Dispatches from the Creation Wars

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Ray
    February 22, 2007

    It doesn’t matter whether the idea is a cultural creation or innate. Having chosen to believe in fundamental human rights, we have a duty to uphold such rights. Part of being virtuous is being willing to defend your virtues. If we truly value democratic ideals and personal liberty, then it is incumbent upon us to support them.

    The people should fight for the law as they would for their city wall.
    -Heraclitus

  2. #2 Henry Neufeld
    February 22, 2007

    Well written and absolutely correct. I agree with you on all the cases you mention.

  3. #3 Reed A. Cartwright
    February 22, 2007

    I heard about this case this morning on NPR. I was wondering if El-BBQ would blog it.

  4. #4 James
    February 22, 2007

    One thing the social conservatives have right is that accepting moral relativism means the death of morality.

    While we may disagree with the specifics of that morality I hope we can agree on that.

    I agree with everything you wrote Ed, except one thing:

    No, such arguments are simply absurd and they are offered only when the person making the argument supports the policy being defended.

    I have no problem with the absurd part, but in some cases I think that argument might be put up sincerely by a post-modernist style relativist. In those circumstances the explanation may be a “useful idiot” naievete rather than support for the policy.

  5. #5 MG
    February 22, 2007

    Does Egypt have oil, or failing that, do we have any “intelligence” that suggests or could be made to suggest that they have WMD? If so, we might be able to help this guy out.

  6. #6 Reed A. Cartwright
    February 22, 2007

    Egypt probably has WMDs; they’re one of our better customers.

  7. #7 Kenny Gee
    February 22, 2007

    Look don’t worry there’s a wave of democratic revolution sweeping through the Middle East after the example set by Iraqis transformation into a modern stable democratic government.
    Maybe that was a bit low but my point is this the outrage needs to come from Egyptains not us. We won our freedom and they need to win theirs, we can’t win it for them, Iraq should show this to any doubters.

  8. #8 Ted
    February 22, 2007

    Ed said:

    …and he has an unalienable right to speak his mind that no government may justly violate.

    My first impulse would be to say, what’s the use of arguing here among all the metooisms, but it appears that you want the opinions of those that would disagree with you.

    I would say, that yes, despite your saying to the contrary, the government may justly violate to enforce their laws. Why? Because it’s relative to their standards and laws and the concepts of sovereignty. We believe that the virtue of arbitrary borders allows people to elect (or have imposed on them), their own governments, and for those governments to enforce the laws and punishments. When their standards change, the relativity and color of justice changes as well.

    So, why will their laws change? Not because Ed the Dispatcher says so or is concerned over it. Not because outsiders like Condi, or Bush, or Chirac, or Hirsi Ali, or Hitchens may find them objectionable, but because they are relative and they will change when each person there examines the consequences of the laws on their lives and weighs the balance. When the people of Egypt get fed up they will rise and change the government and laws. Perhaps at some point, like the turks, they will examine their desires and look to the east or the west. Until that day of introspection comes to them, they are satisfied with the conditions no matter how medieval they appear to us.

    Of course, it doesn’t help that we prop up the corrupt motherf*ckers with money and weapons, but who would do our torturing if we actually pressed them on democracy?

    He has that right because he alone owns himself and no one else.

    What does that mean aside from the obligatory appeal to ownership? Don’t the people that populate US jails own themselves? And yet a huge number are in jail because they’ve violated some silliness like smoking or growing pot. Wouldn’t your principles of universality extend to capital punishment since many European nations made that illegal on the same sort of rights terminology that you deal in?

    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.

    So apparently you do understand the relativity involved.

    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.

    No. The principle doesn’t need to apply against all governments at all time, only against the the government that has enforcement and safeguard over my rights. If I choose to live in the US my primary concern is the US government’s view on safeguards, not the Egyptian government’s. The Egyptian government can talk about what tender things it will do to my ass, but the US government is the one that has the ability to spread my cheeks or rendition me over to them for the reaming.

    The most obvious argument against the concept of “unalienable rights” is that they don’t need Ed the Dispatcher throwing his support behind them. They’re unalienable if Ed supported them or not. They need no ones support.

    James said:

    In those circumstances the explanation may be a “useful idiot” naievete rather than support for the policy.

    Yeah, whatever.

