In his First Inaugural Address Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke these immortal words:
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The threat today is different than Roosevelt faced in 1932 when he was addressing widespread economic, social and political chaos that was striking fear at the heart of America and radicalizing some segments of the population. It is more closely related to the threat that he would later face in 1941 when he recognized Nazi threat and signed the Atlantic Charter and then responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But even then there are differences, between that and the threat today.
That being said, in this address Roosevelt was absolutely correct in several things which are timeless and that we as Americans and others in the West, as well as those who aspire to our values in other parts of the world, include Moslem nations must address.
What happened in Paris, the brazen attack of Al Qaeda linked terror striking at cartoonists and other satirists who they claimed to be committing blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. That attack has raised legitimate security concerns that other radicalized Moslems will commit similar attacks, not just in France but in other Western democracies. In fact as a career military officer, historian and theologian I can say that this threat is not overblown. We are probably just seeing the tip of the iceberg.
However, the problem is during such times that people, including government leaders, religious leaders, academics and journalists give in to fear by responding in one of two counterproductive ways. Some, give in to the fear by remaining silent, playing it safe and hoping the threat just goes away and even condemning those that they believe brought on the crisis, rather than those actually committing the violent acts. Others go to the opposite extreme and create a climate of fear, suspicion and encourage the creation of a police state, the surrender of civil liberties and the persecution of anyone remotely resembling the perpetrators of the attacks.
In fact the Roosevelt administration itself was guilty of the latter when in 1941 and early 1942 it rounded up Japanese Americans on the West Coast and sent them to internment camps, simply for the crime of being Japanese. But they didn’t do that to Americans of German or Italian descent. Why? Well it was easy, the Japanese were easy to identify, they were not white. It gave into the climate of fear, and imprisoned patriotic American citizens because of their race, while ignoring those of German descent who in the late 1930s and even in 1941 were members of the a group called the Bund, which was made of of ethic Germans who supported the Nazis.
But Roosevelt’s words are applicable today. The attacks in Paris were an attack on Western Civilization and democracy, done in the name of Islam. They were aimed at the heart of being able to speak freely, even insensitively and offensively about people in power, using satire to do so. While satirist were the target this time, there have been those who have been threatened, attacked or killed for writing truthful history, political commentary or even fictional works which some Moslems cannot abide, including author Salman Rushdie.
The vast majority of these types of attacks over the past several decades have been done in the name of Islam. However, Christians, Jews, Hindus and others cannot claim that leaders of their religions have not engaged in similar behaviors, dating to antiquity. All have committed similar acts throughout history in the name of their Gods, acts that have encompassed everything from harassment and persecution, programs, banishment from society, forced conversions, military conquest and even genocide.
Now is the time for leaders to boldly speak the truth, with honesty and candor. They cannot mince words in the hopes of not offending those who strike at our freedoms, even freedoms which some find offensive.
Likewise, all of us, not just leaders have to honestly face the conditions in our countries, and we cannot give in to fear. We should not be silent, or even self-censor when it comes to difficult and controversial ideas simply because we fear a backlash of some kind. That being said, when we do so we have to ensure that our words do not add to that climate of fear, intolerance and loathsome behavior that characterizes a nation seeking scapegoats, as did the Germans to the Jews after the First World War and during the Nazi regime.
Fear is the driving factor in both of these reactions, and both are counter-productive because they encourage more extremism. As Roosevelt said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Sadly there will be those, especially some politicians, pundits and political preachers who seek to convert that fear to their advantage. Already in response to these heinous attacks we are seeing it. Calls for the full militarization of police forces, placing police spies in houses of worship, and treating all Moslems if they were guilty for the acts of some of their brothers and suggest imprisoning, expelling or killing Moslems because of their religion.
While I would agree that Islam has much reforming to do, persecuting Moslems is no way to bring it about. However, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre there are signs that some Moslems, journalists, some religious leaders and even the President of Egypt are calling for a Reformation of Islam. That will take time, that Reformation in Christianity needed to be helped along by the more secular Enlightenment before Christians began to abandon some of the same kind of punitive beliefs and measures against heretics, critics and unbelievers so common in Islam today.
Likewise there are some religious leaders, particularly conservative Christian leaders in this country who are blaming the victims of the massacre for committing blasphemy. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association even called it God’s judgment on them for blasphemy, not of Islam, but of Christianity. Randall Terry, a founder of Operation Rescue urged Christians in 1993:
“Let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good…. If a Christian voted for Clinton, he sinned against God. It’s that simple…. Our goal is a Christian Nation… we have a biblical duty, we are called by God to conquer this country. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want Pluralism. We want theocracy. Theocracy means God rules. I’ve got a hot flash. God rules.”
Honestly, is that any different from the Islamic preachers of hate today?
But then what is blasphemy? Every religion has beliefs which if contradicted or criticized could be considered blasphemy, which in some cases throughout history has merited death. Protestants who abandoned Catholicism during the Reformation were marked as heretics and unless they had a Prince of King powerful enough to protect them were tried and executed. Anabaptists killed under under Calvin and Zwingli because they were re-baptized. Catholics in England became criminals after the Anglican Church became the state church. Sunni and Shia Moslems kill each other because of where they believe legitimate religious authority lies, the bloodline of the Prophet or learned teachers.
Since the list of blasphemous acts goes on and on depending on what religion, or sect within a religion decides, who is to judge in a pluralistic society? The church? The state? Even better the theocratic state that many “conservative Christians” want to re-establish and use fear of progressives, non-believers, homosexuals, outsiders, and non-Christian religious groups, especially Moslems.
Thus we cannot give in to fear, be it fear of all Moslems, or those who make satire of what others hold dear. We do have nothing to fear, but fear itself, and those who stoke that fear to attain their goal of holding power over others. As Captain Lean Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart said in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode The Drumhead:“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”