The requirements of civilization

Our media has not made Americans as familiar as we should be with the plight of Meriam Ibrahim, a Christian woman sentenced to death by the Sudanese government for “apostasy.”  Her “crime” was being Christian even though her largely unseen father was Muslim.  According to the Sudanese legal system, this nullified her marriage to American Daniel Wani, making her guilty of additional “crimes” due to the activities that resulted in the birth of her 2-year-old child… who got tossed into a dungeon right alongside her.  Ibrahim gave birth to another child while literally chained to a wall.  That’s the only reason she isn’t dead yet – the wise and compassionate judges decided that sharia law meant she had to be kept alive until she was finished nursing the new baby, at which point the whipping and hanging could commence.


After intense pressure from civil-rights organizations and the British government – but very little help from the Obama Administration, which is weird, because both of Ibrahim’s imprisoned children are as American as Barack Obama – the Sudanese decided to let Ibrahim go yesterday.

Then they arrested her again at the airport, using a black-bag “national security” squad that can hold people indefinitely without trial, and torture them if the mood strikes.

While we wait for the President to find his voice, I think it’s crucial to call this situation by its right name.  It is evil.  It is barbaric.

Even in the happy moment when it looked like Sudan would let Ibrahim and her family go, they weren’t renouncing their hideous apostasy laws.  The court merely decided that Ibrahim’s conviction was “faulty.”  They reserve the right to do the same damned thing to the next unfortunate non-Muslim who crosses their path.

That strikes me as a failure to meet the basic requirements of civilization.  Civilization is a test, you see, and it’s not an easy one.  Religious freedom is a mandatory question on the test, and there is only one correct answer.

The American Constitution and Bill of Rights are an excellent study guide for the test of civilization.  I don’t mean that as national chauvinism, because I cannot honestly say that America is currently acing the test.  We’re not killing people for apostasy, but our appreciation for religious freedom has been corrupted and diminished.  You might say we don’t have to worry about apostasy prosecutions because we don’t have an official State religion.  I say the State is a religion now, and it clearly will not tolerate any other gods before it.


Freedom of religion is essential because it defines both the limits and duties of a just and lawful government.  It’s a limit, because the government is prohibited from enforcing a chosen theology.  But it’s also a duty, because the government doesn’t allow gangs of theocrats to conduct freelance oppression of unbelievers and apostates.  A great and vibrant world of liberty lies within the concept of such a transcendent imperative, imposing both limits and duties upon the State.

There is good reason for the First Amendment to come first, because in three swift strokes, it prevents the State from controlling religious faith, free speech… or politics:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

God, Man, and Mankind are all superior to the State.  What we believe, what we say, and the way we assemble to nourish words into action are beyond the dominion of government.  That’s powerful stuff.  You could extrapolate much of the rest of the Bill of Rights from that First Amendment, by pondering it at length.  You can extrapolate civilization from it.

Without the protections of the First Amendment, the fate of man is either tyranny or anarchy – in either case, a world in which your “rights” are doled out at the whim of others, subject to change without notice.  Mankind was wrong to assume that the institution of mighty governments was the antidote to barbarism.  That delusion cost us dearly.  Governments can be both highly organized and utterly barbaric.  Both attributes are required to carry out a successful pogrom or genocide.


Thrones do not guarantee civilization, nor do courts, or armies.  The essential ingredient, the absolute minimum requirement, is the formal recognition of an authority above and beyond any ruler, whether he comes to power through hereditary monarchy or popular acclaim.  And from that authority comes the universal freedom and dignity of every individual, a light that cannot be snuffed by any official, or even dimmed by the hands of the people themselves.  A free man cannot be taken as a slave… or voluntarily sell himself into slavery, for any price.  A bedrock principle like freedom of religion or expression applies to everyone in equal measure, or it is a sham.

It’s easy enough to perceive the absence of civilization in the grim spectacle of a pregnant woman giving birth while chained to a wall, all because she professes the “wrong” religion, and refuses to recant.  I see it also in the silence of everyone who has the power to help her, but will not step forward.  I see it in a government that feels no great sense of duty to its citizens, unless there’s some immediate political gain from helping them out.  A weak civilization isn’t much better than barbarism – it’s just a matter of time before it collapses anyway.  As I said, this is not an easy test, and the grading curve is brutal.



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