    If they have unalienable rights they don’t need my stumping for them. They can secure their liberties with those unalienable rights, but I think that it is up to the people themselves to decide that they’ve had enough and rise up to defend what they perceive as their consciousness and dignity. If they have no concept of self freedom or personal dignity or hold value to personal freedoms, I’m sure as shit not going to expend much effort on them. Giving them freedom would be like giving hatemongers the right of free speech. They’ll wind up doing something creative with it like they do every 30-40 years that leads to a global culling.

    I respect the Argentinians. After 100,000 desaparecidos they decided they had enough of that shit and changed their government, judges, laws. Relativity is about progress. No one sees with the same outlook at 50 as they do at 20.

    Matt Ray says:

    If we truly value democratic ideals and personal liberty, then it is incumbent upon us to support them.

    The people should fight for the law as they would for their city wall.

    I agree with both of these statements. In the first case, I have nothing against setting an example of what it should look like in my own country, according to my conscience, depending on the mercies of my neighbors to support our shared standards.

    In the second case, people should directly and personally fight for their own rights, and not expect me or others to fight for those rights so that they can be bestowed on then enshrined as inalienable. All the inalienability needed was a boost from my gun, cannon, bomb or economic embargo and starving or blowing up someone into little bitty pieces.

    When you throw this guy in jail, his case acts like a catalyst for change and awareness. But Ed being irritated by the guy going to jail for speech, isn’t as good as the 10,000 educated Egyptians seething right now. One would hope.

  9. #9 Ed Brayton
    February 22, 2007

    As usual, Ted, you miss the point completely. The only question relevant to my argument is whether the action of the Egyptian government is just. Whether my complaints will do any good is completely irrelevant to the truth of my argument. Whether the Egyptians agree with me is completely irrelevant to the truth of my argument. All I care is that my argument is true, not whether it will change the situation or not.

  10. #10 JS
    February 23, 2007

    The view that the rights of citizens of foreign countries should not concern us, since they are subjects of a sovereign government seems both naïve and rather silly to me. Naïve because countries on the other side of the globe can affect me.

    Here goes my favorite example: Jihadist from Saudi Arabia, trained in Pakistan, can detonate a bomb built in the Basque part of Spain in the Paris subway causing Danish politicians to expand terror-laws that violate my rights.

    I should thus be concerned that Saudi Arabia has a strong group of hateful, medieval-thinking jihadists. I should be concerned that the Pakistani government does not have full control over its armed forces or territory.

    I should be concerned that the central government of Spain is not recognized as legitimate by parts of its citizenry. I should be concerned that ethnic/religious/political tensions in France would allow a jihadist strike unit to recruit logistical support in Paris.

    And I should, of course, be concerned about the fact that my own politicians are weak on civil liberties (say, could that be turned into a slogan? NN isn’t weak on terror, he’s strong on liberty?).

    It is also a silly view, because, as you say, borders are arbitrary (if useful) constructs. The notion that the humane treatment of a person should matter less to me simply because he lives and dies on the other side of an arbitrary line drawn on a map (often as a result of imperialist wars) by people who died decades ago is frankly absurd.

    Just to be perfectly clear, this does not mean that I do not recognise as a valid notion the ideas of sovereign states and international law. And I fully realise that my views and actions have less chance than a snowflake in a blast furnance of actually affecting the way the Egyptian or Chinese governments treat their people.

    Ted rightly points out that democracy cannot be imposed at gunpoint, except in very special cases. This overlooks, however, all the other ways in which democracy can be promoted.

    Financing local NGOs, providing consular support for organisations such as Amnesty, IRC, etc. and establishing citizen exchange programs are all examples of interventionistic foreign policies that can be used to promote democracy, secularity, the notion of universal, inalienable rights and other civilised values.

    I think it is unfortunate that an interventionist foreign policy stance is confused with a Bushist ‘be nice to the US or we’ll bring democracy to your country’ stance.

    - JS

  11. #11 Richard Wein
    February 23, 2007

    “Our unalienable rights flow directly and logically from this basic principle of self-ownership.”

    I think that’s meaningless. Almost everyone would agree that the right to free speech is not unlimited, and that we do not have the right to incite murder or to shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre. But once you accept that there are limits, there is no magic formula for deciding where those limits lie. It’s a matter of weighing up the right of free speech against the right to life, privacy, national security, etc. Yes, we should apply the same standards to people in Egypt as in our own countries. But there are no absolute rules as to what those standards should be.

