London’s Trafalgar Square includes a bronze statue of Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853), an architect of the British Raj in India. Few Britons or tourists, pondering Napier’s role as a military leader in the Sind campaign, would think of him as an exemplar of interreligious dialogue. But consider this:
As one point in his pacification of Sind, Sir Charles confronted the long-entrenched and religiously-warranted practice of “suttee,” according to which a widow was thrown onto the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Napier invited the local leaders to a meeting and said, “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom. When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we shall follow ours.”
Suttee, as you might imagine, quickly disappeared from the areas under Sir Charles Napier’s command, as it eventually did throughout the subcontinent. Was Napier’s abolition of suttee an act of cultural aggression or religious intolerance? Is anyone prepared to argue that thriving modern India, the world’s largest democracy, would have been better off if Napier had taken the position of today’s multiculturalists, that, while there may be your truth and my truth, there’s no such thing as the truth — so who am I to impose my values on you?
The parable of Sir Charles Napier and the practice is suttee is worth remembering as Americans and Europeans alike begin to confront the fact that radical, jihadist Islamism is a powerful 21st century force that must be countered and repelled, if the free and virtuous society envisioned by classic political tradition of the West and the social doctrine of the Catholic Church is to be built. The Holy See has begun to confront this hard fact of contemporary international life in recent months, with various senior officials insisting that there must be “reciprocity” if there is to be genuine interreligious dialogue: that, if a grand mosque can be built in Rome, it is absurd and unacceptable that the Mass cannot be celebrated in public in Saudi Arabia. Or, to take the recent case of the Afghani Abdul Rahman, if Christians are rightly free to convert to Islam, Muslims must be free to convert to Christianity without, like Rahman, being put in jeopardy of their lives.
Multiculturalism and relativism have seeped so far into the consciousness of the West that many Americans and Europeans find it hard to imagine that there are, in fact, Muslims who believe themselves obliged by God’s will to impose their conception of God’s will on western societies, by lethal force and the murder of innocents, if necessary; thus the endless search for the “root causes” of terrorism. Similarly, as in the Rahman case, the passions engaged seem, to many, so bizarre as to be incomprehensible. We simply take it for granted, and have for centuries, that it is profoundly wrong to kill someone because of his or her religious convictions. Yet there are millions, perhaps tens of millions, of Muslims around the world who believe precisely the opposite: that it is profoundly wrong not to kill someone who leaves the House of Islam for, say, Christianity.
Nothing is achieved, and much harm will be done, by denying these realities of contemporary life. If the pattern of recent decades — in which a radical, jihadist Islamism has become the most dynamic force within a global religious community with over a billion adherents — is to be reversed, so that other, less aggressive forms of Islam prevail within Islam’s internal culture war, it will not be because Christians confuse tolerance with indifference, as if differences make no difference. Nor will it be because Christians, unable to give a plausible account of their own moral standards, refuse to assert the superiority of those moral standards over other understandings of right and wrong — or imagine that defending those standards in interreligious means taking an accommodating view of lethal violence in the name of God.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.