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Caught in the Backlash?

May 9, 2009 | by Jonathan Rosenblum

As strains of Islam arouse suspicion worldwide, there may be ramifications for the Jewish community too.

Every citizen of the West is threatened by political Islam, which seeks to impose Islamic law over the entire world. The Jewish community feels the threat even more intensely, as Muslims' separatism and refusal to integrate into their host cultures causes them to be perceived as threats to national cohesion and to democracy. That critique can be easily expanded to encompass every religious-ethnic community, the Jewish community included.

Further, Islamic fundamentalism has helped bring religious belief in general into disrepute, and provided fuel to those who charge that most of mankind's problems can be traced to religious fanaticism. Within one week of 9/11, for instance, The New York Times' Thomas Friedman already described the great threat confronting the West not as Islamic fundamentalism but as religious fundamentalism in general, including Christian and Jewish. Thus did traditional Jews find themselves uncomfortably linked with Islamic terrorists under the convenient rubric "fundamentalists."

Best-selling books depict religion as beneath contempt.

The past year has witnessed a plethora of screeds -- several of them best-sellers -- against religious belief: Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and Sam Harris's The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. These works are characterized not by their arguments, none of which are new, but their level of invective and in their general attitude toward religious belief as something beneath contempt and incapable of defense by any intelligent person.

Though 9/11 and ongoing Islamic fanaticism helped create an audience for such works, they by no means focus their attack on Islamic fanaticism. Sam Schulman points out in the January 5, 2007 Wall Street Journal, "The atheists focus their peevishness not on Muslim extremists (who advertise their hatred and violent intentions) but on the old-time Christian religion... They conclude: God is not necessary, God is impossible and God is not permissible if our society -- or even our species -- is to survive."

Acknowledging the Threat

The concerns raised by the threat of Islamism can in no way be dismissed. Indeed, as citizens of the West, we should all be grateful that the nature of the threat posed is finally registering societal elites. The internal Islamist threat is greatest in Europe. A combination of well-below-replacement birthrates among Europeans, high Muslim birthrates and Muslim immigration have paved the road for a Muslim majority in Europe within two or three generations.

Most of the approximately 20 million Muslims living in Europe today have not integrated into their host societies. In a recent poll in Britain, 40-60% of Muslims said that they would prefer to live under Sharia, Islamic law. British security forces consider at least 14,000 British Muslims to be security threats, and keep 1,000 under active surveillance. Tens of thousands of British citizens of Pakistani descent visit their ancestral homeland each year, and many of those are indoctrinated by Islamist groups while there.

Nor has the threat remained theoretical, as demonstrated by the 7/7bombings on the London Underground, which claimed 52 lives, and the uncovering last August of a plot by British Muslims to blow up 10 transatlantic airliners. At least 13 students at British universities have been convicted of terrorism and four became suicide bombers.

Increasingly, mosques and Islamist religious institutions are fostering Muslim separatism.

Increasingly, mosques and Islamist religious institutions are fostering Muslim separatism. A recent British TV documentary featured preachers at numerous mosques, including those allegedly dedicated to moderation and interfaith dialogue, condemning integration into British society, democracy, preaching hatred for Jews and Christians, and celebrating the killing of British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 2004 rioting in the "cities of darkness" ringing Paris and other major French cities revealed the extent of alienation of young, mostly second generation Muslims in France. Social critic Theodore Dalrymple describes how the "sweet dream of universal cultural compatibility has been replaced by the nightmare of permanent conflict," in France and numerous other European cities, in which police and firefighters do not dare venture into Muslim areas, and where copycat riots followed those in France: "A kind of anti-society has grown up in [these cities of darkness] -- a population that derives the meaning of its life from the hatred it bears for the other 'official' society...This written on the faces of the young men, most of them permanently unemployed, who hang out in the pocked and potholed open spaces between their dwellings. When you approach to speak to them, their immobile faces betray not a flicker of recognition of your shared humanity..."

