Multiculturalism or Human Rights? How the US Should Address Islam
In his speech to close President Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia, King Salman said the following:
Islam was and will remain the religion of mercy, tolerance and coexistence which were confirmed by clear examples.
As the leader of Saudi Arabia and head of the house of Saud, the ultra-conservative ruling family of Saudi Arabia which relies heavily on religion to assure its mandate to lead, King Salman cannot be expected to espouse any other message about Islam. On the other hand, the strong partnership between the US and Saudi Arabia begs the question: do we really believe that Islam is a religion of mercy, tolerance, and coexistence? Where must the US draw the line?
When it comes to terrorism, the Saudis are no stranger. It is common knowledge that a number of the 9/11 attackers were Saudi born, and Osama bin Laden was the estranged member of one of Saudi's richest families. The current regime has also been accused of supporting Wahhabi extremist groups, a violent offshoot of the country's state religion. Our relationship with the Saudis in the context of terrorism is certainly questionable, and the highest levels of government have made somewhat dubious exception for wealthy Saudi family members (i.e. privately evacuating various members of the bin Laden family in the days after 9/11), but the reality is that Saudi Arabia is perhaps our strongest muslim ally in our struggle against terrorism. The Saud family, as well as the country's sovereignty, has been threatened by external extremist groups for years, and the regime has taken extensive steps to combat terrorism alongside the US. It was revealed during the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad that Osama bin Laden intentionally used Saudi actors in the 9/11 attacks to drive a wedge between the US and the Kingdom, likely because he recognized that the Saudis and the States have had very similar anti-terrorism goals for decades. Since the Iranian terrorist proxy attacks in the late 1980s, to the 2003 suicide bombings, to the 2015 mosque attacks, the Saudis have consistent worked with American forces and American weapons to pursue US and sovereign interests, making them a valuable trading partner and reliable ally in the Middle East, not to mention the vast control they hold over the crucial Middle Eastern oil markets. The Saudis have aggressively tried and punished terrorists within their borders, implemented incredibly strict financial regulations to prevent terrorist groups from obtaining funding, and launched multiple public campaigns over social media and government initiatives to eliminate public support for extremism and raise awareness. Simply put, our cooperation with the Saudis has been our most successful Middle Eastern partnership in our counter-terrosim efforts.
But what about our cultural differences? It would appear to be a silly question in light of national security concerns, but it seems pertinent to address the strange nature of our alliance with the Saudis. An absolute Islamic monarchy could not be more different from a secular representative democracy. Our national security is perhaps the second most important purpose of our government, taking a seat far behind the protection of our rights outlined in the Constitution. There are instances in which rights have been restricted for national security reasons, but the reality is that we wish to be secure so that our way of life can be protected, a way of life which was created and is curated by the absolute nature of the rights on which our society is based. In light of this distinction, our moral differences with Saudi Arabia and other members of the muslim world must be considered at the bare minimum, and should likely play a significant roll in our foreign policy decision making.
I would not suggest that the US demand absolute cultural synchronicity of its allies, but there is certainly a line at which moral differences cross the line from relativistic to conflicting. The US has lost much of its moral high ground in recent years by catering to this moral relativism, leading to divisions domestically and abroad. Ultraconservative Islam does not align with the values of the US Constitution and rights-based governing theory, it is a simple fact. The US Constitution, and by extension the morality of our government, is not multicultural if the culture in question is oppressive and intolerant. Saudi-Arabia practices brutal torture and execution techniques, arbitrarily arrests, tries and convicts peaceful dissidents of the regime, denies basic rights to women, does not tolerate public expression of non-Islam religions, etc. And while the US has had its share of questionable human rights cases, there is no comparison between the two nations.
I only mention Saudi Arabia because of its strong relationship with the US, but the larger issue is the relationship between conservative Islam and liberal democracies as a whole. When it comes to freedom to practice one's religion or multiculturalism, we must draw a line between our own values and practices of discrimination and hate, even when they are part of a belief system. Take the recent conflicts over burqas and niqabs in France for example. Multiple French municipalities have decided that full-body coverings like burqas or naqabs are oppressive cultural items towards women, and wish to restrict such articles of clothing within their society. Oppression should never be welcome, regardless of its source. Religious articles like a hijab, kippah, or cross are obviously acceptable personal expressions of religious freedom, but when such expression is indicative of longstanding discrimination and intolerance it begins to conflict with societal values to an unacceptable level. There is always a line in liberal democracies, and in the US when practice of religion violates the 14th Amendment or any other enumerated/implied right it is illegal. In the US we cannot turn a blind eye to discrimination or intolerance simply because it culturally ingrained or religious. This means not excusing extreme homophobia as cultural relativism, but recognizing and condemning hateful practice. In the modern day, the intolerance that comes with conservative Islam is too often excused for the sake of tolerance. If there is one thing we must protect, more important than our national security, it is our way of life; we live in a society which actually exposes tolerance and coexistence, we must not excuse our allies or citizens of doing anything else.