  12. #12 Ted
    February 23, 2007

    Well Ed, addressing the shift in your argument, there seems to be a lot of gray area on the concept of what is just (and citing an article from a CATO regular guarantees that the definition will be further strained).

    Let me offer an obvious example on the fungibility of justice: When a US soldier blows away a bystander in Iraq it’s worth about $2000.00, but when Americans lose their lives over Lockerbie it’s worth about $10,000,000.00. It’s a good demonstration of relativity to me. So, you know, justice is debatable.

    But actually when I read your post I thought it was about universality of rights, relativity inherent in inconsistent cowards, unalienability and self-ownership which I felt you failed to support.

    It was probably the title that threw me off.

  13. #13 Ted
    February 23, 2007

    JS says:

    It is also a silly view, because, as you say, borders are arbitrary (if useful) constructs. The notion that the humane treatment of a person should matter less to me simply because he lives and dies on the other side of an arbitrary line drawn on a map (often as a result of imperialist wars) by people who died decades ago is frankly absurd.

    The absurdity inherent in living an existential life should be self-evident. And yet we go on. :-)

    My point is that if one wants universality, one should strive to reduce nationalism (and those arbitrary national borders). Preferably not through edict or force.

    Of course, the actions of others elsewhere have impact, but when our ideas are better than theirs, those better ideas will win (unless the Eastasians employ a really, really great marketing agency). This approach may not help the individual but I’m more concerned about the survival of the organism vs. that of the cell.

    The argument is framed to appeal: The anti-abortionists have the trope of the “every embryo is sacred” for their constituents. The CATO-ists and freechers trope is that “every individual (or word) is sacred” (otherwise known as the solution to poking with a sharp stick is more poking with a sharp stick) for theirs. I think the main criteria is simply self-awareness — I contend that the people of Egypt are capable of self-awareness and will act intelligently to embrace this obvious universalism without imposition or edicts from outside the group.

  14. #14 Francis
    February 23, 2007

    One thing the social conservatives have right is that accepting moral relativism means the death of morality.

    While we may disagree with the specifics of that morality I hope we can agree on that.

    I for once can’t. Largely because this is a fallen world and that it is impossible therefore to act with absolute standards of morality. Also due to experiments such as the Stanford Prison experiment which demonstrate that a large part of the way people behave is determined by their environment.

    I consider people who wish to enslave people in societies that routinely commit genocide to deal with others morally enlightened. I consider people that enslave other people in the 20th century scum.

    The core of moral relativism is recognising the moral insights and improvements made by others in different cultures – and a failure to do so renders the majority of both one’s empathy and charity irrelevant.

    Yes, there is some truth in the commonly created strawman that moral relativism implies that everything is permitted – and there is a lot more observational evidence to show that moral absolutism leads to witchburnings and inquisitions.

  15. #15 Alan B.
    February 23, 2007

    Ed,

    I disagree that the efficacy of your argument is irrelevant. People fighting against oppression can often benefit from support from outside their borders. And, I think that it is important to remind the world that America and Americans still want to serve as a moral example despite George’s efforts to destroy that ideal.

  16. #16 Ed Brayton
    February 23, 2007

    Richard Wein wrote:

    I think that’s meaningless. Almost everyone would agree that the right to free speech is not unlimited, and that we do not have the right to incite murder or to shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre. But once you accept that there are limits, there is no magic formula for deciding where those limits lie. It’s a matter of weighing up the right of free speech against the right to life, privacy, national security, etc. Yes, we should apply the same standards to people in Egypt as in our own countries. But there are no absolute rules as to what those standards should be.

    I disagree. The reasoning here is identical to the way we reason logically. We start with the most basic premise, which I stated above, and it leads to other basic principles that can be used to deal with such problems. Just like in formal logic, we begin with the law of non-contradiction and from that flows multiple corollaries. In this instance, we can deduce the same corollary that was deduced by Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and many others: if each person has self-ownership and therefore self-determination, then the limits of one’s rightful actions ends when our actions deprive another of their equal right to self-ownership. In other words, our rights end when they violate the equal rights of others. In moral terms, this is a simple application of what philosophers call the law of reciprocity. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s always simple. Just as in formal logic, the more variables come in to play the more difficult it is to establish a valid, logical conclusion; but that hardly means that the principle of objective, logical thinking in applying basic principles is wrong. To deny that is to deny the very possibility of ever reaching a valid conclusion on any subject, not just this one.

