On Faith, Freedom of Expression, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Statement in Response to the Protests in Egypt and Libya

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.”

The new definition of "religious persecution".

The new definition of “religious persecution”.

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.

"Religious offense" is apparently a relative designation.

“Religious offense” is apparently a relative designation.

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.”

They continue:

“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.

Nonstampcollector’s Take on the Akedah: The Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22

Nonstampcollector (@nonstampNSC; YouTube) has released his latest video, which takes on the difficult task of addressing the biblical Akedah, or “Binding of Isaac”, the near human sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham in Genesis 22. (He even gives a little take on Sodom and Gomorrah at the intro.)

As anyone who has studied the Bible knows, this text is one of the most talked about and problematic ethical texts in the Bible. This is a classic ‘nonstamp’ take on the ethical issues surrounding a god who would order a human sacrifice just to test the obedience of his followers.

Enjoy. Comments welcome, but keep them germane to the topic.

Pat Robertson Has Lost His Mind: Jokes About Beating Women

Seriously. Pat’s been a moronic fool for years, but his senile ass has officially lost his mind.

Seriously. Even for the fundamentalists at CBN, Pat has become an absolute legal liability. He needs to be retired from the air.

Not only is he mocking Muslims by misrepresenting them (because good fundamentalist Christians never beat their wives), but now he’s taken to joking about beating women and TELLING PEOPLE TO BEAT THEIR WIVES!!!! Really??

Here’s the transcript of what Pat Robertson said:

“I don’t think we condone wife beating THESE DAYS(!!!!!), but something’s got to be done to make her…”

These days???!!!!!!!!!!!! “But something’s got to be done????

And there’s more:

“She’s rebellious, and chances are she was rebellious with her father and mother. She’s a rebellious child and she doesn’t want to submit to any authority. And she probably had temper tantrums when she was a kid, and you know…you know the little girl, ‘I hate you. I hate you,’ and she wants to slap her father. Well that’s the same kind of thing. She’s just…she’s transferred the father, now, she might…eeh…oh, I hate to say everything’s got to be some psychological counseling, but…”

“But that’s the problem. She does not understand authority. When she was growing up nobody made her behave. And now, you’ve got a 13-year old in a 30-year old woman’s body and she is acting like a child. Now, what do you do with that? You can’t divorce her according to the Scripture, so I say ‘MOVE TO SAUDI ARABIA’.”

[Laughter]

Did Pat ever consider that her husband Michael is a douche? Did anyone even bother to check to see if there is something that the husband perhaps did wrong? Could there possibly be any fault with him? We don’t know, but it doesn’t matter: to Pat, it’s the insubordinate, non-submissive woman who is to blame. That’s it. So his solution it so “move to Saudi Arabia” so you can “beat her” legally.

OUT. OF. HIS. MIND!

The end has come. Watch for CBN to announce Pat’s retirement from on-air segments soon, because he’s destroying whatever is left of CBN. And while this is a wonderful thing, he’s advocating crime in the process.

MacLaren’s First Presidential Experience

Mac got to experience his his first presidential rally today (September 7, 2012) when President Barack Obama visited the University of Iowa. Roslyn made him an “I heart Michelle” onesie and he was waving at everyone he saw on the Pentacrest, as well as during lunch at Iowa City’s famous Hamburg Inn (a political tradition in Iowa City).

He had a great time!

Mommy has her ticket and we're ready to see the President

Mommy has her ticket and we’re ready to see the President

Ros and Mac get ready to see the President

Ros and Mac get ready to see the President

Mommy made Mac an "I Heart Michelle" onesie for the occasion.

Mommy made Mac an “I Heart Michelle” onesie for the occasion.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the University of Iowa on September 7, 2012

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the University of Iowa on September 7, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Iowa on September 7, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Iowa on September 7, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Iowa on September 7, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Iowa on September 7, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Iowa on September 7, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Iowa on September 7, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Iowa on September 7, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Iowa on September 7, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Iowa on September 7, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Iowa on September 7, 2012

The Disingenuous Nature of the Christian Right Summed Up on a Texas Billboard

A billboard with a biblical scripture on it has popped up on a Victoria, TX billboard, and the Secret Service has been called in to investigate.

