Religious Zeal versus Freedom of Speech:

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To understand what’s going on, you must first understand your own experiences

Professional cartoonists from the magazine Charlie Hebdo were shot to death in a Paris neighborhood for drawing satirical images and portrayals of the Prophet Mohammad.

These murders were committed by jihadi fanatics.

It was a heinous act. But other than stating the obvious, what’s at the root of these acts.

It is a clash of two cultures. It is a violent strategy carried out by the RADICAL fringes of Arab Islam on the powerful influence of Western Civilization. More on this in a minute.

(Long ago when I decided to dedicate myself to writing, I promised to interpret events through the prism of my own experience, because I only know what I directly experience. I fulfill that promise in this article in light of the above event in Paris.)

Those of us who are Mormons have had to come to grips with that kind of clash early on in our own history.

In 1844, one of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s dissenters bought a printing press and secured a location to print a special newspaper edition about Joseph’s practice of polygamy, a fact that had been rumored about in the Mormon community of Nauvoo, Illinois.

Before the article could be published, Smith, who was mayor at the time, along with his city council, voted to destroy the press. The order was carried out by the local sheriff.

Those who sympathized with Joseph did so on the grounds that the writers had no right to slander Joseph, who besides being the mayor was also the prophet of their religion. But as we have since learned, whether you destroy property or take a life, this is considered a criminal act in the eyes of a secular society whose values are based on Western democratic sensibilities.

Ultimately, Joseph was jailed for the act, and killed while in jail by a mob.

After Joseph’s death the charter of the city over which he presided was revoked.

It was thought that this ended the matter. However, the nuance of this event continues forward to this day.

Presently, there is a deep rejection of secular values by those who killed the cartoonists in France. They are similar to those who destroyed the printing press in Nauvoo, Illinois.

It is a clash between people who believe there is no law or value higher than that of God and his prophet, against those who are deeply invested in the secular values of Western Civilization.

(Further clarification: the mayor and city council of Nauvoo also ordered the destruction of the printing press, because it was feared that the published articles would disrupt the peace and tranquility of the community.)

Anyway, for much of my life I was deeply committed to the first value. It entailed being acutely offended by what secular authority had caused to happen to the Prophet Joseph. I was never caught up in condemning the destruction of the printing press in Nauvoo, rather I thought only of the persecution and murder that fell upon Joseph. My commitment was so deep it penetrated both my emotions and intellect. My sole focus of support was on God and his prophet. My feeling was that when a prophet of God orders the destruction of a printing press that takes precedence over a secular law that says it’s wrong to destroy someone else’s property. I blamed both those who carried out a secular order to arrest Joseph, and those who followed on to kill Joseph. I didn’t know if others of my faith felt so deeply about this issue, but it didn’t matter, because that’s how I felt.

In my heart I gladly and jealously committed to sacrifice everything for the church Joseph organized, even my life if need be. Personally, my hope was someday I would be a martyr for Mormonism and its prophets. I actually thought that day would come. (Intense!)

So, I believe I understand the sentiment and conviction of the average Muslim in the Arab world. What’s more, I can come close to comprehending the passion of radical jihadis. In small measure they see and feel an all abiding conviction to their God and his prophet.

(Of course, it goes deeper than that. For example some of these jihadis are also full blown revolutionaries who use Islam to execute strategies to establish their POLITICAL agenda of overthrowing those who govern in the Middle East, and destroying all Western influence there. Also, they are goading the West to go to war with the Muslim world. That will provoke Muslims, in the minds of these revolutionaries, to rise up and create a RENEWED Muslim civilization which will include overthrowing all the existing Arab leaders and decadent Western influence, and enthroning a powerful theocracy [caliphate] which will abide strictly to the Koran and its traditions.)

Personally, I can even understand their political agenda to a point, for there was a time I thought a theocratic structure presided over by Mormon prophets would save America and the government.

