Good for Google.
Yesterday, Egypt’s ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, released a stern condemnation of a low-budget, poorly produced attempt at religious satire uploaded to YouTube by a coward hiding behind an alias. The Muslim Brotherhood also expressed disapproval of the vicious retaliatory protests that have led to the murder of four American diplomats in Libya, including the U.S. Ambassador, encouraging somewhat ambiguously:
“All Muslims to uphold and apply Quranic principles and emulate the Messenger of Allah.”
I understand the Egyptian government’s frustration. Unfortunately, the Muslim Brotherhood’s proposed solution only exacerbates the underlying problem that is quickly coming to the forefront in Egypt and around the world:
“We denounce abuse of all Messengers of God, Prophets and Apostles, and condemn this heinous crime. We further call for criminalization of assaults on the sanctities of all heavenly religions.”
The solution proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood is the prohibition of criticism (which they define as “assaults on the sanctities of all heavenly religions”) of all religions. However, categorizing criticism of any religion as “abuse” and as “heinous crimes” is not a viable solution in a free society. In fact, it would only serve to resurrect the totalitarian suppression of freedom of thought and expression that they experienced under Hosni Mubarak.
All individuals – both those who express faith in various deities and those choosing to adhere to no religion – should have the freedom to debate, criticize, and yes, joke and satirize all forms of ideology, including economic, political, and yes, religious.
The United States of America is founded upon this fundamental principle – the freedom of expression – as well as the freedom to worship or not worship any god we so choose. Freedom of expression lies at the heart of any free society. To exempt religion from this free expression, and to demand that no religious figure ever be criticized, rejected, satirized, or even questioned is little more than an attempt to exploit this horrific tragedy – the murder of American diplomats by Islamic protestors resulting from their anger over an insulting film on YouTube – to elevate Islam to a state that stands above criticism.
As a scholar and a professor of religious studies, I reject any attempt to quell the critical inquiry of any religion, including Christianity and Islam. While the parody of a religious figure may be considered an insult to some and a foolish act in poor taste to others, the solution is never, ever violence coupled with a call for the criminalization of the critique of religion.
Simply put, truly free citizens of any state should have the freedom to practice and profess the religion of their choice, but should not have the power to criminalize those who do not profess their religious faith.
The statement released by the Islamic Brotherhood further stated:
“Certainly, such attacks against sanctities do not fall under the freedom of opinion or thought. They are crimes and assaults against Muslim sanctities, and must not be tolerated by the countries where they are produced or launched, since they are also detrimental to the interests of those countries in dealings with the peoples of the Muslim world.”
Evidently, the Muslim Brotherhood differentiates between freedom of thought and opinion regarding politics, economics, and perhaps where to eat dinner, and the freedom to critique, satirize, and even denounce certain religious beliefs and practices. This assumed privileged status of religion in Islamic countries is similar to the misguided assumption made by Christians in the United States. We must remember that there is a distinct difference between “religious persecution” and the challenging of the privileged status a particular religion enjoys in a given country, be it Christianity in the U.S. or Islam in Egypt.
The critique, ridicule, or rejection of a religious belief or ideology is no different than the critique, ridicule, or rejection of an economic or political belief or ideology: all involve the freedom to accept or reject in thought, word, or practice any position held within them. Religion cannot possess a privileged status above other forms of expression simply because someone else might find it offensive. Likewise, one religion should not enjoy exemption from critique over another religion in any country.
Freedom of expression must be preserved regardless of the subject matter, and regardless of the (over)sensitivity of those who might disagree with the expressed speech. This is especially true in nations that engage in vilifying other religious groups. It is patently hypocritical for the leaders of a government to insist that their religion be respected at all times, while arguing that the consistent denigration of another government with different religious beliefs (let’s say Israel for example) is perfectly legitimate. Perhaps this rational disconnect explains the puzzling, yet carefully worded portion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s statement that read:
The West has passed and imposed laws that punish those who deny or express dissident views on the Holocaust or question the number of Jews killed by Hitler, a topic which is purely historical, not a sacred doctrine.
