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Obama's Cairo Moment

This is no time for clever equivocations.

12:00 AM, Jun 2, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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The social consequences of these policies in Egypt--and throughout much of the Muslim world--follow a familiar pattern. Egypt's Christian population, estimated at six to 10 million people, is often the target of discrimination and sectarian violence. No Christians serve as presidents or deans at public universities, and they hold less than two percent of the seats in the legislature. Proselytizing and conversion to Christianity invite government surveillance and harassment. Attacks on the Coptic Christian community--including arson, assault, and murder--result in few prosecutions. The situation is even worse for Baha'is, whose religious institutions have been banned outright since 1960. Nearly all of the Baha'i community's 2,000 members are known, and often monitored, by state security services. Islamic leaders have issued fatwas condemning the Baha'is as apostates and accusing them of violating "public order"--a pretext for arrest and imprisonment.

As important as these problems are, they are symptoms of a deeper malady--the rejection of a concept of human dignity that defends the fundamental rights and political equality of all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs. The American commitment to freedom of conscience--the liberty to worship God as a natural and universal right--has proven to be a bulwark against political tyranny and religious radicalism. It has helped check the abuse of state power and marginalize faith-based extremism. Its absence in many Islamic societies, however, invites both tendencies. On this point, President Obama should heed the advice of a report from his own State Department: "Religious freedom is an important part of the bilateral dialogue."

No honest conversation with Muslim leaders can fail to address the most ominous consequence of Islam's philosophical shortcomings, namely, the cancerous growth of radical Islam. A vast international network of jihadis--devoted to the violent export of Islam by any means--represents a geo-political threat unimagined at the end of the Cold War.

Liberal academics complain that the Bush administration hyped the threat of religious terrorism for its own nefarious reasons. In his book Engaging the Muslim World, Juan Cole dismisses as fearmongers those who see a kind of "Islamo-fascism" at work. Cole finds such terms demeaning and divisive.

Whatever we call it, the ideology of Islamic militants is closely associated with fascism's historic hatred, its violent anti-Semitism. This presents another difficulty for President Obama in Cairo. Despite being the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel, the Egyptian government has sanctioned and subsidized the most noxious hate speech. Jews are vilified in newspapers and television programs, including a 24-part TV series based on the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the anti-Semitic screed which fortified the Nazi propaganda arsenal. A report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, released in May, chastised the government for failing to combat "widespread and virulent anti-Semitism" in the education system and state-controlled media.

It is true that the vast majority of Muslims rejects the idea of a violent offensive against unbelievers, and instead hopes for the peaceful spread of Islam. But scholars such as Mary Habeck, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, point out that widely respected Islamic authorities assume a Muslim duty to extend the dominion of Islam, by force if necessary. "To deny this fact," she writes, "would be to deny one of the main reasons that jihadis have gotten a hearing in so much of the Islamic world today."

This helps explain the extensive, tacit acceptance of monstrous and suicidal violence directed at civilians--at "heretical" Muslims as well as Christians and women. What kind of faith, we are entitled to ask, sanctifies acts of savagery as a religious duty? What sort of "Arab League"--of which Egypt is a member--embraces Sudan's Islamist dictator whose genocidal campaign has taken the lives of a quarter million non-Arab Muslims? What do we make of a religion that rejoices at the video images of hostages tortured and beheaded? Acid thrown into the faces of girls going to school, bombs exploding at weddings and soccer fields, children used as pawns in suicide attacks, unveiled women burned alive, the bodies of young boys mutilated--what explains this demonic cast of mind?