Freedom of Religion: The Parable of the Bell Tower


“Freedom of religion is not just one right among many. It is, in the words of the Islamic scholar John Kelsay, ‘the mother of all rights.’” — David F. Forte, “The Mother of All Rights,” National Review Online, December 6, 2001.


Once upon a time in the mountains of Transpolitania, there was a little village inhabited entirely by Christians. The village had existed for many centuries, and for as long as anyone could remember, everyone who had ever lived in the village had been Christian.

In the middle of the village was a church, and in the church was a tower, and in the tower was a bell. The people of the village rang this bell several times a day. On feast days, they rang it even more. Everyone in the village could hear the bell, but nobody ever complained about it because the bell had always been a part of their life and no one could imagine life without it.

Then one day a family of Muslims from the other side of the mountain moved into the village. During the day, the older members of the family earned money doing odd jobs around the village. As Muslims they were required to pray five times a day, so to remind them of this obligation, the family patriarch built a little minaret next to his house, and five times a day he would climb up into his minaret and sing out the call to prayer in the Muslim fashion, so that his whole family could hear him wherever they were in the village.

The Christians in the village were shocked and alarmed. The Muslim call to prayer sounded strange to them and made it seem that they were living in a Muslim village. They didn’t want to live in a Muslim village, so the elders of the village went to the Muslim patriarch and told him to stop. He refused, saying, “Freedom of religion is the mother of all freedoms and the father of all rights. As long as I must listen to your bells, you must listen to my singing.”

The elders were taken aback by this talk of freedom and rights. Here was this newcomer, who had partaken of their hospitality, telling them what they must permit and how they must live. Not knowing what to do, they left and met later to talk it over among themselves.

At the meeting, one of the elders said, “I think the Muslim has a point. The freedom to practice our religion is certainly the most important freedom we have. We certainly wouldn’t want anyone to stop us from ringing our bell. We’ll just have to live with his singing. Fair is fair.”

Then a second elder said, “I, too, think the Muslim has a point. The freedom to practice our religion is certainly the most important freedom we have. But he has no right to force his religion on us by his singing. We’ll just have to give up ringing our bell so we can then tell him to stop his singing. Fair is fair.”

Then a third elder stood up and said, “I, also, think the Muslim has a point. The freedom to practice our religion is certainly the most important freedom we have. But if we stop ringing our bell, we will have given up part of that freedom. And if we allow him to continue singing, more Muslims might move here and someday outnumber us. Then they will tell us to stop ringing our bell because this is now a Muslim village. We’ll just have to tell the Muslim that his family will have to go back to their home on the other side of the mountain. That way they can freely practice their religion and we can freely practice our. Fair is fair.”

These last pleased the elders most, so they returned to the Muslim and told him regretfully that he and his family about have to leave. The Muslim packed up his family and left. It was a sad day. The Muslims were sorry to leave, and the Christians were sorry to have to send them away. But fair is fair.

Then, lo, the Lord High Representative of the province heard what had happened, how Christians had made Muslims leave the village. So he sent a troop of dragoons to the village to arrest the elders for the high crime of ethnic cleansing. Then he sent more dragoons to bring back the Muslim family from the other side of the mountain and give them their old house, after kicking out the Christian family that had settled there. Lastly, he posted dragoons in the village permanently to ensure the Muslim’s right to freely practice his religion forever.

And when the people of the village asked the Lord High Representative why he had done these things, he answered them, saying, “My freedom to mother is the minaret of all religions and the business of all dragoons. There, there.”

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