Do Americans believe in natural rights? Do they hold that all men are created equal—in the sight of God, but obviously not in terms of talent, application, industry or zest—and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights? Then what on Earth is the puzzle about the sudden outburst of huge throngs demanding respect for their rights throughout the Middle East? It seems to me that we went through this argument before the second Iraq war, in early 2003.
The stated premise was that throughout the Middle East millions of young males—especially the males—had very little to live for: dismal prospects for employment; almost no hope of getting respect from the national police, the intelligence services and the religious police; and only slim hopes for marriage in a polygamous culture in which the powerful might have three or four wives while the powerless have none.
Life for women under extremist authorities is, of course, even more severe than for men. Yet it is in almost all societies the restless young men who are the tinderboxes of violence. The liberation of women may have been a more noble motive for going to war, but the diversion of the energies of young males from sheer destruction into creative pursuits—into the rule of law, respect for individual rights, and prosperity—was the underlying one.
The rising extremist ideology of the region offered nothing hopeful, neither prosperity nor basic human respect nor greater personal liberty (to the contrary, far less). The revolution promised by the small but potent faction of radical Islamists was rather destructionist. It sought only to destroy the rivals of Islam.
To argue that the Middle East has experienced such oppression for centuries, and its people would for many future centuries passively accept it, was contrary to every basic tenet of the founding philosophy of the United States—the philosophy of natural rights and natural law.
Nearly a hundred years ago, the great Cambridge historian of liberty, Lord Acton, observed that the hunger for liberty was not equally distributed throughout the human race. The rise of institutions of liberty (personal, civic, national and international) was in point of fact "coincident" with the rise of Christianity and Judaism.
Every story in the Bible, Hebrew and Christian, is the story of a choice to be made freely in the often hidden will of each individual. From Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden choosing whether or not to pick and eat of the apple on the one tree reserved to God, to King David choosing in one chapter to be faithful to his Lord, and in another not to be, the suspense in every book of the Bible is: What will the individual choose next? In other words, in the mind of the Creator, the arena that matters is within the human will. Lord Acton used his own metaphor: The pursuit of liberty is the golden thread that ties together all human history.
It may be that countries steeped in Judaism and Christianity were the first to feel the imperatives of liberty beating heavily against their chests. But their human nature and natural rights and relation as creature to Creator was not theirs alone. They belong to all human creatures. There is one Creator of all humans in all past and future time. Christianity may have been, in particular, the first global religion, its imperative being: "Go, teach all nations." Not just one people, but all peoples. But an analogous imperative informs Judaism: There is but one Creator of all things and all peoples.
James Madison, the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution and father of our Bill of Rights, defined religion as "the duty we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it," which "can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence." This duty is inalienable—no one else can fulfill it, not one's family nor civil society nor state—and grounded in the singular conscience of each individual. In that duty is the basis of individual human rights.
Six years ago, when I first wrote of the "universal hunger for liberty"—deeply implanted in every single human being by the Creator, like a seed awaiting favorable environmental conditions for its flowering—I had in mind especially the slumbering yet restless desire for liberty in the Muslim world. I did not doubt for an instant that one-sixth of the human race would one day be awakened, even with an awful suddenness.
It may be that this is what we are seeing today, if only in a promissory note to be fully cashed in years to come. A rebellion against a cruel dictator is not the same long step as a choice for a polity of law and rights; it is only a step.
Yet it took the Jewish and Christian worlds centuries to begin cashing in their own longings for liberty. And so also it took the consciences of nonbelievers from the slave society of Aristotle and Plato until the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The universal hunger for liberty is not satisfied in any one generation, or in all the generations put together. It is an unlimited desire.
But now let us rejoice that in our time we have lived to see one of liberty's most fertile and widespread explosions. Islam, a religion of rewards and punishments, is—like Christianity and Judaism—a religion of liberty. History will bear this out.
Mr. Novak is the author of "The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable" (Basic Books, paperback, 2006).
Published in the Wall Street Journal March 4, 2011