View From America: Protestant, Catholic, Jew and Muslim

The tiff over an oath of office scratches the surface of a difficult clash of values.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
In late November, radio talk-show host and columnist Dennis Prager penned an article criticizing an incoming member of Congress for announcing that he would take the oath of office in January by swearing upon a Koran. Prager is a respected Jewish author who was recently added to the roster of the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which governs the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. But he was publicly spanked by a wide variety of commentators and groups (including the Memorial Council) when he wrote that Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim to serve in Congress, ought not to be allowed to substitute a Koran for a Bible. Prager's argument was that even though the swearing-in ceremony itself was symbolic (members are legally sworn without benefit of texts to swear on), the act of substituting a Koran for a Bible would be a rebuke to "the unifying value system that has formed this country." Prager was skating on thin rhetorical ice. He claimed he was not trying to create a religious test for office, but that is exactly what his polemic seemed like. Many Jewish groups joined with others to rebuke the talk-show personality for making it seem as if a Muslim was somehow unwelcome on Capitol Hill. HAVING SPENT centuries fighting for the right of religious minorities to serve in government without giving up their own faith, it hardly behooved a prominent voice of Jewry to be found saying that a Muslim could not choose to swear on his own religious book. Incredibly, Prager went as far as to say that Jews who choose to swear their oaths on Bibles without the Christian New Testament included were also wrong. Though Prager is correct about the central role of belief in Christianity in creating and protecting our freedoms, his attempt to treat a religious text as a requirement was out of line. Ellison - and anyone else - ought to be free to swear on anything he or she likes. Rather than provoke a debate about the legitimacy of rejection of the Bible, the firestorm Prager ignited merely served to reinforce a politically correct backlash against anyone who might question Ellison. Yet as wrong as Prager was about the oath, the dust-up over the Koran obscures a far more interesting and more important issue that lies beneath its surface. The unease about Ellison ought not to be obscured by a foolish argument that smells like bigotry to the average fair-minded American. The ascension of the first Muslim to Congress is a notable achievement, one in which all Muslim-Americans ought to take pride. One cannot any longer speak of our public square being inhabited by "Protestant-Catholic-Jew," as writer Will Herberg did half-a-century ago in his famous essay of that name. Now, we must add "Muslim" to that formulation, along with, perhaps, "and others." That such a moment would come at a time when so many of Ellison's co-religionists are waging war on the United States abroad is an irony that speaks volumes about the seriousness of American democracy's commitment to religious pluralism. BUT WHILE neither Prager nor Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), who later echoed the columnist's stand, has the right to dictate a swearing-in text, it's not unfair for us to ponder whether this congressman or others are prepared to defend the values that our system is set up to protect. Unlike the current perilous situation in France and Britain, the demography of immigration to the United States is not dominated by those with ties to Islamist foes of the West. The conquering spirit of jihad that has cowed so much of Europe into silence via intimidation (such as the murder of Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch critic of Islam, or the suppression of European newspapers that sought to print Danish cartoons lampooning Muhammad) has not yet found a foothold. But it would be foolish to pretend that Americans can remain immune to such conflicts. Though America largely knows Ellison today only through the free (and overwhelmingly favorable) press that Prager's jibes brought him, the Minnesotan actually has a checkered history worth examining. In fact, Ellison was long associated with people who represent the worst in American Islam, such as the Nation of Islam's despicable leader Louis Farrakhan (whose "Million Man March" Ellison helped to organize) and hatemongers Khalil Muhammad and Kwame Ture. Though he now disavows such ties, in this sense Ellison is typical of the leadership of American Muslims. Though the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not support radical Islam, the groups - such as the ubiquitous Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR - that purport to speak for them are riddled with apologists for Islamism and the terrorism with which it is rightly associated. Yet in the name of pluralism and an abhorrence of being put in the same kind of spot that Prager recently found himself, many of us fear to take them on. Indeed, as long as our primary response to proponents of Islamism in this country is to treat them as alleged victims of persecution - rather than as the proper target of federal prosecution - then we will be missing the real issue. Witness the protracted defense of Islamic Jihad organizer Sami Al-Arian, who used the University of South Florida in Tampa as a base from which to raise funds for a group that murders in the name of an Islamic Palestinian cause by those who should have known better. For years, the op-ed page of The New York Times and other forums published justifications of his right to free speech in calling for the murder of Jews and dismissed the proof of his guilt. JUST AS puzzling is the reaction of the organized Jewish community to the revelations in federal court that Al-Arian's former USF colleague, Khalil Shikaki, helped funnel money to Islamic Jihad "martyrs" in the Palestinian territories via Swiss bank accounts. Brandeis University still prefers to keep Shikaki on its payroll rather than allow itself to be accused of "bigotry" for asking the political scientist to account for his actions. Such cases illustrate that there is a point where our liberal instincts to champion inclusion must stop and common sense must take over. With jihadist terror on the rise around the globe, these challenges will not go away. Try as we like - and many of us are trying very hard - we can't go back to a pre-9/11 world. As minor as the flap over Ellison's oath was, it points to a tension between the rise of supporters of radical ideologies that seek to destroy democracy and the need to preserve the rights of all Americans. We need not sacrifice religious freedom in order to secure it. But in a time when jihadist imperialism is sapping the strength of our European allies, this is also no time for Americans to be afraid to call hate - and its apologists at CAIR and elsewhere - by their right names. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.