Saturday, March 16, 2019

Freedom's Responsibility

For anyone who hasn't heard the news, a bunch of racist assholes attacked a pair of mosques in New Zealand, killing (last I heard) 49 people. Complete with a live video feed, creepy racist manifestos, and all the other accouterments of terrorist murderers everywhere.

Naturally, the world arose in near-unanimous condemnation of this horrible crime, and rightly so. But I've noticed one thing in the responses gathering a lot of attention - a lot of politicians (mostly on the right, sad to say) seem weirdly reluctant to use "Muslim" or "mosque" to describe the victims. A typical response that got a lot of flak was the pair of tweets from Tory leader Andrew Scheer. The focus is on freedom of religion, not on racists massacring Muslims.

The implication is that this is about fitting this tragedy into their worldview, which has a distinct emphasis on freedom of religion(especially for Christians - almost exclusively for Christians, if you look at the examples that many of these people will inevitably pick. See, for example, Bernier's painfully bad tweet). But it's not about the actual victims, the 49 dead Muslims who were murdered for praying in a mosque.

The flip side of this is the left's view, where it's all about Islamophobia, and freedom of religion is nowhere to be seen. For example, Jagmeet Singh's response. This likewise fits into their worldview where Islamophobia and white supremacy are major threats to the body politic, so likewise it'll naturally be their focus. It's unusual for me to say this, but the left is acting better here, on the whole. They're actually condemning the killers and the ideology that spawned them, and that's the first thing that should happen in any awful crime like this. The root cause of murder is murderers, full stop. (Would that they behaved this way all the time, but I'll give credit when credit's due.)

It really bothers me how badly people are dropping the ball on religious freedom, though. All the discussion I've seen today about this, and about the ham-fisted posts from right-leaning figures, has focused on how they're using freedom of religion as a dodge, a way to avoid taking their ideology the blame for this, and a way to co-opt the tragedy to talk about their pet issues. And a lot of them totally are. But in so doing, they make it seem like religious freedom is just a tool to defend their own beliefs from attack, not a critically important general principle. (Though the limits of Twitter as a medium are also apparent here - when simply typing the word "Muslim" is over 2% of your entire post length, sometimes people might cut it for brevity with no ill intent.)

Religious freedom isn't about the right to choose between boring mainstream denominations like Catholic and Lutheran. The modern concept of religious freedom traces back, at least in part, to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended one of the bloodier wars in history. For thirty years, Europe had torn itself to shreds, in large part over religious hatreds. This was an era where you could easily be forced to convert at the point of a gun or sword several times in our life, and where wars were fought over and over again about which religious doctrine would hold sway. The result was a shattered region, some eight million dead bodies, and a general agreement that it simply wasn't worth it to fight a death struggle over religion.

Religious freedom is about the right to choose between Catholic and Lutheran in Europe, in 1648. When they weren't "boring" at all, but were instead sparks that led to major international warfare. When your nation could be ransacked for choosing the wrong language for your Bibles, the right to choose it was a real and important right, and protection of it was key. That conflict has long since died away, and excites no serious passions today. But the principle still matters, because other religious conflicts can kill people just as dead even today. Especially today, as we saw in New Zealand.

A tweet about religious freedom that avoids mentioning Islam and co-opts it to be about Christianity is doing a disservice to everyone involved. Religious freedom is important because it protects Muslims too. In the modern developed world, Islam is "scary" in the sort of way that Lutheranism was "scary" in 1640s Italy - not because it's somehow inherently bad, but because a lot of people worry about it.

Freedom of religion isn't about the denomination itself. It's about freedom of opinion, of conscience, and of belief. It's about taking those cherished freedoms and applying them to everyone, even when we find their views odd. I don't doubt that there are people out there who aren't true Islamophobes, but who find Islam confusing and a bit scary nonetheless. But religious freedom is the principle that even when you think a viewpoint is bizarre or a bit offensive, you let people have it. You don't persecute them, you don't try to kick them out of your society, and you sure as hell don't massacre them by the dozen.

Using "freedom of religion" as a club to advance the interests of your personal religion is a great way to throw away the moral authority of impartial protection of human rights. You take something we've slowly worked towards for centuries and burn it away instead of building it up. The moral authority of freedom of religion won't protect you from your critics if you refuse to extend those same protections to those you criticize(or want to criticize, if you thought you could get away with it).

The left has the correct explanation for today's tragedy. But the right has the correct path forward - respecting the right of people to hold any view they want to hold, and participate peacefully in society. I just wish the sort of right-leaning figures that I'm thinking of would realize that they had the right answer and act accordingly, instead of acting like cheap partisan hacks with something to hide. It'd work a lot better if you were giving something up to build the principle that will defend you, instead of just having your hand out to collect all the goodwill that's been invested by other people over the last 400 years.

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