For the second straight year I’ve had the pleasure of an extended visit with my daughter in London, and for the second year, the themes of liberty and rights--and how closely related they are to conflict and religion--have been prominent.
Last year, we saw Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral. The fact that one not-so-large sheet of parchment changed the trajectory of western civilization from despotism to liberty is powerful evidence that the pen is ultimately mightier than the sword. (Regarding Magna Carta: the way the copyist managed to write each letter and space each line with a precision indistinguishable from modern print technologies is truly incredible.)
Last week we toured Scotland, and wherever we went, we heard stories of earlier generations of Scottish freedom fighters, saw the castles (including the famous one overlooking Edinburgh from its perch on top of a volcanic upthrust) used to defend against aggressors, and relived the conflicts between different peoples and religions. Then on Memorial Day, on a day trip to Cambridge, we saw the hallowed cemetery where 3,811 of the approximately 30,000 graves of US airmen who died while flying combat missions out of England in World War II.
Today, the United Kingdom and its values and liberties are under attack again. While we were enjoying Scotland’s beauty, Drummer Lee Rigby was butchered in broad daylight on the streets of London by two fanatical Islamists. We had heard about it from a taxi driver in Edinburgh, but when it really hit home for me was after we got back to London and I saw his wedding photo in one of the newspapers. The young man was one of the kindest, gentlest, most cherubic looking men I have seen in a long time, and the image of his bride gave the same impression. That such a man could be treated so brutally, such a family be devastated so wantonly, is evil of uncommon magnitude.
While walking to the Lords Cricket Club to share a Sunday roast with an old prep school chum, we passed one of London’s largest mosques and a number of Muslims on the sidewalk. It’s easy to see why some wag coined the word “Londonistan.” The tension and mutual mistrust were palpable. It feels like London is under siege. The mosque seems like a beachhead of an invading force. As was the case here centuries ago, a religious war threatens to rob merry olde England of its tranquility. Londoners find themselves potential targets of random attacks by guerrilla jihadists dwelling in their neighborhoods.
In the anguished aftermath of Lee Rigby’s murder, Londoners yearned mightily for solutions to the grim threat they feel. The problem is, there are no easy answers, only vexing dilemmas and uncomfortable tradeoffs.
In a land that values free speech, there are proposals to censor jihadist websites and suppress hate speech--understandable and in many ways justifiable--but such suggestions are accompanied by the nagging feelings that enforcing such objectives could lead to abuses and that driving jihadists underground may not be sufficient to prevent future guerrilla attacks.
In a country where one of the finest historical achievements was learning to set aside sectarian differences, agree to disagree about religion, but coexist peacefully in a civil society based on the impartial protection of individual rights, few citizens want their country to be divided by religious strife. Religious tolerance was achieved at great cost by earlier generations of Brits, but how viable is tolerance if a core tenet of one religion is intolerance of anyone outside the faith? How can Christian England avoid religious strife, when adherents of one particular religion are thrusting it upon them?
And how safe and practical is it to cling to the belief that it is wrong and bigoted to look at individual members of some “other group” as being potentially dangerous? The current situation is horribly unfair to Muslims who have assimilated into western culture and share our belief in religious tolerance and the separation of church and state, but the insurmountable problem is: How are we non-Muslims to know which Muslims are ticking time bomb waiting to explode?
I wonder whether Britons fully realize the nature of the conflict in which they are engaged. What drives Islamism is a religious belief system. The fanatics are moved by what they perceive as a higher purpose. They have the conviction that faith in divine law imparts, and the concomitant willingness to die in the service of that cause.
It seems to me, although I’m sure many in the West will disagree, that only a comparable belief system of religious faith, with its devotion to a purpose that transcends temporal and temporary happiness, can withstand and prevail against a fervent political-religious ideology. Somehow, I doubt that secular humanism or the facile belief that “nice people don’t butcher or seek to enslave others” won’t cut it against a rabid, unreasoning, uncompromising, to-the-death fanaticism.
There are visible clues about the antidote to illiberal, atavistic ideology of Islamic conquest all over London and the British isles. I refer to the ubiquitous beautiful churches and magnificent, sometimes centuries-old cathedrals. (Speaking of cathedrals, Salisbury Cathedral, which dates from the 13th century and houses Magna Carta, would be worth a visit even if Magna Carta were elsewhere.) The architectural majesty of these hallowed buildings puts to shame the uninspiring utilitarian structures of the modern era.
Britain’s grand and gorgeous Christian churches are monuments in stone to grand and enduring ideas. They remind us that, in spite of manifold sins and shortcomings on the part of fallible individual Christians, it has been Christian values and concepts that gave birth to our love of freedom, our respect for individual rights, the search for and discovery of the principles governing nature, and even our free market system, based as it essentially is on the Golden Rule whereby one profits to the extent of providing value to others. It was the genius of Christianity that taught us to live and let live, to tolerate others, to peacefully coexist in our economic and social lives even as we go our separate ways on the Sabbath to observe different religious traditions, or no tradition. These have been the happy and prosperous fruits of Christian culture. Many in our western societies, having achieved material abundance, have had less time for religion in recent decades. England’s churches, like the ones on the European continent and like many at home in the States, are largely empty. We have forgotten what made us what we are. Indeed, we have the right to abandon our cultural roots and forsake the teachings that lifted us above life that was nasty, brutish and short. I strongly suspect, though, that the cost of doing so will be great, and, conversely, that a return to our roots will strengthen us for the struggle ahead.
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