Apparently, it’s not only politics that make strange bedfellows, but religion (and the struggle against it) which does as well. That’s a lesson brought home by the unlikely triumvirate of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, Yemen’s President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The first two men, Islamist leaders who rose to power in the Arab Spring, each spoke at the United Nation in support of laws that limited expression when it is “directed toward one specific religion or cult” in the words of Morsi, or when it “blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures,” in the words of Hadi. In other words, when the ideas include opinions they find offensive, those ideas should not be expressed.
Those views are also entirely consistent with what I have heard in my own conversations about freedom of expression with Islamist thinkers and journalists, especially among members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. For them freedom of expression is limited to that which does not violate their particular beliefs.
Most interesting however, is how that same approach to freedom of expression can be found right here at home, and not only among Islamists, but among aggressive secularists, including the folks at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. While they probably wouldn’t like being lumped together, they too are demonstrating how little respect they have for genuine freedom of conscience and speech.
The foundation is suing not one, but two school districts in Pennsylvania over displays of the Ten Commandments on school grounds. There are certainly potential problems with such displays, and there is no doubt that plenty of religionists lack appropriate sensitivity to either the needs of their secular neighbors or the limits on public displays of religion as laid out in the U.S. Constitution. So were that all the foundation were suing over, I might disagree with them, but would not be comparing them to the leaders of Egypt and Yemen.
Unfortunately, and foolishly, the foundation leaped right past the zealous defense of their own position, and chose to pursue the suppression of others’ views and their right to express them. Not only is the foundation suing for the removal of the displays from school grounds, they are suing to block a local church from hosting the displays on their grounds. Why? Because the church is next to some school athletic fields and might be seen by students!
In other words, very much like the laws proposed by leading Islamists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation seems to believe that people must be protected from ideas which the foundation finds objectionable. The legitimate fight to secure their own rights has become the fight to strip others of theirs. If that doesn’t sound like what’s happening all over the Middle East, what does?
The similarity is clear. It’s a similarity grounded not in the protection of free expression for all, but about limiting the expression of ideas because some people find them distasteful.
The test of any movement or cause which associates itself with freedom, whether in the Middle East or the Unites States, is how hard its proponents will fight, not only for their own freedom or the freedom of those ideas with which they agree, but how hard they will fight to protect the freedom of other people, and those ideas with which they disagree. And this week, it looks like lots of folks should be getting failing grades on that test.