By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Religion can be a source of oppression, even in a democracy. Our Founding Fathers understood the dangers of a “tyranny of the majority” in a democracy and provided libertarian human rights, beginning with the freedoms of religion and expression, to protect minorities in the U.S. against such a tyranny—and there is no tyranny worse than a religious tyranny. That has been evident in Egypt since the democratic upheavals of 2011.
Daniel Drezner of the Brookings Institution has identified Egypt as “…the authoritarian regime that presents the most severe challenge to the West. This is because [President] Sissi thinks his authoritarianism serves a higher purpose, and an awful lot of Westerners agree with him. To see what I mean, read Der Spiegel’s hard-hitting, excellent interview of Sissi:”
SPIEGEL: Human rights groups complain that the oppression during your time in office has been worse than it was under Mubarak.
Sissi: One cannot define human rights as narrowly as you do. If the Muslim Brothers manipulate people’s awareness or distort their beliefs, then that is also a violation of human rights. If you are unable to receive good or even adequate education and shelter and cannot find a job and have no hope for the future, that is also a violation of your human rights. Human rights should not be reduced to freedom of expression. Even if this were the case, though, people in our country are free to say whatever they like.
SPIEGEL: You’re the only person to see it that way.
Sissi: We are a partner in this battle [against Islamist extremism], but we are waging it here in Egypt. We had already begun our fight one and a half years before the formation of the coalition. If we fail in this fight against terrorism, the entire region will be embroiled in turmoil for the next 50 years. Europe will also be threatened with attacks by the extremists. I already told my European friends this, one and a half years ago.
Drezner continued, “The reason Sissi’s raison d’etat is so disturbing is not just that it resonates with Egyptians, but that it resonates with Westerners. Many in Europe and the United States see authoritarian rulers like Sissi as the only effective bulwark against Islamic extremism.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has fumbled formula after formula for political reform in the Middle East, with none of them working out very well. The Arab Spring has curdled everywhere outside of Tunisia. No one has any bright ideas about how to make democratic progress in the Middle East anymore. So what scares me about Sissi isn’t his appeal for external political legitimacy — all rulers seek that. It’s that in Sissi’s case, his appeal will succeed.”
Sissi’s idea of human rights—rights to an education, shelter and a job—are more political aspirations than human rights since they are dependent on variable social and economic factors that make them unenforceable as legal rights. By way of contrast, civil and political human rights like the freedoms of religion and expression are enforceable since they protect against government abuses like prosecution under apostasy or blasphemy laws rather than guarantee government benefits.
Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, has noted that “nearly half of the world’s countries punish blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion.” Bollinger cited the 1964 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times vs Sullivan that “…committed America to a realm of expression in which debate would be ‘uninhibited, robust and wide open.’ Sullivan was widely understood right away to have established a national norm, and it was followed by numerous decisions expanding on this new sensibility.”
Bollinger expanded his advocacy of free speech beyond the U.S. to international law:
Issues that until recently were matters of local prerogative, such as representations of the prophet Muhammad, are often geographically unconfined. With unrestrained exposure and access, emboldened individuals are making common cause with their fellow citizens, and governments are feeling besieged by their unexpected demands. For now at least, a chief effect of the global forum is to generate resistance from those who perceive the new world as a threat.
Governments whose authority is ebbing have been increasingly brazen in their attempts to silence critics….To counter these regressive trends, it is critical that we nurture the norms, laws and institutions needed to support free expression globally. There is a sound foundation on which to build. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly after World War II and subsequently reaffirmed by the nations of the world, unequivocally asserts the freedom of expression and the right to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Just as, over the past century, the First Amendment moved from the periphery of America’s civic consciousness to its center, Article 19 must gain a similar familiarity, globally.
Bollinger urged U.S. economic policies to promote the freedom of expression worldwide, and concluded: “[T]he American experience shows that the backlash to new ideas and cultures, now evident in many countries, can be overcome. The yearning for freedom of expression is universal. There is nothing uniquely American about it at all.”
Over 200 years ago Thomas Jefferson championed the freedoms of religion and speech for the fledgling U.S. Today apostasy and blasphemy laws deny those fundamental freedoms to religious minorities in Islamist democracies like Egypt. The freedoms of religion and expression were derived from natural law rather than religious law, and they were never taught by Jesus or Muhammad. Even so, Western religions have conformed their doctrines to libertarian human rights since the Enlightenment, but that has not happened in Islamic cultures. Until it does, a tyranny of the religious majority will likely prevail in Islamist democracies.
Notes and References:
On religion, legitimacy and human rights, see the blog on Faith and freedom posted on December 15, 2014; also see Religion.Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights at pages 2-3, 7-8, and 10-17.