One either believes in the freedom of thought, speech, and expression of political and religious beliefs, or one does not. One cannot argue that Islam (or Christianity or Judaism for that matter) are somehow uniquely exempt from another individual’s freedom to express thoughts and speech against them. Despite the fact that the creator of this low budget, miserable attempt at religious parody was cowardly enough to hide behind a pseudonym, his right to express his speech on YouTube – however foolish – must be protected. (However, if he forged, criminally impersonated, or stole the identity of another individual, or engaged in internet activity after being convicted of a crime and ordered not to do so, then obviously this is a criminal act. However, none of this has been alleged against the man hiding behind the alias ‘Sam Bacile’.)
The Muslim Brotherhood tepidly implied that Muslims should restrain their outrage at sleights against Islam to “peaceful and legal” means:
“The peoples and governments of the Muslim world have every right to condemn, with all peaceful and legal means, this new violation and heinous attack, and to take appropriate action to deter repeats of such acts of barbaric aggression.”
Any believer in the freedom of speech must understand the misguided nature of this statement, as it characterizes the production of a low budget film as a “heinous attack” and equates it with “acts of barbaric aggression”. The murder of diplomats is a “heinous attack” and an “act of barbaric aggression”. On the contrary, the production of a film is the exercise of one’s freedom to create an admittedly dreadful attempt at a Mel Brooks style, comically offensive parody and call it art. No one was killed in the production of this sloppily-made internet movie. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood, as the representative leaders of Egypt, are even paying attention to this film as the impetus for anything other than the desperate need for acting lessons and courses in video and sound production demonstrates their inability to grasp the fundamental aspects of freedom of expression.
The Muslim Brotherhood concluded their statement with the following:
“While we reject and condemn the bloodshed and violent response to that abuse and the incredible tolerance certain countries show towards it, we cannot ignore the fact that these countries never made a move regarding the abuse until after the strong reaction seen across the Muslim world.”
“Those who insult the sanctities wish to poison budding relations between the peoples, to disrupt the efforts to build bridges between civilizations, and to sow discord between the peoples.”
Again, if the Muslim Brotherhood continues to equate the verbal or acted criticism via parody of a deeply held belief as an “act of aggression”, then we should not hold out much hope for a truly democratic, truly free Egypt under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. If insulting the tenets of a religious faith can somehow be construed as a legitimate reason for bloodshed – whether officially endorsed by the government or not – then we cannot consider any person, group, or government adhering to such an unbalanced system of justice in any way “free”.
Perhaps the most telling (and certainly most discouraging) comment came at the heart of the statement, as the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to, in a sense, excuse, or at least defend the response of the riotous Egyptian crowds:
“Thus hurting the feelings of one and a half billion Muslims cannot be tolerated…”
The fact is, they must. Hurt feelings must be tolerated if the ideal of the freedom of expression in a free, democratically elected state is going to survive. All peoples – including Christians in the United States and Muslims in Arab nations – must learn that insults are one of the unfortunate byproducts of the freedom of expression. Those who have chosen to live in free nations simply cannot afford to be overly sensitive to perceived sleights – especially to their religion – as others have the right to freely express their disapproval of beliefs held by others.
Unfortunately, in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, there are often those who seek out occasions to respond aggressively to simple words spoken against their religion. They seek out opportunities to take offense at religious criticism with the hopes of gaining a political advantage over those with whom they happen to disagree. And while no one wants to live in a world full of insults and negativity, we cannot discard our fundamental freedom of expression simply to preserve the overly-sensitive, politically opportunistic few who seek to elevate their religious beliefs above others’ freedom to express disapproval.
The newly elected leadership in Egypt has a profound decision to make. Does it retreat to the fascist, totalitarian dictates of the Mubarak regime, which suppressed the voices of millions who simply wanted their protests to be heard without fear of reprisal, or does it embrace the democratic freedoms that allowed Egypt to elect its first democratically elected president, even though it may mean having to tolerate dissenting opinions, critiques, parodies, and yes, even insults in the process of preserving the freedom of ideological, economic, and religious expression that are the hallmarks of great societies?
