The Koran-The Official American Version

July 30, 2009

Our concern with Islamic fundamentalism, although obviously justifiable, has resulted in some bad policies and practices. Fear has this effect. Think of the Patriot Act. 

Well, here’s another one: providing government-funded translations of “moderate” Islamic literature to population groups, such as Uzbeks, who may not be able to read the Arabic originals. Apparently, this project is being pushed by some at the U.S. Agency for International Development .  

The rationale for this proposed project is that the absence of access to so-called “moderate” Islamic writings results in fundamentalist groups being able to persuade the believers that their version of Islam is the only version of Islam.  Their selective use of Islamic texts can go unchallenged as there are no competing texts available, for example, texts that would emphasize that suicide is a grave sin.  

There are at least two problems with the proposal.  One is that such a government-funded program is prohibited by the Establishment Clause.  The government should not be in the business of deciding which religious views should be promoted.  This prohibition holds even when the government is promoting a religious view not because it endorses its tenets but for some ulterior motive. 

The Establishment Clause is the obvious objection, but there is a deeper objection as well.  If we are ever to make significant progress in fostering democracy in Islamic countries, we need to get people in these countries to begin using nonreligious reasons for justifying personal actions and public policy.  Even if in the short term we persuade some to moderate their conduct through reference to religious writings, in the long run reinforcing the role of religion will leave these same populations vulnerable to whatever new brand of Islam comes along. Faith-based reasoning (if it can be called that) is the real problem.  We need to break the mindset that sees religion as providing the answers to all our problems.  

I understand the desire to combat Islamic fundamentalism, and perhaps, prevent terrorist acts, but except in true emergency situations (e.g., a credible threat of an imminent nuclear detonation), we should not sacrifice our principles and sound policy for a quick fix.  

A personal footnote: readers of this blog may have noticed that I have been silent for most of July.  I have been on medical leave, and am still in the process of recovering, but I hope to contribute a few posts to Free Thinking before my return to work in a couple of weeks.