Somewhere along the way, however, I changed and had a gradual awakening to the importance of the values captured in the creation of Western Civilization. No greater manifestation of these values were found than in America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. While admitting to the importance of religious freedom, these documents expand the vision of what are the basic civil liberties of each individual. Among these is the right to speak one’s mind without fear of reprisal.

I had to ask myself, do I believe these secular values are as important as my deeply held religious values? After years of internal debate, reading, and discussing with family, friends, and associates, I finally concluded that indeed these secular values were more FUNDAMENTAL to the maintenance of peace and tranquility in a civil society.

The main reason for deciding this was: Separate religions are not inherently set up to make anything other than their own religious beliefs the ultimate bastion of truth. Different religions can only TOLERATE other belief systems, but they cannot accept them as equal as far as embracing the full and ultimate truth of eternal existence. Ultimately, there is no acceptable notion of equality in traditional religions, hence no religion can govern impartially the affairs of a diverse society made up of every sort of value and opposing opinion.

On the other hand, the Western value of freedom of speech is made with the understanding that no one group or set of people has ascendancy or superiority over any other group. And no one person has power over another person. Each person is free to state her opinion no matter how wrong another person or group of people think it may be. The full weight of the law and its institutions fall squarely behind and support that individual’s right to speak her mind.

Right now, radical jihadi fundamentalists revere the Prophet Mohammad while Western cultures revere the freedom to speak out against anyone no matter how high and important they may be. In the minds of many on both sides of the issue, there does not seem to be a resolution to this clash.

To my way of thinking every problem has a reasonable solution.

For example, in Sharia Law (Islamic Legal System with varying levels of authority depending on the country) a complaint against one who has spoken ill of the Prophet Mohammad has to be brought forth to a sharia court. After evidence is produced, sentence is meted out. The terrorists who killed the French cartoonists did not do that. They acted outside Sharia Law. Hence, they have no permission or protection to carry out any punishment. The terrorists had no legal standing or legal religious basis for the acts of murder and mayhem they created. None whatsoever.

The consequence is, these jihadis were hunted down like other terrorists who have committed crimes in Western countries. That’s as it should be, for there will be no support for jihadi terrorists coming from the Sharia Legal System.

The heavy responsibility Western countries like France and America have is to educate its citizens on the importance of respecting cultural diversity, while teaching that critical analysis of cultures is a right granted to all. I believe close observers of both countries would agree that America has been more successful at integrating diverse cultures than has France. However, much blood has been spilled from both nations to uphold diversity and integration.

In the case of the evolution of my own religion, entering the twentieth century, isolated Mormons began to integrate into the larger American community, and learned how to defend their religion and their prophets without reverting to vengeance or violence. For example, with the advent of the Internet and blogging, Mormons engage in robust give and take debate when their prophets are criticized, especially their first and most important prophet, Joseph Smith. They give as well as they get. My religion had to learn to do this over time.

However, there was a time in their isolation in Utah and after the death of Joseph Smith, that leaders of the church encouraged acts of vengeance for the murder of their prophets. But at the crack of the twentieth century that began to modify. The church learned how to be in the world without necessarily adopting the less savory habits of the world. They learned the necessity of working with different religions and government agencies. They’ve learned how to lobby for their values without rejecting those with differing values. They’ve learned how to defend themselves under the laws of the land as well as project their interests without forcing others to conform to their demands. They are even learning how to work with certain intellectual dissidents, who write critically about the church, without imposing automatically harsh penalties on them.

I believe you will start to see this kind of approach within the workings of modern day Islam in Arab countries. I have reason to believe Islamic Arab nations will work tirelessly to moderate the type of fundamentalist jihadism taught by religious educational systems within Islam like Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. And ultimately, there will be, like in my own religion with American democracy, some kind of peace reached between Islamic culture and Western Civilization. Islamic culture will accommodate increasing levels of free speech, and citizens everywhere will continue to speak their minds, albeit with far more knowledge, which may lead to more enlightened self-editing.