We must watch how the Muslim Brotherhood responds to criticism – both of their authority and of Islam. Should they choose to ignore petty insults made by anonymous cowards on the internet and focus upon leading a great nation with dignity and honor and fairness toward all peoples, then they will be lauded now and throughout history as evidence that democratically elected Islamic political parties can successfully lead a modern, secular state. But, should they continue to incite violence and condemn any and all who would critique their rule, their economic policies, or their religion, then they will simply be remembered as one more failed Islamic regime that was more concerned with defending the honor of their religion than they were with conducting the official business of the state and overseeing the benevolent government of its people.
The choice is theirs. And the American government’s response should depend upon this choice. Should the Muslim Brotherhood choose to defend the freedom of expression, then Egypt should continue to enjoy the privilege of strong U.S. support as true allies, and the financial support that comes with it. But should the Muslim Brotherhood choose Islamic fundamentalism and to defend a religion against petty insults at the expense of freedom of expression and fundamental rules of diplomacy, then the U.S. must consider treating Egypt as any other totalitarian religious regime and withdraw its political, military, and financial support.
Dr. Robert R. Cargill is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa. He earned his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA. He presently teaches a course on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and also teaches courses on the History of Jerusalem and Mythology of Otherworldly Journeys.
Filed under: christianity, government, islam, politics, robert cargill | Tagged: attacks, egypt, expression, free speech, freedom, Muslim Brotherhood, religion, response, speech, statement | 16 Comments »
With Libya continuing to be in the news, I was reminded this morning of one of the earliest treaties the United States ever signed with another nation. (See complete list here.) It is the Treaty of Tripoli, signed with Ottoman Tripolitania in Tripoli on November 4, 1796, unanimously ratified by the U.S. Senate on June 7, 1797, and signed into law by President John Adams on June 10, 1797.
While the treaty is a typical diplomatic agreement with a Mediterranean state, Article 11 of the treaty has attracted much attention as a corrective to those like Glenn Beck, who believe that the “Founding Fathers” founded the United States as a “Christian nation.”
Article 11 of our first treaty explains rather precisely what the founding fathers intended, how the Senate interpreted it, and by signing it into law, how the President applied it:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
The point of the United States was to deliberately found a new nation that was not founded upon a single religion, but one that tolerates all beliefs, including the choice not to believe in any religion. The entire point was not to have a particular religion (the Church of England at first) dictating law in the country. Our founding documents, while acknowledging and appealing to a higher power deity (akin to simple Deism), took great strides to avoid founding this secular nation on a particular religious foundation. Rather, it was intended to be tolerant of all faiths and beliefs. Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli made this crystal clear.
Filed under: atheism / agnosticism, bible, christianity, government, politics | Tagged: american civil religion, article 11, christian nation, christianity, church and state, glenn beck, treaty of tripoli | 9 Comments »
A new myth-based fantasy theme park is coming to Kentucky. The park, which will be called Ark Encounter, promises to expose visitors to myths and fantasies that will rival those of Disneyland. The park’s main attraction will be a 500-foot long reproduction of the Bible’s Noah’s Ark. The park will also feature an ancient walled city (perhaps bringing to mind Jericho), a petting zoo, live animal shows featuring giraffes and elephants, and a full scale reproduction of the biblical Tower of Babel (as the park developers envision it).
The park has attracted some controversy, however, as some have argued that because it is a religiously-themed park, it should not qualify for state tax breaks and incentives, such as the Enterprise Initiative Act Tax Refund Program for which Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has stated the park has applied. Governor Beshear argues there is nothing “remotely unconstitutional” about the proposal. He said the law does not allow the state to discriminate against a for-profit business based upon the product or subject matter of its products. The Governor compared the Ark park to NASCAR, arguing that not everyone loves NASCAR, but that did not stop him from authorizing tax incentives to help the Kentucky Speedway hold a Sprint Cup race next year.
The developers are cleverly attempting to avoid the church-state argument by establishing the Ark park as a for-profit business. Unlike many other faith-based organizations, establishing a for-profit business means the group will forfeit tax exempt status in the long term in exchange for job-creating tax breaks up front. Essentially, the Ark park is gaming the system to get its tax breaks at the beginning. The Ark Encounter website specifically notes that “the tax incentives do not go to non-profit AiG, but to the for-profit Ark Encounter LLC.”
