I'VE NEVER been in direct communication with the president of the United States, but on one occasion 3 1/2 decades ago I tried the indirect route, with indifferent results. At the time, I thought the president needed to make one thing perfectly clear. He didn't, but I'm still hoping -- in view of the gulf war and related current events -- that someone in high office will do so.
President Eisenhower, with Mamie, the first lady, had entered the just-completed Washington Mosque. At the dedication ceremony, they stood in stockinged feet as Sheik Abdullah al-Khayyal pointed out architectural details of the new edifice. It was all very impressive, and especially so were the president's formal remarks. He said that "under the American Constitution, under the American tradition and in American hearts, this center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion." Like the country's first president, George Washington, Eisenhower vowed to give to bigotry no sanction and observed that "America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have your own church and worship according to your own conscience."
The question I raised, in an open letter appearing in the public press, concerned the application of the Golden Rule. That foundation stone of civilization calls for doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. When Eisenhower spoke at the Islamic center in America's capital city, no Moslem heads of state were attending dedication ceremonies for churches, synagogues or other shrines or centers of alien religions in their countries. Indeed, the very existence of such non-Islamic institutions was precarious and generally required to be covert at best. Islam was, officially, the one true religion, and open manifestations of deviance from established doctrine could lead one's death at the hands of the state or unrestrained mobs.
In my innocence, I asked whether Eisenhower and his constituents had to "remain silent and acquiescent when our citizens in other lands suffer religious discrimination." America's air base at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, was then operating under a recently renewed five-year lease. It included provisions calling for the rigid exclusion of Jewish servicemen; Christians at the base were required to be very circumspect in the practice of their faith. Such provisions flew in the face of a 1956 Senate resolution -- prompted by the Dhahran air base situation -- which had called for the reaffirmation of the principle that "there shall be no distinction among U.S. citizens based on their individual religious affiliations whether at home or abroad," and new -- but toothless -- congressional resolutions of protest were being introduced.
Air base or other military or diplomatic cooperation pacts aside, the human rights and religious liberty record of Arab and Islamic states remains generally atrocious. This glaring fact should not be obscured by the voices of punditry in the U.S. and abroad BTC parroting the line that the West simply does not "understand" Islam.
What needs to be "understood" is the brotherhood of man. Brave souls in the Islamic world have opposed the prevailing tyranny, citing sacred texts mandating tolerance. But dissenters are regularly killed, silenced or forced into exile.
Recent reports out of London concerned a ludicrous effort by "moderates" to save author Salman Rushdie from officially ordered assassination. Hesham el-Essawy, president of the Islamic Society for the Promotion of Religious Tolerance, met with the hunted author at a "secure location" and then announced a life-saving strategy: The lynch mobs of the ayatollahs would relent on the basis of Rushdie's recantation of unpalatable views and disavowal of blasphemous intentions, and his agreement to suppress his novel, "The Satanic Verses."
Absolutely nothing doing, the ayatollahs replied.
In any case, Rushdie's desperate maneuver was attempted in circumstances like those of the captured American pilots forced to mouth words from Saddam Hussein's script in front of TV cameras. Even if Islam's current rulers were to recognize Rushdie's "right to exist" as a born-again Moslem, religious liberty would remain defeated by this travesty.
In every country in the world there are yahoos, bigots and power-mad or bumbling public officials.
Some here in the U.S. have come out of the woodwork in the wake of the gulf crisis. Arab-Americans have been threatened and abused by local vigilantes. A leading airline and the FBI have resorted to Keystone Kop tactics to dispel the specter of terrorism. But in Washington there remains the imposing mosque which the president and first lady helped to dedicate. We can be proud of this even as we deplore -- or ought to deplore -- the lack of reciprocity in today's world. Let's face it: Operation Pussyfoot -- the groveling appeasement of international religious tyranny -- will accomplish nothing.
Stan Lichtenstein writes from Bethesda.