The Durban Review Conference held by the United Nations in Geneva last month featured peace offerings to radical Islam. Specifically, it provided a platform for the ignorant blustering of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and for an unsuccessful campaign by Saudi Arabia to criminalize critical expression about religion. Although Ahmadinejad framed his denunciations as castigation of all the world’s ruling elite, his favored target was Israel. And while the Saudi campaign against “defamation of prophets” is phrased as a defense of all the monotheistic religions, it is clear the effort, which will doubtless be ongoing, is intended to suppress discussion of extremism and other problematical aspects of contemporary Islam. The Geneva meeting also enabled the dictatorships of Libya and Cuba, along with that of Iran, to usurp presumptive responsibility for the global defense of human rights.
Some might leap to the assumption that the UN, and especially its Western European members, take such a position out of weakness in the face of an expansive and aggressive Islam. But UN pusillanimity when facing tyrannical arrogance is nothing new and did not begin with Islamic issues, notwithstanding the powerful influence in the world body of the Arab and other Muslim energy states. The UN in Geneva has faithfully maintained the syndrome observed in its predecessor, the League of Nations; both were created to secure peace, rather than freedom. This reflects a dissonance between Europe, which historically favored peace over freedom, and America, which has supported freedom over peace.
The American-European contradiction over freedom and peace has remained an unchanging paradigm, reflected in the failure of the League of Nations through appeasement of the fascist dictators, and the many and various misadventures of the UN. In the name of peace, rather than the freedom of an elected liberal government, the League of Nations imposed a naval embargo on the Spanish Republic, contributing to its defeat in that country’s civil war. A desire for peace caused the French to surrender to the Germans. Love of peace drove the Dutch to provide the largest number of foreign volunteers to the Waffen-SS and hand over to Hitler’s minions the biggest national percentage of Western European Jews to die in the Holocaust. For the same reasons, Stalin was allowed to occupy half of Europe and granted three seats in the UN. As described in Geneva last month by my journalistic colleague, Khaled Abu Toameh, the UN and the European leaders of the so-called “international community,” by financing the corrupt Palestinian Authority, imposed a “peace agreement” on Israelis and Arabs that has failed to secure freedom for either nation. But the evils of the UN in the Israeli-Arab chapter of Middle East history are old news. Everybody has heard of “war crimes” - but “peace crimes” can be more devastating, and more permanent.
The UN has refused to act on Tibet, denying any assistance to a people demanding freedom from Chinese imperialism. During the Bosnian war of 1992-95, the Europeans and the UN reproduced exactly their attitudes toward the American and Spanish civil wars - they succeeded, in the interest of peace, in continuing the partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina and maintaining a mafia state, the so-called “Republika Srpska.” Today, the Europeans and the UN appear to be scheming to help the Serbs slice off a “republic” in northern Kosovo. When the U.S. acted to assist the Bosnians and Kosovars, we did so without UN help. Ex-Yugoslav war criminals are tried and judged, with an absence of irony, by their competitors, the UN “peace criminals.” Rejected in its attempt to prevent the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq, the UN then let itself be driven out of free Baghdad by terrorism. Most recently Germany and France, by denying NATO accession to Georgia and Ukraine, became effectively complicit in the Russian aggression in the Caucasus last year - in many ways a mere replay of the Serbian assault that began in the Balkans 18 years ago.
In the controversy over Islamist attempts to limit criticism in and of religion - a debate over the right to debate - the most significant issue is that of repression of heterodox traditions and dissenting thought among Muslims. This involves protecting freedom, not “peace between religions” as dictated by Iranian or Saudi misrulers. Finally, in reviewing this history, one is impelled to ask how much of the life of Lincoln, and the history of the Civil War, President Barack Obama, portrayed in media as a great Lincolnian, really knows. Lincoln prosecuted war against the enemies of freedom, while Obama extends his hand to Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez, and other tyrants. Obama is, of course, as much or more an object of devotion in Europe than in our own country, and seems intent on shifting American policy in a European direction. Such a change would not have been appropriate a hundred and fifty years ago, and must be rejected today.
Indeed, this flaw in the UN’s objective has antecedents even before the League of Nations, which was founded in the aftermath of, and ostensibly to prevent a return of, the horrors of the first world war. Beginning in the 19th century, America took a firm stand for the advance of liberty in the world, even if the status quo must change, while Europe cleaved to the established order in the name of concord between states. Today’s American isolationists cite selectively from our political canon to assert, in distortion of the record, that the United States always avoided “foreign entanglements,” but real history shows otherwise.
