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Finding the Koran's Truth

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By Kevin J. Hasson
Thursday, December 27, 2001; Page A23

In the continuing debate over Islam and pluralism, a growing number of observers are staking out a disturbing position. Face the facts, they say: The war against terrorism is only one part of a larger struggle, in which the forces of freedom are arrayed against all those who believe in an absolute truth.

Osama bin Laden couldn't agree more. And both he and they are wrong.

Former president Clinton teed up the point in a recent speech at Georgetown University. "This battle," he said, "fundamentally is about what you think of the nature of truth." So just what does Bill Clinton think of the nature of truth? That it can't be known with any certainty. "Nobody's got the truth," he says. Everybody is just "trying to get closer" to it. That's the big difference between us and them: "Because we don't believe you can have the whole truth, we think everybody counts and life is a journey. . . They believe because they have the truth you either share their truths or you don't. If you're not a Muslim, you're an infidel. If you are and you don't agree with them, you're a heretic and you're a legitimate target." Only uncertainty, in other words, can save us from the killing fields.

Andrew Sullivan warns, "in a world of absolute truth . . . there is no room for dissent." And the only way to reconcile Islam and pluralism, amens Thomas Friedman, is for Islam to affirm "that God speaks multiple languages and is not exhausted by just one faith." The only good religion is a relativist one.

Now, Clinton and company would no doubt be horrified to discover that they agree with the Taliban on anything so fundamental as the nature of truth and freedom, but they do. Both assume truth and freedom are irreconcilable opposites. The difference is that the Taliban happily sacrifices freedom for truth, while Clinton and the others obligingly sacrifice truth for freedom. Both agree, however, that you are either a truth-owning jihadi or a freedom-loving relativist. Choose your corner, and come out swinging.

For much of its history, Catholic thought included a similar notion: the idea that error has no rights. Today, as Pope John Paul II puts it, the church recognizes "religious freedom as an inviolable right of the human person."

What happened? Has the pope been reading Andrew Sullivan and become a relativist? No, the pope has been reading (actually he helped write) Vatican II.

The Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, refused to divorce truth and freedom. Instead it grounded freedom in a great truth: that we humans come with a built-in thirst for transcendence, an innate desire to seek and embrace an ultimate truth that lies far beyond the horizon of ourselves. Truth is knowable (John Paul, for one, has no doubts about who God is), but it can only be embraced authentically when it is embraced freely. The truth about man is that man is born to seek freely the truth about God.

It is this truth -- and not some metaphysic of doubt -- that bestows on us the dignity that guarantees our freedom. While error may have no rights, erring people truly do.

Vatican II's formulation of religious freedom seems to me to be inspired in more ways than one (though I'd defend your freedom to disagree.) It proceeds from a premise that both believers and nonbelievers alike can readily grant. And it makes freedom an inviolable human right precisely because it follows from an unchanging truth about humanity.

In many ways, Islam in America today is where Catholicism in America was just over 50 years ago: thriving under a regime of religious freedom without quite knowing why theologically it dares to do so. That experience prompted Catholics to reflect more deeply on the relation of freedom to truth; it contributed directly to Vatican II.

I cannot help wondering whether the lived American experience, posing as it does similar theological quandaries for Islam now, as it did for Catholicism then, will not occasion a similar conversation within Islam. Serious Muslim friends tell me that the Koran provides a basis for them to affirm the human dignity of every person, just as Genesis (all are made in the image and likeness of God) does for Jews and Christians.

If they are right, the solution to reconciling Islam with pluralism lies not in lecturing Muslims about the supposed virtues of relativism but in helping find within the Koran the absolute truth of human dignity.

The writer is president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonpartisan, interfaith public interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions.

2001 The Washington Post Company