Jul 9th 2015

Good People, Bad Judgments

NEW YORK – Vidkun Quisling, Norway’s wartime fascist leader whose name has become synonymous with collaboration with evil, lived with his wife in a rather grandiose villa outside of Oslo. That villa is now the Norwegian Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, a fine transformation of a tainted place.

Earlier this year, I visited the center for a fascinating exhibition on the first independent Norwegian constitution promulgated in 1814. It was a remarkably enlightened and progressive document, composed by learned scholars, steeped in history, law, and philosophy. Some were experts on the Greek classics, others on ancient Hebrew; all were keen readers of Kant and Voltaire.

There is, however, one extraordinary clause: Article II proclaims freedom of religion in the Lutheran state, with the caveat that “Jews shall still be banned from entering the Realm.” This was peculiar, even at the time. Napoleon, defeated in that same year, had secured civil rights for Jews in the countries he had conquered. And just before the clause entered Norwegian law, the King of Denmark had granted citizenship to Jews in his realm.

What is most interesting about Norway’s 1814 constitution is not that it contains this clause, but why. The stated motives of the intellectuals who created it were not racist; they did not assume Jews to be biologically inferior. Rather, the question was argued in terms of culture and faith, with Jewish beliefs and customs deemed incompatible with modern, enlightened Western values.

One of the writers of the constitution, Frederik Motzfeldt, argued that Jews would never assimilate themselves with the people of any country. Another asserted that Judaism encourages its followers to deceive Christians and other Gentiles. Jews, it was believed, would always form a “state within a state.”

The constitution’s writers were undoubtedly aware that Jews had long been persecuted in other countries, but they concluded that it was not Norway’s problem. For Norway, it was best not to let them become citizens at all. Experts in Hebrew culture explained that Judaism and Norway’s constitution were irreconcilable. Mosaic law was, so the experts said, the only constitution recognized by Jews, and so it should be feared, in the way modern critics of Islam fear Sharia law.

So the main issue was religion, not race – though the two could easily be confused. As Håkon Harket, the greatest Norwegian scholar on the subject of the anti-Jewish clause, explains: “Even those who fought for civil rights for the Jews held often an ambition to liberate Jews from Judaism.”

The parallels with current notions about Muslims and Islam hardly need to be pointed out. Now, too, the Enlightenment is often invoked as shorthand for the Western values that are supposedly in danger of “Islamization.” Now, too, people warn of Muslim tricksters, states within states, the impossibility of assimilation, and the necessity for staunch secularists to free the benighted Muslims from their faith.

To be sure, in 1814, there was no Jewish equivalent of the violent Jihadism that poisons relations with Muslims in the West today. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned from the Norwegian constitution’s misguided anti-Jewish clause, which, it should be noted, was repealed just a few decades later. Bad judgment can arise even from decent motives, and knowledge (of Islam or of Judaism) is no prophylactic against stupid ideas.

The most important lesson, however, is that it is always foolish – and, indeed, dangerous – to judge people by what we think they believe. To assume that all Muslims think alike because of their religious background, that they have “a mind” rather than individual thoughts, is as big a mistake as to assume to know the minds of Jews, Christians, or anyone else. And to claim that something as diverse, and sometimes vague, as a religious faith can be pinned to a fixed ideological position, because of certain ancient texts, is utterly misleading.

There are populist demagogues in the West who would ban the Koran and prohibit Muslims from immigrating to their countries. They have a following, which might be growing, fueled by the widespread anxiety about terrorism spilling over from the Middle East. But they are not yet in the majority, and the belief that the West is in imminent danger of being “Arabized” or “Islamized” is not quite yet mainstream.

Yet even mainstream politicians, sometimes for the best of reasons, are in danger of making the same kinds of mistakes as the members of the 1814 Norwegian Constituent Assembly. British Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, is aiming to crack down on Islamist extremism by banning the expression of ideas that the government deems to be promoting or glorifying it. People who “reject our values” will be prosecuted, he has declared, “whether they are violent in their means or not.”

Cameron is not a known racist, or a bigot. He is attempting to tackle a real problem: the promotion of violent extremist ideologies. But, while people should certainly be punished for acts of violence, going after people purely for what they think – or, worse, what we think they think – has the air of a witch-hunt.

Cameron is right: “key values” like “democracy and tolerance” are fine things, and they ought to be defended. But it is hard to see how banning ideas, or penalizing those who do nothing more than express them, is the best way to do so.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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