Pray for Obama Billboard w/ Psalm 109:8

A billboard in Victoria, TX asks people to “Pray for Obama”, and then disingenuously cites Psalm 109:8, which reads, “May his days be few; may another take his office.”

The billboard asks people to “Pray for Obama”, and then disingenuously cites “Psalms [plural sic!] 109:8″, which reads:

“May his days be few; may another take his office.”

At first glance, the “speech” is not hateful. In fact, the billboard appears to be anything but – a call for all people to pray for President Obama, complete with an image of hands gently folded in prayer, a portrait of the president, and a Bible verse.

However, it is the verse that is cited (Psalm 109:8) that is causing the stir. The single verse (8) simply calls for the removal of someone (King David in the original context) from “office”.

However, the Secret Service was probably called in because the full text of Psalm 109:8-15 reads:

(8) May his days be few; may another take his office. (9) May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. (10) May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. (11) May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil. (12) May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children. (13) May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation. (14) May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the LORD, and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out. (15) Let them be before the LORD continually, and may his memory be cut off from the earth.

(The Bible is pleasant, huh?)

The fact that the context of Psalm 109 is actually recounting the words of a righteous King David, who is complaining about the lies and threats his enemies are making against him is apparently lost on the individual who placed this ad.

The beginning of the Psalm (109:1-7) reads:

(1) Do not be silent, O God of my praise. (2) For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues. (3) They beset me with words of hate, and attack me without cause. (4) In return for my love they accuse me, even while I make prayer for them. (5) So they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love. (6) They say, “Appoint a wicked man against him; let an accuser stand on his right. (7) When he is tried, let him be found guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin. (and then Psa. 109:8) May his days be few; may another take his office…

Like most fundamentalist prooftexting and exegesis, the self-indicting context is completely ignored. The fact that the one proclaiming the words “May his days be few; may another take his office” is said to be a wicked man is completely ignored. Likewise, the fact that David is appealing to God about the lies and threats his enemies are making against him is a contextual fact completely overlooked by the one who created this disingenuous billboard.

I say the billboard is “disingenuous” because Christianity does preserve a tradition that Christians should “pray for” those in authority. It is found in 1 Timothy 2:1-3:

(1) I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people, (2) for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (3) This is good, and pleases God our Savior…

However, despite this clear Christian command to pray for (not against) those in power, the Victoria, TX billboard prays for President Obama’s demise:

“May his days be few; may another take his office” (followed by all those pleasant verses calling for the death and demise of his family).

It is not so much that the billboard is “hate speech”, unless you want to argue (as many do) that the Bible is filled with what can be described as hate speech, like the prayer at the end of Psalm 137:9 where the author begs for revenge against his enemies and proclaims:

“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

(because celebrating the murder of innocent children always plays well in religious circles.)

Rather, for me this billboard exposes the sheer duplicity and disingenuous nature of many conservative Christians, who seek to pick and choose scriptures that serve their preconceived political desires, and who use the Bible to heap hate and wishes of demise upon their perceived political enemies. It looks bad for all people of faith, and only adds to the ever growing body of evidence supporting the claim that the deliberate infusion of religion into politics in this country is approaching the downright toxic levels that we find in Islamic republics around the world. Conservative Christians rightfully denounce the religious oppression of these fundamentalist Islamic regimes, but then call for the very same Christian version of sharia law in America. Go figure!

Of course, this isn’t the first time that conservative Christians have used Psalm 109 to deride their political opponents. Joel Watts has chronicled several instances of the abuse of this particular scripture in politics.

But given that Christians are commanded to pray for their leaders, this billboard is nothing more than disingenuous religious prooftexting.

Then again, what more should we expect from the Christian right these days?

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