But there should be no doubt that the Ark Encounter is a faith-based enterprise. Not only is the park centered on Biblical stories, but the park will be managed by fundamentalist Christian Creationist group Answers in Genesis, which also runs a Creation Museum park in Petersburg, Kentucky. The Answers in Genesis jobs website specifically states that in order to be eligible for employment at AiG or the Creation Museum:
“All job applicants need to supply a written statement of their testimony, a statement of what they believe regarding creation and a statement that they have read and can support the AiG statement of faith.”
As a taxpayer incentivized, for-profit business in Kentucky, the Ark Encounter will not be allowed to discriminate against employees on the basis of testimonies and declarations of faith as Answers in Genesis openly does at the Creation Museum. Only time will tell if the park will “unfortunately” be “forced” to convert to a not-for-profit, faith-based organization after it deals with the inevitable first volleys of discrimination lawsuits. (If it does, will it refund the tax incentives to the state?)
However, if the park’s developers and management are able to avoid employee religion-based discrimination pitfalls, it will most likely be successful in building the park. It will be interesting to observe whether the park declares its purpose as one of attempting to convince visitors of particular faith claims, or if they stick to the mission statements of other theme parks which center around simple entertainment and filing children’s heads with fantastic tales like those Disney productions that would never be physically possible in a world governed by science and physics.
And while Governor Beshear repeatedly touts the benefits of the park – investing $150 million to create jobs in Kentucky, bringing tourism to Kentucky, creating 900 full- and part-time jobs, an estimated annual impact of over $200 million on the state’s economy, and attracting 1.6 million visitors in its first year – I wonder if he’ll go the distance and compare this for-profit theme park to other mythological fantasy parks like Disneyland, Disney World, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As long as the Governor and the park’s developers are on record as stating that this park makes no faith claims about religious truth, and is instead only another fantasy-based theme park like Disneyland, there should be no quarrel.
Filed under: christianity, government, satire | Tagged: answers in genesis, ark, ark experience, church, creation museum, disney world, disneyland, fundamentalist, governor, ken hamm, kentucky, literalist, noah, state, steve beshear, tourism | 16 Comments »
The conservative Christian right is getting desperate, and in Texas, their white hoods are peeking out from beneath their Sunday best.
According to a Fox News article by Judson Berger, there is a call from conservative Christian leaders to replace Jewish Republican Speaker of the Texas House, Strauss, with a conservative Christian:
“…several of Straus’ critics have noted how important it is that a Christian be named to take his place. These discussions have been made public by a series of media reports, drawing condemnation from some corners and making others in the GOP more than a bit uncomfortable.
In one e-mail conversation between two members of the State Republican Executive Committee, official John Cook stressed the need for a Christian to lead other Christians in the legislature.
Really? There is a Christian litmus test in order to hold elected office in this country? It’s not enough to be a conservative Republican, you have to be a Christian as well to be Speaker?
The article continues:
“At least one conservative activist has directly referenced Straus’ religion. Peter Morrison, who publishes a newsletter, wrote in a recent dispatch that Straus’ rabbi sits on the board of San Antonio Planned Parenthood. Morrison wrote that Straus lacks the necessary “moral compass” to hold his office and called his competitors “Christians and true conservatives.”
Asked about the column, Morrison said in an e-mail that he was “simply making factual statements” about Chisum and Paxton.”
This is yet another black eye for conservative Christians in Texas, who apparently advocate against Jewish Texas House candidates for Speaker in favor of conservative Christians. I wonder if they’d let Jesus serve as Texas House Speaker? Or is he too Jewish?
Filed under: christianity, government, idiocy, judaism | Tagged: christian, conservative, fox news, jewish, joe strauss, john cook, speaker, texas, Texas State Republican Executive Committee | 7 Comments »
With all of the news surrounding the apparent bedbug infestation spreading across America, from the United Nations and the Waldorf Astoria in New York to out here in Los Angeles, I was reminded that despite how much this menace sucks (literally), this is no new problem. Actually, the problem of bedbug annoyance has been around since biblical days. In fact, one of the more humorous (albeit implausible) stories from the earliest moments in Christianity is a story from a pseudepigraphal gnostic document called the Acts of John.
