The Limits of Morality

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In the aftermath of recent terrorist violence, European leaders have shown themselves much more determined than hitherto to define and defend their values, the "core contract" of tolerant democratic societies, and to resist subversion by Islamist extremists operating through religious institutions. Radical imams have been prosecuted or deported, some countries exercise surveillance over sermons, and Germany is considering demands that preachers use German, rather than Arabic or Turkish. Some Muslim leaders themselves have praised such restraints as a means of driving out the radicals who poach their followers.

Moneir Mahmoud, imam of Spain's prestigious M30 mosque, has praised government proposals to limit what can be preached in religious gatherings, whether Muslim or Catholic.32

American observers have praised what they see as a long-overdue assertiveness and a refusal to let exaggerated concerns about religious freedom permit the spread of revolutionary propaganda. If you parade dressed like a suicide bomber in a city just attacked by similar means, that is an overwhelmingly powerful form of symbolic speech that amounts to a direct threat or incitement to kill. In American legal terms, it is equivalent to shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater, and no religious motivation excuses the action. But as we see from the citizenship tests, west European states especially believe the core contract includes elements that are unsettling to conservative believers across the religious spectrum. As Utrecht cardinal Adrianis Simonis complains, "Political leaders ask whether the Muslims will accept our values. I ask, 'What values are those? Gay marriage? Euthanasia?'"

If the state regulates criticism of these new concepts of rights, we could potentially see serious clashes between church and state, even when religious groups are not advocating violence or subversion. In many countries, the concept of full homosexual equality means the legal prohibition of discrimination, while denunciations of homosexuality are forbidden as a form of hate speech. And while homosexuality is currently the most pressing issue, other themes could be very contentious in the future, especially in matters of reproductive technologies and genetic engineering. In 2006, Vatican officials proposed the excommunication of scientists involved in stem cell research involving human embryos.33

To date, courts in different jurisdictions have generally recognized a religious freedom exemption in hate speech cases. In 2001, for instance, the Dutch Justice Ministry prosecuted Islamist preacher Khalil el-Moumni for his aggressive denunciations of homosexuality. The prosecution failed because the court found a religious exception, namely that el-Moumni could indeed ground his views in the Quran and other sacred texts. The Swedish Supreme Court ultimately recognized a similar defense for Pentecostal preacher Ake Green who in 2004 had been sentenced to a month in prison for a sermon denouncing homosexuality. Calling homosexuality "a horrible cancerous tumor in the body of society," he argued that it led to other perversions such as pedophilia, and that tolerating such behavior could call down divine wrath upon the whole nation. In the view of prosecutors, not only did the religious setting not exempt the words from categorization as hate speech but "collecting Bible cites on this topic . . . does make this hate speech."34 As in the Muslim instance, nothing in Green's sermon would have seemed exceptional for conservative religious believers in the United States just half a century ago, when quite similar cancer analogies ap peared in mainstream media. In that very short time though, gay rights have in Europe at least achieved the status of fundamental human values, to be rigorously defended by law. Far from this trend showing any signs of moderating, the determination to enforce Europe's supposed core values appears all the greater. Powers to exercise surveillance over Muslim preachers to track subversive sentiments, to detect anti-gay or anti-feminist views, could easily be used to unearth reactionary opinions among Christian or Jewish congregations. And if the state insists that Muslim clergy be citizens of the European countries in which they preach, surely the same principle must be applied to other faiths, including Christians, a policy that would have far-reaching effects on immigrant Christian communities. If governments regulate or suppress transnational evangelists like the Tablighi Jamaat, they could equally well exclude charismatic African-based churches.

The nature of potential conflicts is apparent in Britain, where in 2006 the government proposed new regulations that would outlaw all discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in any facilities serving the general public, including stores, social clubs, hotels, and bed and breakfasts. It would penalize shops that refused to offer wedding registries for same-sex matches, while schools would have to offer full equality of treatment and coverage. Churches would be required to rent meeting rooms to gay groups, and according to some interpretations, forced to perform gay marriages. The law naturally posed difficulties for religious believers who hold that homosexuality is of its nature sinful, and Anglican leaders like Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali asked that exemptions to be granted on religious grounds. The church received the strong support of Muslim groups like the Islamic Medical Association, which entirely agreed that "the right to hold deep faith convictions that affect the way people think and behave in every aspect of life is sacrificed in these regulations." The government was, however, reluctant to allow exemptions, for fear of undermining the whole principle of the legislation.35

Another emotive area of likely conflict between church and state involves children, as concepts of children's rights and child protection have expanded enormously in recent years, almost as ambitiously as gay rights. While no one claims a religious exemption in cases of sexual abuse, newer ethnic communities sometimes adhere to concepts of physical abuse and discipline very different from those in contemporary Europe, and those traditional concepts are often rooted in religion. The clash between religious and social values was evident in the recent British hysteria over the alleged maltreatment of children in exorcism rituals. It is absolutely legitimate for a society to prevent children from being harmed in religious services or rituals, always assuming that legislators are accurately informed about the nature of those services—which, in the British case, they were not. But the response went beyond mere attempts to prevent abuse or violence, as activists targeted practices like exorcism, which are a well-established part of the spiritual warfare doctrine characteristic of charismatic Christianity. In the recent British scandals, a spokesman for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children remarked, "Any belief system that leads to the abuse of children is not acceptable." That goes far beyond a simple regulation of abusive practices, but strikes at the core of religious belief. By 2006, charitable groups called for "the establishment of a registration and monitoring system to regulate the faith sector and ensure anyone who wants to set up any place of worship is vetted to ensure they are fit to do so."36

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