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Clichéd views of threats don’t help us

February 9, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Robert Hanssen: family man, devout Catholic and spy for Russia.

By Peter McDermott

The rhetorical term “Judeo-Christian values” might have served some unifying purpose when almost all Americans defined themselves as Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, even if it couldn’t quite explain the long history of discrimination against the latter two groups.

These days, however, when conservatives say that this is a Judeo-Christian nation, the not-so-hidden subtext seems to be: not Muslim, not Buddhist, not Hindu, not Sikh, and, notwithstanding the views of some of the Founding Fathers, not agnostic or atheist either. Not one of us.

Against that, though, Muslims can point out that theirs is one of the Abrahamic religions. Sikhs, too, are monotheistic, while Hindus and Buddhists can reasonably claim that the basic ethical values of all faiths are the same.

Of course, how the laws of the sacred texts are applied, and for what purposes, is another thing entirely. And they are applied very differently from continent to continent and nation to nation, and differently over time.

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Scholar Noah Feldman, the author of “The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State,” argues that Muslims have been increasingly attracted to Sharia law because they believe it will provide them with political and legal justice and be a bulwark against authoritarianism. Feldman has written: “To many, the word ‘Shariah’ conjures horrors of hands cut off, adulterers stoned and women oppressed. By contrast, who today remembers that the much-loved English common law called for execution as punishment for hundreds of crimes, including theft of any object worth five shillings or more? How many know that until the 18th century, the laws of most European countries authorized torture as an official component of the criminal-justice system? As for sexism, the common law long denied married women any property rights or indeed legal personality apart from their husbands. When the British applied their law to Muslims in place of Shariah, as they did in some colonies, the result was to strip married women of the property that Islamic law had always granted them – hardly progress toward equality of the sexes.”

Such subtleties might be beyond those who — primed by the millionaire mediocrities of right-wing media — gathered in recent times at Ground Zero with signs that made the letters of “sharia” look at if they were dripping with blood. Just as it’s likely pointless to add that there were 4,733 documented cases of lynching in this country between 1882 and 1959 and that attempts to legally protect African-Americans with federal laws were blocked during that time by white southerners in the U.S. Congress.

The notion of “creeping sharia” is too much of a money-spinner for some to go away fast, just as was the “threat of domestic subversion” once upon a time. The Communist Party had an influence in the labor movement and the cultural life of America disproportionate to its small numbers, but, while slavishly loyal to the Soviet Union and in denial about its nature, it presented a negligible threat to democracy.  There were communist spies, certainly, but they weren’t generally hiding in plain sight as party members.

Anyone can be a spy if he or she has the information to sell or give away, just as anyone is free to choose an extreme or fundamentalist version of a religion – whether as a convert from another or not. We’re coming up to the 10th anniversary of the arrest of a man who somehow managed to illustrate both of those points perfectly. FBI Agent Robert Hanssen took large sums of money from the Soviet Union, even though he was a Lutheran convert to Catholicism, and had joined his wife and members of her family as a loyal adherent of the conservative Opus Dei, and sent his children to the controversial group’s expensive schools.

Hanssen, guilty in “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history,” apparently confessed his sins of espionage to Opus priests in the confessional; but his motives remain a mystery, as does the destination of the funds given him by Moscow through the turn of the millennium.

Founded in Spain in 1928, its members became politically prominent during the four-decade dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, whose many claims to infamy include the mass murder of captured prisoners of war.

There was little daylight between Franco’s view of the world and that of Msgr. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, Opus Dei’s founder who was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002 and remains the most recently deceased saint of the church.

They both believed in a Catholic state working hand in glove with the church. We get a flavor of this in a 2000 essay, “2030: Looking Backward,” written by the Rev. C. John McCloskey III, a leading Opus Dei priest, who is based in Washington D.C. In what can be best described as a piece of speculative fiction an elderly priest reflects on the recent breakup on the United States and the emergence of the Regional States of North America. “The outcome was by no means an ideal solution but it does allow Christians to live in states that recognize the natural law and divine Revelation, the right of free practice of religion, and laws on marriage, family, and life that reflect the primacy of our Faith.”

Of course, only the really gullible fans of “The Da Vinci Code” regard Opus Dei as any kind of threat. The point is that McCloskey’s is the more traditional model of the church/state relationship. Just as some ultra-orthodox Jews view the state of Israel as an abomination, there are Catholics who’ve never been comfortable with religious pluralism and the secular republic.

And yet when Hanssen was unmasked and disgraced on Feb. 18, 2001, the media simply couldn’t get their collective heads around the notion of a disloyal Catholic. Reviled as Papist outsiders before the Civil War, Catholics were considered to be model patriots by the time of World War II. It helped later that America was involved in a crusade against the menace of godless communism.

That led to the alcoholic, grandstanding super-patriot Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the phenomenon that took his name, which put a severe dent in this country’s reputation for decency. Furthermore, the witch-hunts he helped inspire weakened those who agreed with General Douglas McArthur and JFK that a ground war couldn’t be won in Southeast Asia.

But crusades are sometimes fought for ideological — and electoral — reasons that have nothing to do with defeating the actual threat and they also tend to minimize other dangers. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover obsessively pursued those he deemed subversive, for example, while the Mafia was largely left alone.

These days, radical forms of Islam pose the greatest threat. Americans became fully aware of the danger with the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Then along came Timothy McVeigh, a baptized Catholic veteran of a foreign war with far-right views that presaged some of the loonier Tea Partiers.

We are being regularly surprised now by gunmen emerging from the shadows and inflicting mayhem and murder.  And yet there are elements in our society who only get worked up when the perpetrator is foreign or perceived as such. Hence the campaign to have the mentally unbalanced Fort Hood shooter classified as a terrorist, though he had no contact with groups internationally. Meanwhile, to the same people, the Tucson assassin who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head is merely deranged.

There are those in Washington DC who have prioritized the threat of radical Islam inside the United States. They will no doubt expose and confront language that is ambivalent about the use of violence. But if these politicians are to have any credibility they must also condemn those who talk about “Second Amendment remedies” to our problems.

This op-ed appeared in the Feb. 2, 2010, issue of the Irish Echo.

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