Saturday, December 02, 2006

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Middle East Reality Check:

Is Democracy, Without The Guarantee Of Religious Freedom & Individual Rights, Worth Fighting For?

Earlier this year, the Pope ignited protests when he dared to point out the writings of a scholar from the Renaissance who had criticized the extremist teachings of Islamic sects. As if to say, “We’ll show you whom to call extreme,” tens of thousands of Islamic fundamentalists, in countries as far away as Indonesia took to the streets, burned the Pope in effigy and screamed themselves silly.

This week the Pope left Rome to visit Turkey. It was a diplomatic and public relations visit to help soothe the easily ruffled feathers of some Muslims. One of the sites on the Pontiffs top ten list of things to do and see in Turkey was to visit the Hague Sophia in Istanbul.

Istanbul was formerly Constantinople, the capitol city of the Western Roman and Byzantine Empires. The Hague Sophia is truly one of the wonders of the ancient world. It is a massive multi-domed Church that dominates the city’s skyline. I say Church because that is why it was built. It was built by Christians for Christians.

But when Constantinople fell to the invading Turks it was quickly converted to a Mosque.

That hasn’t bothered me very much over the years. It all happened a long time ago. I don’t often go around thinking, gee, when are we going to organize another crusade and kick those Muslims out of our holy sites? But I get the impression that some Muslims think about that a lot.

Here was the Pope about to visit the Hague Sophia and the news reported that radical Muslim clerics were warning people that if the Pope tried to offer a prayer or make the sign of the cross in their Mosque, blood would flow in the streets. It must be all that caffeine in the Turkish coffee.

Tolerance is something we take for granted in this country and most of the Western World. I remember being abhorred to learn last year that a man in Afghanistan was being tried as a criminal for converting to Christianity. This is after we supposedly freed the country from the intolerant Taliban extremists and they elected their own government. Fortunately, the more “moderate” government just had the man declared insane for wanting to practice a religion of his own choosing. Not like the bad old days when they would have stoned him to death.

Which brings me to one of the main points of this week’s column. Democracy without the safeguards of a Bill of Rights isn’t worth fighting for. Freedom isn’t just the right to vote for leaders, it’s the protection of the inalienable rights held by each of us. It is about a Bill of Rights that protect us not from the excesses of despots, but from the excesses of our own democratically elected government.

The people of Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have that same protection of their civil liberties. Over half of their population, the women of these emerging democracies, aren’t even guaranteed the same rights as men. There is no freedom of religion…only the officially sanctioned State religion. Why should Iraqis fight and die for their own country, when that nation does not respect nor guarantee their rights as individuals?

At the end of World War II the United States imposed a government on occupied Germany and Japan. It included both democracy and a Bill of Rights. Guess what? Those ideals flourished. We knew what worked, but instead we deposed a secular, but cruel dictatorship in Iraq and then twiddled our thumbs as they created a fundamentalist regime answerable to religious extremists.

Frankly, I have had it with the terminal stupidity that passes for U. S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East and feel we need to debunk myths that seem to have been invented simply to justify bad decisions. I’m not talking about rehashing why we went to war. The justification, or lack of it, to have invested thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of our tax dollars doesn’t deal with the problem at hand.

The fact is that we have no business being in the middle of someone else’s civil war. We probably should have partitioned the country from the beginning. At least the Kurds in the North (the ones not trying to kill us) would have loved us for giving them their own nation. But we were too afraid Turkey might get mad because they have spent the last five hundred years or so killing Kurds in their own country. This is, of course, the same Turkish government who wouldn’t let our troops invade Iraq from the North at the start of the war even though they were suppose to be our ally.

What I’m challenging are the premises and strategy with which we continue to engage our enemies. Not just in Iraq, but anywhere.

Laws protecting individual and religious freedom, must be imposed. As I have already stated (but it is worth repeating till somebody in Washington gets it) democracy without the protections we enjoy in the Bill of Rights, is not worth fighting for. When you supposedly “win” (and I use that term loosely) a war, you get to “impose” a few rules. If individuals in Iraq and Afghanistan had individual liberty, they might feel more like fighting to defend those rights and not just the esoteric notion that they can cast a ballot once every few years.

When the radicalized Muslims take to the streets any time someone prints a cartoon or questions why someone would behead innocent civilians in the name of God, I would like to see more world leaders stand up and tell them how wrong they are…not apologize that we live in freedom loving nations where people have a right to draw cartoons or voice an opinion. Jump up and down all day in the hot sun screaming your heads off. We no longer care that you are so easily offended.

Finally, let’s never forget that there are ten good people in the Muslim world for every one who wants to kill us or blow up innocent civilians. But they need to hold their own people accountable, not have them idolized 24/7 on an Arab television network. They need to encourage capitalism and economic reforms that will give their young people jobs, careers and hope. For those without work or hope, radical fundamentalism becomes their only life and only hope.

These are tough issues I know. But we either have to change the rules and start playing the game on our terms, or risk losing to people so intolerant they don’t want to share the planet with anyone who doesn’t think exactly like they do. I’m rooting for the silent majority of Muslims to take back their religion from the radicals. When the Pope is allowed to say a prayer in the Hague Sophia, I will know that day has arrived.