Holier Than Thou

Islamic governments need to respect religious liberty at home before lecturing the West about intolerance.

The normally placid Swiss created an international frenzy when they voted to ban the construction of minarets on mosques. Elite European opinion was unanimously negative, leavened with the oft expressed hope that the European Court of Human Rights would overturn the measure if necessary. Hostility among Muslims around the world was even greater.

Western engagement with Islam remains fraught with difficulty. President Barack Obama pushed for greater understanding when he spoke in Cairo earlier this year, but the practical results of his appeal remain few.

The West-and America-are not without blame. Recent U.S. policy, in particular, has been seen as anti-Muslim. To have America's UN Ambassador, then Madeleine Albright, declare that "we think the price is worth it" when challenged over the alleged death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children from sanctions highlighted the U.S. government's reputation for arrogance and callousness. Moreover, as evident in the Swiss example, the West has not always lived up to its claim to respect freedom of religion.

Nevertheless, Islamic governments have little credibility to complain. In the main Muslim nations are authoritarian, distrustful of any form of freedom, whether civil, political, personal or religious. Some have tolerated and even supported terrorism as long as it was not directed at them. Finally, Muslim regimes are among the most virulent persecutors of members of minority faiths.

The latter is of particular note given Islamic criticism of Switzerland. The Swiss vote was wrong in my view, an attack on religious freedom by an otherwise free state. It is fair to criticize-though not demonize-the Swiss electorate for its decision.

But Muslims living in nations that routinely oppress religious minorities should concentrate on freeing their own societies from often onerous, even brutal discrimination against religious minorities before challenging the modest if unjustified Swiss restriction. As Jesus instructed, you should remove the plank from your own eye before seeking to remove the speck from your brother's eye (Matthew 7:5).

This point has been lost on many Muslim leaders, however. For instance, Ali Gomaa, Egypt's top cleric, complained that the referendum was an "insult" to Muslims, not "just an attack on freedom of beliefs, but also an attempt to insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside Switzerland." Mohammed Mahdi Akef, "supreme guide" of the Muslim Brotherhood, said the vote ran against international customs, human rights, and religious freedom.

Maskuri Abdillah, head of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, argued that the election result was a sign of the "hatred of Swiss people against Muslim communities. They don't want to see a Muslim presence in their country and this intense dislike has made them intolerant."

In Pakistan Khurshid Ahmad, vice president of the Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami, said the restriction "reflects extreme Islamophobia" and "represents very serious discrimination against Muslims." Indeed, he continued, it is "an effort to provoke Muslims and prompt a clash between Islam and the West." Yahya Mujahid, spokesman for the Islamic charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa, complained that "This new decision violates the principles of mutual understanding and religious tolerance."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the vote was a "sign of an increasing racist and fascist stance in Europe" and evidence of Islamophobia, which was a "crime against humanity." Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, called the vote an "example of growing anti-Islamic incitements in Europe by extremist, anti-immigrant, xenophobic, racist, scare-mongering ultraright politicians who reign over common sense, wisdom and universal values." He called for "genuine dialogue at the grass-roots level to alleviate all misunderstandings and misinformation that lead to intolerance and misconceptions." These hyperbolic claims ignore the behavior of governments in Muslim lands.

Religious persecution is common overseas. It is most likely to occur in authoritarian regimes with a communist heritage or Islamic nations. While it's hard to find a nominally Christian country which discriminates, let alone persecutes-the Russian government favors the Orthodox Church; the Fiji police commissioner has been requiring his officers to attend Christian rallies-only the rare Muslim nation does not favor Islam, often actively and sometimes forcefully.

Egypt is one of the worst offenders. For instance, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom observes "serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, as well as non-conforming Muslims remain widespread." In its most recent report on religious freedom, the State Department notes that "the status of respect of religious freedom by the Government declined somewhat during the reporting period" and decries the Egyptian government's "failure to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of increased incidents of sectarian violence." Anti-Semitism also is widespread in the government-controlled media. The Commission has placed Egypt on its Watch List.