One of the most striking expressions of a traditional American commitment to freedom across the globe came in 1848 with the upsurge of revolutionary democracy in Europe. The Hungarian patriot Lajos Kossuth (1802-94) became the idol of freedom-fighters everywhere by defying the Habsburg regime in 1849, and proclaiming the independence of his nation, along with the equality of all ethnic communities within its borders, as well as Jewish emancipation. But tsarist Russia intervened to rescue the Habsburgs, crushing the Hungarian national movement, in anticipation of the similar Soviet invasion 107 years later. Kossuth fled into Ottoman territory, where he remained until 1851 when he was taken aboard the American naval steamship Mississippi, to convey him to New York. France and Britain were both disapproving of the charismatic Magyar, but Kossuth left the ship for a visit to Britain, before proceeding in another vessel to the U.S. Wherever he went, he was greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds, but nothing could outdo his arrival in New York. Prior to his coming, America had ardently welcomed Lafayette, a veteran of our Revolution, in 1824. But when Kossuth landed in Manhattan, hundreds of thousands of Americans assembled to honor him. Horace Greeley, the leading American journalist of his time, wrote, Kossuth “is here to arouse us to a consciousness of our national position and the responsibilities it involves.”
William Henry Seward (1801-72), then a U.S. Senator from New York, and a prominent reformer, expressed himself more bluntly, in an idiom of considerable relevance today. Speaking for a Senate resolution honoring the Hungarian, Seward declared that if Kossuth were not to enjoy the undiluted support of American political institutions, “The effect would be to discourage the friends of freedom throughout the world to encourage the advocates of oppression throughout Europe in their efforts to prevent the transition of the nations of that continent from under the system of force to the voluntary system of government which we have established and commended to their adoption [W]e see the nations of Europe struggling to throw off their despotic systems of government and to establish governments on the principle of republicanism or of constitutional monarchy [D]espotism is a common cause, and it results also that the cause of constitutional liberty is also a common cause - the cause of mankind against despotism.”
Noting that Kossuth had done nothing to serve narrow American interests, Seward asked, “do we honor only those, do we reward only those who confer benefits upon us? Certainly not. We honor those who serve the common cause of civil liberty throughout the world. That cause is our cause.” On that occasion, Seward also recalled the European volunteers who had served in the American Revolution, including Lafayette, and who had, according to the New York Senator, “created a debt which, while we cannot pay to the illustrious dead, we can discharge toward the illustrious living.” Finally, he called on the shade of Benjamin Franklin in his own, and Kossuth’s support. Warned that American acclaim for Kossuth could lead to the U.S. intervening in Europe, Seward pointed out that Russia had initiated foreign intervention in Hungary, and that the U.S. position was intended to “rebuke and prevent such intervention hereafter.”
The Senate resolution in favor of Kossuth passed. Seward identified himself as “a lover of peace” but averred that “a nation may do for the cause of liberty in other nations whatever the laws of nations do not forbid.” He thus anticipated the problem of American devotion to freedom vs. European and UN adoration of peace. For while the U.S. has, in the succeeding century and a half, sought to advance freedom everywhere, the UN would allow new prohibitions under the law of nations - exemplified by the Saudi and other Islamist states’ campaign for a ban on so-called “defamation of religion.”
Seven years later, in 1858, Seward delivered his most famous address, known as “The Irrepressible Conflict,” in which he anticipated the outbreak of the American Civil War. Considering the terrible possibility that the slavery could be imposed on the entire republic, Seward warned, “I should not remain in the country to test the sad experiment. Having spent my manhood, though not my whole life, in a free State, no aristocracy of any kind, much less an aristocracy of slaveholders, shall ever make the laws of the land in which I shall be content to live I shall never be a denizen of a State where men and women are reared as cattle, and bought and sold as merchandise. When that evil day shall come, and all further effort at resistance shall be impossible, then, if there shall be no better hope for redemption than I can now foresee, I shall say with Franklin, while looking abroad over the whole earth for a new and more congenial home, ‘Where liberty dwells, there is my country.’ ”
When the Civil War began, the European powers vividly demonstrated their character. Britain and France called for peace between the Union and Confederacy, with the two armies to be halted in place and the slavery question left unresolved. Seward, who had been a founder of the Republican party and became Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, was not intimidated by rumors that the European powers would enter the war on the Southern side. He even argued to Lincoln that if the Europeans did not cease their flirtations with the Confederacy, the Union should prepare a declaration of war against them, which should unite American northerners and southerners against foreign meddling. Lincoln considered Seward’s proposal extreme, and rejected it - but kept Seward in his cabinet post.
The legacy of Lincoln - and Seward, let it be said - must never be used to justify American acceptance of Europe’s habitual surrender in the name of peace.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz is Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, at www.islamicpluralism.org.