What Are We Accomplishing?

Yesterday, during the morning worship service, I learned of Said Musa, an Afghan man facing execution by his government. His “crime”? Apostasy—Musa converted from Islam to Christianity about eight years ago. You can learn more through the Christian Post and National Review (and if you have registered with Wall Street Journal Online, an article here), but basically, Musa was arrested in 2010 after being seen in a video of a Christian worship service in Afghanistan. Even in the face of death, he has refused to recant his faith.

In the National Review article, Paul Marshall makes a probing observation:

[W]hen an obscure and aberrant Florida pastor, Terry Jones, threatened to burn a Koran, not only President Obama but much of his cabinet, as well as General Petraeus, weighed in on the matter.

If the actions of a Florida pastor who threatened to destroy a book holy to Muslims deserved public and presidential attention, then the actions of the Afghan government, ostensibly a ‘democratic’ ally, to destroy something holy to Christians, a human being made in the image of God, also deserve public and presidential attention.

As to the immediate situation, please consider making your views known to the White House (a web contact page is here).

Yet suppose the President were to decide to intervene. To what ideas would he appeal? More generally, what is the nature of the problem here? What is wrong with executing Musa?

This calls attention to notions of law and religious freedom. As a general matter, law imposes some scheme of morality, which is ultimately religious in its foundation (which indicates why the aphorism “You can’t legislate morality” is not true). There are limits to the degree of religious freedom that a society can afford without undercutting itself. Some subscribe to a belief-action distinction in which the society does not forbid belief but forbids certain actions implementing those beliefs. For example, one might not criminalize belief in human sacrifice but would forbid the practice of human sacrifice; indeed, failing to prohibit human sacrifice would be destructive to our society. Similarly, one might not forbid belief in sharia, but to permit the imposition of sharia would be destructive to our existing society.

Of course, even a belief-conduct distinction does not totally solve the situation. If a belief is true, then contrary beliefs are false. In that case those holding contrary beliefs are in error and thus subject to the consequences of holding those false beliefs. Consequently, those holding a belief on important matters will, if they have concern for those around them, want others to turn from error and believe the truth, and thus they are likely to evangelize and “proselytize.” Yet those holding opposite views will naturally view such efforts as subversive, as seeking to turn persons from truth to error. Which side is right? How can one judge without regard to the validity of the respective truth claims.

Thus, to condemn Musa’s execution as a simple denial of religious freedom or some other universal human right is facile. Faithful adherents of Islam are not likely to see a problem; those who deny Islam almost certainly will. A person’s evaluation of the underlying truth claims will ultimately wield great influence in the way the situation is analyzed and in what arguments will be convincing.

Back to Afghanistan, we have been engaged in armed conflict in Afghanistan for years now at tremendous cost of lives and money. Life is precious, and government funding is in short supply. If we have pushed out the Taliban for this government, one wonders what we are accomplishing—at least in this area?

Yet, as a general matter, exercises in “nation building” are a challenge in societies that do not share our culture, especially the component values and norms. We cannot expect others with vastly different religious beliefs to accept readily our views of ordered society and representative government. That leaves me wondering just how much we can expect to accomplish.

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