Raja Kamal and Tom Palmer, writing in the Washington Post, alert us to the unjust prosecution and imprisonment of a blogger in Egypt:
A former college student, Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman, is sitting in an Egyptian prison, awaiting sentencing tomorrow. His alleged “crime”: expressing his opinions on a blog. His mistake: having the courage to do so under his own name.
Soliman, 22, was expelled from Al-Azhar University last spring for sharply criticizing the university’s rigid curriculum and faulting religious extremism on his blog. He was ordered to appear before a public prosecutor on Nov. 7 on charges of “spreading information disruptive of public order,” “incitement to hate Muslims” and “insulting the President.” Soliman was detained pending an investigation, and the detention has been renewed four times. He has not had consistent access to lawyers or to his family.
That was yesterday. Today, he was sentenced:
A judge in Egypt today sentenced Kareem to four years in prison for the alleged crimes of “defaming the President of Egypt” and “insulting Islam.”…
Kareem criticized Egyptian authorities for failing to protect the rights of religious minorities and women, and expressed views about religious extremism in strong terms.
Kareem’s ordeal has sparked protests at Egyptian embassies all around the world, as well it should. This action should bring universal condemnation; it is inherently unjust for the government – any government – to punish someone for expressing their beliefs, no matter how offensive they may be to someone else. Palmer and Kamal have it exactly right:
Whether or not we agree with the opinions that Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman expressed is not the issue. What matters is a principle: People should be free to express their opinions without fear of being imprisoned or killed.
But here’s what I wonder. When I criticized the Canadian government for their “human rights” laws that allow people to be punished for nothing more than the expression of their belief that homosexuality is wrong, I was told by several people that I had no right to criticize them because, after all, there are no universal principles applicable here and Canada can decide for itself where it wants to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech. Will those people say the same thing here? If they are consistent, they will; somehow I doubt it, however.
When I criticized Germany for putting Ernst Zundel in prison for the “crime” of denying the holocaust, I was told the same thing. Who am I to judge them, they asked. An American? Ha! America has its own problems, how dare you American criticize another country. Will I hear the same thing from them in this circumstance? I doubt it. Is there anyone here who would seriously like to argue that what Egypt did was okay because all such ideas are relative and what they decide to do for their own society is none of our business?
No, such arguments are simply absurd and they are offered only when the person making the argument supports the policy being defended. It makes no difference whether the criticism comes from an Egyptian or an American, the principle remains the same: Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman is a human being, just like you or me, and he has an unalienable right to speak his mind that no government may justly violate. He has that right because he alone owns himself and no one else.
Our unalienable rights flow directly and logically from this basic principle of self-ownership. And if there is one thing that is absolutely certain about those who claim that this principle is not universal but is merely granted to us at the whim of governments, it is that they will immediately seize upon that principle and use it in their defense when their own rights are violated. All of the talk of such rights being merely illusory and disposable at the whim of “society” as they decide what is okay and what is not will go out the window when one’s own rights are on the chopping block; suddenly, they will rediscover the universal principle that they so casually dismissed when someone else’s rights were violated.
And I will argue as I have all along that we have a duty and an obligation to defend that principle not only when our own rights are threatened but when anyone’s rights are threatened, whether it is by our own government or another (and, by the same token, whether they are threatened in the name of protecting the prerogative of the dominant majority or in the name of protecting some aggrieved minority from offense). If you do not accept this principle as universally applicable against all governments at all time, then you give up the right to use it to defend your own rights. Deny that principle in defending someone else, even someone whose views enrage you, and you rob yourself of its protections as well.