“No nation of ideas can sustain its ideas without sustaining some sense of being a nation.” — Jonah Goldberg
Last week I spent time thinking about writing a column that would be cheerful and uplifting — something that would ring the halls, so to speak, during the holiday season. I couldn’t do it. Like it or not, it is a serious time and it deserves serious thought. Today our country finds itself grappling with ideas and issues that go to the very heart of what has made our country great. Unfortunately, we remain, for the most part, paralyzed by political correctness, polarized thinking and legislative gridlock.
The phrase “freedom isn’t free” as commonly used refers to the idea that we would protect, even die for, our rights as embodied in our Constitution. But it has another less commonly used meaning that suggests people are not “free” to exercise these rights if they endanger others or infringe on someone else’s rights. Hence, yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is not constitutionally protected free speech and a newspaper writing a slanderous article cannot hide behind freedom of the press.
Likewise, this is true when talking about religion — especially when religion is used as the basis for horrific acts by Islamic extremist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda. Freedom of religion is one of the most revered rights we enjoy. After all, religious persecution was a primary reason our forefathers ventured across the Atlantic and established the beginnings of what would later become the United States of America.
However, religious tolerance in our country seems only to extend so far. The double standard that exists today regarding religion could not be more blatant. Christian religions are routinely bashed and even prayer is ridiculed. Even the smallest criticism of Islam, however, is immediately met with expressions of concern and cries of Islamophobia. Using, at best, a tortured comparison, President Obama even went so far as to lecture the nation “lest we get on our high horse … remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
So, when confronting radical Islam, some hesitate to offend Muslims by monitoring suspected imams or mosques in the United States for possible instances of Jihadi speeches or radicalization of their members. Some Republican presidential candidates have advocated just that (and more) and have come under heavy criticism.
There can be a fuzzy line between strongly criticizing our government, our society or culture and fomenting violent acts. Disregarding some of the more extreme reactions to terrorist acts such as banning Muslims from entering the U.S. (which most agree would be unconstitutional), why shouldn’t we monitor a mosque in America that may be advocating treasonous acts and the killing of innocent “non-believers?” Aren’t these essentially acts of war (even though the President refuses to say we are at war with radical Islam)? Pretending they are religious teaching should not provide them constitutional protection. It’s also more than a little ironic that the freedoms enjoyed by mosques in America are not allowed in theocracies elsewhere in the world where many Muslims live today.
Just as we know that radical Islamists have infiltrated our immigration and refugee populations in the past and will do so in the future, we know that some Muslim Americans have been and will be radicalized in a variety of ways and will attempt to do us harm. It is not surprising therefore that Americans feel uneasy and have little confidence our government can protect us from terrorist attacks.
Up to now President Obama has minimized the domestic terrorism threat and dismissed legitimate fears of Americans with accusations of bigotry and racism. More importantly, other than constantly reminding America and the world we are not at war with Islam, President Obama has done little to enlist moderate Muslims to combat Islamic extremism. Yet, despite the rhetoric from the likes of Donald Trump, most Americans do not blame all Muslims for acts of terror. Indeed, many Muslims serve in our armed forces and they and others who condemn terrorist acts deserve our deepest thanks. Still, we wonder whether America will be successful in partnering with the majority of Muslims here and abroad in helping to defeat the radical elements in Islam.
While these concerns cast some shadows over our nation during this season of hope, our society will continue to attract people who want to live in this country and still celebrate their foreign heritage and culture, as well as practice their religion of choice. This is because our country is the only one in the world where you can do that and still be an American first and foremost.
• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and is active in community and statewide organizations.