VISION & VALUES CONCISE: Q&A with Dr. Paul Marshall

Editor’s Note: Dr. Paul Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom and will be participating in the April 5-6, 2006 conference hosted by the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College titled, “Mr. Jefferson Goes to the Middle East: Democracy’s Prospects in the Arab World.” The following Q&A session was conducted by Melinda Haring, a Grove City College graduate who now serves as the Program Director at the Center for Religious Freedom.

Q: I understand that you were a geologist and professor of political thought in your previous lives. How did you become interested in religious freedom?

Paul Marshall:
When I taught political philosophy, one of my specialties was human rights, in particular religious freedom.… I started learning more about international human rights law and actual situations around the world to acquire background and got more drawn into it. Then in 1997, I published a book, Their Blood Cries Out, on the persecution of Christians worldwide, and that brought a strong, positive reaction. I thought it was probably more important than the work that I had been doing, so I decided to switch.

Q: Why did Thomas Jefferson call religious freedom, “The First Freedom”?

Paul Marshall: Because religion is the core of human life, even though we’re all hypocrites to some extent, it shapes the basic pattern of our life. So if you don’t have freedom at that level, then you can’t have freedom at other levels. If you’re not free to live out your beliefs, then freedom of the press and other freedoms necessarily get truncated. It addresses what is at the core of human beings and other rights are expressions of that.     

Q: Much of your work today focuses on radical Islam and sharia law. How are radical sharia and religious freedom related?

Paul Marshall: The radical versions of sharia, Islamic law, that are spreading in the world maintain that Muslims must always be above non-Muslims, that men must always be above women, and that a person’s rights and freedoms depend on their religious status. In Pakistan, for example–in a sharia court–if you’re not a Muslim, your testimony only counts for half that of a Muslim. People who want to change their religion from Islam can be killed. Radical versions of sharia are a totalitarian ideology and almost the antithesis of human rights, especially religious freedom.

Q: Was the West caught off guard by the rise of radical Islam?

Paul Marshall: Yes…. One reason is the tendency among Western thinkers, especially those involved in foreign policy and international affairs, to systematically disregard the influence of religion. Even if they were not personally secular, their mindset was secular. So religion was treated as more or less passé.… So when religion becomes a significant factor, then everybody gets surprised.

Q: Many secular critics lump fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam together. What are the critical differences between the two?

Paul Marshall: I think the term fundamentalist is a useless word. It doesn’t take people seriously. Fundamentalism treats a person’s beliefs as if they were a psychic condition. Also, if you still want to use the term, then you need also to talk about fundamentalist secularism and fundamentalist an awful lot of things. The key question is: what is a person fundamentalist about? What does someone actually believe? If people have very different beliefs, lumping them together as fundamentalists becomes well nigh meaningless. You can call Osama bin Laden a fundamentalist; you can call [the] Amish fundamentalists, but where does that get you? Their goals and way of life are very, very different. The question is: what do people actually believe?

Q: In regards to the Danish cartoons, you recently argued that Western governments have nothing to apologize for. Why is that?


Paul Marshall:
The cartoons were published by a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Denmark has press freedom, [and] what newspapers publish is their own business. As the Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen has said on several occasions, the Danish government does not control the press and it has no wish to control the press, so there’s no use complaining to them about what the newspapers do. It is, and should be, beyond their control.

Q: Critics of democracy and democracy promotion often assert that the Arab world is somehow different than the rest of the world and not yet ready for democracy. Ronald Reagan called this notion “cultural condescension.”  President Bush, too, has spoken forcefully against it saying, “It should be clear to all that Islam–the faith of one-fifth of humanity–is consistent with democratic rule.” Is representative government incompatible with Islam?

Paul Marshall: The Muslim world has a democratic deficit in that there are comparatively fewer free societies and democracies in that part of the world than elsewhere. However, if you look more closely, the major problem is in the Arab world, which comprises less than a quarter of the world’s Muslims. If you put the Arab part to one side, the rest of the Muslim world is close to the rest of the world. The world’s largest Muslim country [Indonesia] is a democracy, as is what may be the second largest Muslim country, Bangladesh. One could give other examples. In the modern age, Islam is certainly functionally compatible with representative government.

Thank you very much, Dr. Marshall.