish to be, there we -— that is, America —- will be, at least in spirit.

For more than a decade now, bin Laden and his jihadists have believed that the United States is a nation bent on the forceful, global spread of Christianity. In no way has that charge been proven true.

In reality, it is the American political principle of individual liberty of conscience birthed by American Christians that the jihadists so view with disdain and therefore oppose. The question is, “why?”

The answer is that there is no room for individual liberty in the jihadists’ understanding of Islam. The only quarter given is for those who are willing to submit to a global Islamic state and those who are willing to abdicate all decision making to an iconic religious-political figure like bin Laden. In a sense, the movement is fascist.

This belief about the global Islamic enterprise is based on a long-held belief that there are only two possibilities for the world. The people of the world exist, the jihadists believe, in dar al-harb, the world of war, or dar al-Islam, the world of Islam.

The world of war, they believe, is all territories and peoples who are not Muslim or, at least, Muslim dominated. It is all free nations that allow their citizens to choose whom or what they worship, how they live and with whom they associate. And the jihadists will stop at nothing, even murdering fellow Muslims, to achieve their goal of global domination.

From nations not yet included in pan-Islamia, the jihadists demand respect. People must respect their power, their illegitimate breed of fanaticism and their fatwahs. “Real security is based on mutual cooperation with the Islamic nation on the basis of mutual respect and the stopping of aggression,” al-Zawahiri said in his most recent pontification on the evils of the West.

“Real security” is defined as freedom from the threat of attack based on cooperation, which defined is submission to the Islamic “nation.”

In the indictment of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, a 23-year-old American citizen accused of conspiracy and providing material support to members of al Qaeda, one of the items noted to have been in his possession was a book by al-Zawahiri. In the book, bin Laden’s second-in-command characterizes democracy as “a new religion that must be destroyed by war” and all those who support democracy as “infidels.” He also condemns Muslims who have renounced jihad as the means for spreading Islam.

Radical Islam, in this sense, is a greater threat to peaceful civilization than all of the armies the former Soviet Union could have mustered. It is a religiously motivated political system, but make no mistake: It is a political system that competes with democracy.

Jihad, then, is a political act of desperation, rather than an act of piety or devotion. Democracy should be stamped out, jihadists believe, because people should not have the opportunity to choose any political system other than that founded upon their own interpretation of Islamic law.

This political impulse is as old as Islam itself when Muhammad and Abu Bakr, his successor, waged war against neighboring tribes to bring them into the fold and eliminate polytheism among the Arabs.

If the nations of the Middle East adopted a view to liberty that recognized an open marketplace of ideas, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri know that the religion they promote will fall like a house of cards. They fear that the democratization of a society results in the democratization of religious belief.

Here, they are correct. If the fear of reprisal from oppressive Arab governments is removed, if there is no compulsion, and if there is no watchful gaze of imams and princes, the people of the Middle East will be free to choose for themselves whether or not they adhere to the religion of Islam, or whether or not they follow in faith the risen Christ of the Bible.

Baptists have long since advocated liberty of conscience, a notion of human freedom based on our interpretation of the Bible that no mediator or judge stands between a human being and God except for Jesus Christ. He is, the Bible teaches, humanity’s Savior and Judge.

The logical political expression of this individual liberty is the corporate religious freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When government intrudes upon religion, in any culture or society, the result is intimidation, harassment and even death. Our constitution protects against a religious establishment.

In the autocratic states of the Middle East, adherence to the religion of Islam is compulsory. Religion is dutiful obedience to what is sponsored by the state. Religion is allegiance to the teachings of men like bin Laden, rather than those of God, expressed most sublimely by Jesus Christ alone. There is no prophet, priest or king greater than He.

The people of the Middle East deserve the chance to decide for themselves whom they will follow. They need not acquiesce to the status quo of uncaring and corrupt governments, or willingly place their necks under the boot heels of radical clerics. The people of the Middle East should have the right, if they so choose, to follow Jesus Christ. They should also have the right to reject His message, though I clearly wish otherwise.

Then and only then will the Middle East change. Only then will it cease to produce young men who see incinerating themselves as the supreme act of worship to an uncaring god. Only then will its nations ferret out terrorists.

I am not optimistic that the governments of the Arab world will grant such religious freedoms to their people. Attempts at diplomacy and democratic progress with Arab governments so far seem to have proceeded along the lines of the old adage, “a smile in the day and a dagger at night.”

But the people can still be free in a spiritual sense, for if Christ sets them free from the laws of sin and death, they will be truly free. And if they find life in Christ, no cleric or Islamic nation can take that away.
Gregory Tomlin is director of communications at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and can be reached at [email protected].

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  • Gregory Tomlin