At one point in the Acts of John, we have the story of “The Miracle of the Bedbugs”:
Now on the first day we arrived at a deserted inn, and when we were at a loss for a bed for John, we saw a droll matter. There was one bedstead lying somewhere there without coverings, whereon we spread the cloaks which we were wearing, and we prayed him to lie down upon it and rest, while the rest of us all slept upon the floor. But when he lay down, he was troubled by the bugs, and as they continued to become yet more troublesome to him, when it was now about the middle of the night, in the hearing of us all he said to them: “I say unto you, O bugs, behave yourselves, one and all, and leave your abode for this night and remain quiet in one place, and keep your distance from the servants of God.” And as we laughed, and went on talking for some time, John addressed himself to sleep; and we, talking low, gave him no disturbance (or, thanks to him we were not disturbed).
But when the day was now dawning I arose first, and with me Verus and Andronicus, and we saw at the door of the house which we had taken a great number of bugs standing, and while we wondered at the great sight of them, and all the brethren were roused up because of them, John continued sleeping. And when he was awakened, we declared to him what we had seen. And he sat up on the bed and looked at them and said: “Since ye have well behaved yourselves in hearkening to my rebuke, come unto your place.” And when he had said this, and risen from the bed, the bugs running from the door hasted to the bed and climbed up by the legs thereof and disappeared into the joints. And John said again: “This creature hearkened unto the voice of a man, and abode by itself and was quiet and trespassed not; but we which hear the voice and commandments of God disobey and are light-minded: and for how long?” (60-61)
Thus, the solution to the bedbug problem: get an apostle to order the bugs out of the bed before you go to sleep every night. It’s an almost biblical solution to the bedbug infestation terrorizing America. (And don’t talk while John’s trying to sleep!)
Filed under: bible, games, government, health, humanities, humor, i'm not making this up, things that suck, thought of the day | Tagged: acts of john, apocrypha, apostle, bedbug, gnostic, gospel, infestation, john, miracle, miracle of the bedbugs, non-canonical, pseudepigrapha, united nations, waldorf astoria | 6 Comments »
Wikipedia wants the seal, but could care less about the FBI’s seal of approval.
A fight has broken out over whether Wikipedia can display the FBI’s official seal on its online encyclopedia. The FBI has said “no way,” and has written Wikipedia asking it to remove the seal. Wikipedia responded with a “no” of their own, and appears ready to fight the matter in court.
The FBI’s deputy general counsel, David Larson, cities a particular law that says duplicating an official “insignia” is illegal without permission.
But Wikipedia strikes back on that point, saying the FBI redacted the most important part of that U.S. code, which defines an insignia as “any badge, identification card, or other insignia.”
“Badges and identification cards are physical manifestations that may be used by a possessor to invoke the authority of the federal government. An encyclopedia article is not,” Wikipedia’s letter says. “The use of the image on Wikipedia is not for the purpose of deception or falsely to represent anyone as an agent of the federal government.”
I’m with Wikipedia on this one. This is a no-win situation for the FBI. The FBI (or at least its legal department or its publicist) has violated rule number one: don’t protest a disagreement that no one knows about. In fact, they violated another rule: never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel (especially when that “someone” uses digital ink and is comprised of an army of people looking for a reason to stand up for free speech).
Wikipedia’s legal arguments will win out, and the FBI will have to go all, well… go all “FBI” on Wikipedia if they want to pressure Wikipedia on this matter, which will only make them look worse.
I predict that the FBI will either back down, or will look for some agreement so they can save face. The FBI logo will stay on Wikipedia’s FBI page.
Until then, here’s my gesture of solidarity.
the transportation security administration sent out an email today notifying employees that access to certain websites at work would begin to be limited. the sites are deemed ‘inappropriate for government access’ and include the following:
so is this an infringement on free speech (not that government workers surfing the web is speech in any way, shape, or form? or is it a government agency trying to get their employees to work?
a quick few observations:
what do you think?
Filed under: government, i'm not making this up, internet | Tagged: blocked, bubble spinner, facebook, first amendment, government, internet, transportation security administration, tsa, website | 2 Comments »