Friday, September 28, 2012

Arab leaders believe in free speech, except when they don’t

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President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt
Pres. Mohamed Morsi of Egypt

President Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday and delivered an unequivocal (if only slightly hypocritical) defense of free speech in the wake of the notorious anti-Muslim video that (among other factors) sparked continued violence throughout the Islamic world. His argument was simple and clear: However heinous and gratuitous certain forms of expression may be, it’s imperative that they be protected under the law in order to preserve true liberty for everyone – or, to paraphrase, that hurt feelings are no good reason for stripping someone else’s freedom, even if they’re a total jackass.

Of course, not everyone shares this belief that people shouldn’t have to fear imprisonment for saying things that others don’t like. Enter the newly elected leaders of Egypt and Yemen, both borne from the Arab Spring protests, who are part of the worrying international chorus that seeks to ban certain kinds of speech under the pretense of shielding people’s precious religious sensibilities:

[Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi flatly rejected Obama’s broad defense of free speech at the U.N. a day earlier, saying that “Egypt respects freedom of expression, freedom of expression that is not used to incite hatred against anyone."

“We expect from others, as they expect from us, that they respect our cultural specifics and religious references, and not to seek to impose concepts or cultures that are unacceptable to us," said Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

On Tuesday, Obama laid out a lengthy defense of the right of free speech as a universal value. But Morsi and other leaders signaled that such a right could only go so far.

So, in other words, Morsi doesn’t “respect freedom of expression”, at least not when it makes some people clutch at their pearls. And what’s with that nonsense about “impos[ing] concepts or cultures” on anyone? President Obama’s speech was hardly an attempt to force other nations to adopt the United States’s approach to free speech protections, but rather a declaration of a universal standard that others ought to try to emulate if they actually do give a damn about freedom. Evidently, it’s only too obvious that most of them don’t, especially those who try to spin their calls for censorship into an ode to free expression.

President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi of Yemen
Pres. Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi of Yemen

And the Yemeni President is just as bad:

President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi of Yemen opened his speech on Wednesday by demanding curbs on freedom of speech that insults religion.

“These behaviors find people who defend them under the justification of the freedom of expression," he said. “These people overlook the fact that there should be limits for the freedom of expression, especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures."

No. No, no, no and fucking no. Stop treating religion like some sacred cow; it produces enough of its own as it is. Religion is merely another topic of conversation, and it is no more immune to criticism than are politics, sports, or the quality of daytime TV programming. The fact that someone believes in one form of archaic dogma or another does not make them, or their beliefs, worthy of deference. Respect is never a given; it can only be earned, and there is absolutely nothing about religion that is worthy of any kind of respect whatsoever. The fact that some people may be inspired by their faith to do good makes them worthy of kudos, not whatever superstitious claptrap they believe in.

Look, I understand the graveness of the situation, when people are being hurt and killed purportedly as a result of some fetid slab of brainless propaganda that some lying asshole put on the Internet. And as a pragmatic utilitarian, I fully accept that some ideals must sometimes be compromised in order to achieve any kind of actual progress (for example, why I support half-measures like civil unions for same-sex couples when the ideal like actual gay marriage just isn’t yet feasible). But there is always a line, even if it’s more or less evident in the muck of realpolitik. And there is no more frighteningly clear a lesson taught to us by history than the danger posed by starting down the path of restricting people’s most fundamental civil or human rights in the name of security, no matter how benign one’s intentions may be. It simply never leads to anywhere favorable.

Blasphemy is a human right. One would think that the first-ever democratically elected leaders of nations that are perpetually ridden with religious strife would be in a better position than virtually anyone else to understand that.

(via @rdfrs)