In the UK, when British Home Secretary John Reid urged Muslim parents in East London to supervise their children and to make sure that they are not being initiated into a death cult in their local mosque or Muslim school. When a heckler shouted at him that he had no business coming to a Muslim area, Reid sharply rejected the suggestion that there is any area in Britain that is off-limits to Her Majesty's government. And he denounced the attempt to Balkanize Britain into semi-autonomous communities, each with its own values.

In Reid's reply, we hear the growing apprehension that extreme multiculturalism threatens the unity and strength of the nation-state. That fear is well-taken. Citizens of democratic societies feel a greater stake in the country and a greater identification with one another. Yet where citizens do not identify with the state or a common set of national values, but rather view themselves only as members of insular sub-communities, that national strength is lost. Opponents of bi-lingual education make the same point: loss of a common national language weakens a country.

To date, the United States has experienced nothing like the bombings in London or the Madrid train blasts. And Muslims in America appear to have integrated more successfully than in European countries. The median average income of American Muslims is approximately the same as American whites, and their educational levels are higher. From the beginning, America has conceived itself as a melting-pot of immigrants from many different countries; national identity is not assumed to be based on descent from some group of ethnically homogenous ancestors, as in European countries. Further the deep religiosity of America and the fact religion that there was never a national church in America, but rather a multitude of sects and religions, have made it easier for Muslims to maintain their religious identity and assume their place in the rich tapestry of American religious pluralism. (American religiosity and the lack of a national church stand in stark contrast to Europe.)

Nevertheless, fanatic forms of Islam have found a receptive audience among black inmates in prisons. Anti-terrorist expert Daniel Pipes has repeatedly warned of radical Islamic groups in the United States as well, a warning given more credence by the January expulsion from the United States of an Ohio imam on charges stemming from his fundraising for Islamic Jihad. The plot of 17 Canadian Muslims to blow up the Canadian parliament and behead the prime minister further suggests that the United States should not consider itself immune from homegrown Islamists.

Of Exemptions and Loopholes

The recognition that Muslim schools attempt to create a Muslim identity that prevents integration into the larger society has engendered a response that has important implications for Jewish institutions as well.

In England, Lord Kenneth Baker submitted a bill to parliament, believed to have the support of the Minister of Education, which would have required all newly opened religious schools to set aside at least 30% of its places for children of different religions. Lord Baker noted that his concern was with Islamic schools that "seek to create a total Muslim personality." Under Baker's bill, requirements such as familiarity with the Koran would have been forbidden since the effect of the requirement would have been to eliminate all non-Muslims together.

Though Baker's bill was ultimately withdrawn, the mere fact that such legislation could be introduced and supported by the Minister of Education gives cause for concern. The implications of such a piece of legislation for the Jewish community would have been immense. Torah day school education also seeks to create a uniquely "Jewish personality." The presence of 30% of non-Jews in a school would make that goal unobtainable. So would forcing Jewish school to drop requirements for admission that would exclude all or most non-Jewish students -- e.g., familiarity with Jewish prayer, holidays and Bible.

The statute may have been written with Muslim extremism in mind, but it would be naive to think that it would therefore apply to only to Muslim schools and not Jewish ones. Legislators prefer to couch statutes in neutral terms that do not single out any particular religious group for special regulation.

It is unlikely that courts would exempt Jewish schools based on ‘good citizenship.'

Most traditional Jews would undoubtedly be shocked at finding themselves linked to Islamic extremists. And they would be right to object. The most salient distinction, of course, is that there are no Jews blowing themselves up on the London Tube or plotting to explode transatlantic airlines. But it remains unlikely that courts would carve out an exemption for Jewish schools based on the generally upstanding citizenship of their graduates.

In at least one case, the United States Supreme Court did carve out a religious exemption to a neutrally drawn statute on the basis of the good citizenship of those asserting the religious claim. Thus in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court exempted Amish children who had completed elementary school from the requirement of attending high school until age 16. The Court cited the low rates of criminality among the Amish and the fact that they rarely, if ever, receive state welfare payments. Those were deemed sufficient reason to allow Amish parents to educate their children themselves from ninth grade on.

In a similar way, if a particular statute was drafted to prevent private religious schools from being breeding grounds for terrorists, the lack of Jewish terrorists might be cited in support of an exemption for Jewish day schools from the statute's application. In all likelihood, however, courts would be reticent to extend the Wisconsin precedent in such a way that Muslim schools alone would be singled out for a particular statutory regulation.

A Curriculum to Limit Torah's Authority

In addition, many regulations drafted with Muslim schools in mind are designed not just to protect against the training of terrorists of the future, but also with the goal of preventing those schools from fostering an identity completely at odds with the dominant national culture. The French ban on the wearing of any religious head-covering in school would be an example of the second kind of legislation, and it applied with equal force to yarmulkes and the hijab worn by some Muslim women.

Some have argued that there is no religious liberty argument in the wearing of a hijab because Islamic law does not require it. In support they cite the fact that at least two Muslim countries -- Turkey and Tunisia -- ban the wearing of a veil altogether, and that it has not been traditional dress in many Muslim societies.

That is not an argument that Jews should be eager to embrace. We would not want a secular court to inquire whether wearing a yarmulke indoors is religiously required, or consider evidence that some observant Jews do not wear a yarmulke at work. A secular court oversteps itself when in acts as a religious authority. The only relevant question in this regard is whether the person asserting the religious liberty claim truly believes that he is religiously required or forbidden to something.

Jewish law requires one to obey the laws of the land.

So it remains true that many Jews, like many Muslims, do wear distinctive garb, and profess an allegiance to God that transcends any allegiance to the secular state. Unlike many Muslims, however, Jewish law recognizes the legitimacy of a secular legal system, and acknowledges the duty to obey the laws of the land (dina d'malchusa dina) and nowhere seek to impose Torah law on the secular state.

Muslims show a much greater propensity for imposing their religious beliefs on others. In one case that attracted a great deal of notoriety, Muslim taxi drivers in Minneapolis have been refusing to take passengers caring pork or liquor products. The airport authority was initially inclined to accommodate the Muslim drivers until columnist and scholar Daniel Pipes aroused a national uproar, at which point the drivers were told that they would have to take all passengers or forfeit their license.

Here the claim of the airport authority seems particularly strong. Taxi licenses are a limited public resource, and the state has a clear interest in ensuring that holders of those licenses use them to best serve the public. (It is hard to imagine a Jewish taxi driver refusing to transport a passenger carrying pork products, even if the passenger were Jewish.)

The religious curriculum will introduce students to a variety of different religions, and seek to imbue them with an attitude of tolerance to all of them, including those which according to halachah constitute idol worship. In addition, students will learn that many people derive their ethical moral beliefs from sources other than revealed religion. The message is the same that anti-religious writers are forever proclaiming: One need not be religious in order to be a moral person, and indeed religious people are no more moral than others.

The authors of the curriculum emphasize that some values are growing stronger in the contemporary world and other traditional values waning. They make clear that their preferences rest on the side of the contemporary over the received values of the past. But the very description of such value changes contradicts the view of Torah as the source of eternal values binding on the Jewish people forever.

Underlying the proposed curriculum is a strong emphasis on tolerance that derives, at least in part, from the fear of the Islamic intolerance and even violence. The emphasis on the moral autonomy of each person and the need to recognize multiple sources of ethical values betray a bias against revealed religion in general.

It is hard to imagine any Torah Jew allowing his children being subjected to a curriculum in which Torah is just one among many options. But the question we must ask ourselves is whether any political entity might nevertheless mandate such curriculum.

In the United States the right of parents to provide their children with a parochial education was settled by the Supreme Court almost a century ago. If anything, that right has even become more firmly entrenched with the rapid growth of the home-schooling movement. At the same time, the state's substantial interest in the regulation of private education has long been recognized.

As suspicion grows against certain religious-ethnic groups, it would be prudent for the Jewish community worldwide to carefully monitor the affect this has on their own rights and educational autonomy. As such, this becomes yet another chapter in our millennia-long effort to preserve our unique and precious Jewish heritage.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer


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