  17. #17 Francis
    February 23, 2007

    Francis: I agree with you mostly, I suspect our difference of opinion is largely terminological.

    My understanding of moral relativism (it has been a while since I studied this at university) is that every culture has their own morality and that moral precepts from one culture are inapplicable to other cultures. The problem is that cultures are to an extent arbitrary.

    A sufficiently determined ethicist can define each person as part of their own culture, which reduces moral relativism to moral subjectivism (the idea that moral precepts are specific to individuals). This renders morality useless.

    Your point about slavery vs. genocide is about choosing the lesser of two evils. One can support this choice even while recognising both alternatives are evils. Learning from other cultures is simple open-mindedness and is compatible with objective morality.

    It is possible to hold to a moral code that is between moral relativism and moral absolutism. That position is moral objectivism, being the idea that context affects morality, but not culture. This means a moral code that is flexible, but universal.

  18. #18 Richard Wein
    February 24, 2007

    Thanks for the reply, Ed. But I have to disagree with you. You wrote:

    I disagree. The reasoning here is identical to the way we reason logically. We start with the most basic premise, which I stated above, and it leads to other basic principles that can be used to deal with such problems. Just like in formal logic, we begin with the law of non-contradiction and from that flows multiple corollaries. In this instance, we can deduce the same corollary that was deduced by Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and many others: if each person has self-ownership and therefore self-determination, then the limits of one’s rightful actions ends when our actions deprive another of their equal right to self-ownership.

    I can’t see the relevance of “self-ownership”. If you’re going to start from some basic premise of equal rights to self-ownership, then why not just start with a basic premise of equality in all rights. Either way, there is no deduction here. You are simply taking equal rights (of some sort) as a basic premise.

    In other words, our rights end when they violate the equal rights of others.

    Sure, but how do you get from there to any particular rights? And how do you reconcile conflicting rights? Sorry, but you haven’t addressed my point at all.

    Just as in formal logic, the more variables come in to play the more difficult it is to establish a valid, logical conclusion; but that hardly means that the principle of objective, logical thinking in applying basic principles is wrong. To deny that is to deny the very possibility of ever reaching a valid conclusion on any subject, not just this one.

    I deny that there can be an ultimate rational basis for morality. (You can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”.) However, once we’ve agreed on some basic principles, such as equality of rights, we can argue rationally from those basic principles to a more detailed moral code, including specific rights.

  19. #19 JS
    February 24, 2007

    Of course, the actions of others elsewhere have impact, but when our ideas are better than theirs, those better ideas will win (unless the Eastasians employ a really, really great marketing agency).

    In principle, yes. In practice, we see all the time that even objectively superior products are rejected by the ‘free market’ (VHS vs. BetaMax, OS2 vs. Wintendo, Corell WordPerfect vs. MSWord, MCDonalds vs. real food).

    To expect the ‘free market of ideas’ to work flawlessly without outside intervention (such as a formalised education system and a reasonably uncorrupt police force to protect debaters from violent lunatics, to name just two required outside interventions) is naïve.

    Further, I would think that such things as writing blog entries that can be seen in other parts of the world would be one way to further the exchange of ideas that will help humanity find the best ideas, no?

    What, then, is the problem with presenting the idea to the world that humans have inalienable rights? If the idea is wrong, then it will not survive, no?

    This approach may not help the individual but I’m more concerned about the survival of the organism vs. that of the cell.

    Taking this philosophy to its logical extreme, we should turn the technological clock back to the Middle Ages. Sure, it might not be pleasant to the individual (in fact it would be pretty darn unpleasant), but Homo Sapiens the species would probably survive longer if we did not have atomic bombs, trains, long-distance shipping, airplanes, etc.

    - JS

  20. #20 Ted
    February 24, 2007

    JS:

    In principle, yes. In practice, we see all the time that even objectively superior products are rejected by the ‘free market’ (VHS vs. BetaMax, OS2 vs. Wintendo, Corell WordPerfect vs. MSWord, MCDonalds vs. real food).

    You probably missed my sop to the efficacy of marketing. However, to take up your analogy, all those products you list are pretty half-assed, and yet the public settles for them (with or without marketing help). Sorta like they settle for half assed in human rights. We want cheap; not so much quality, durability or well engineered. We settle for made in China.

    To expect the ‘free market of ideas’ to work flawlessly without outside intervention (such as a formalised education system and a reasonably uncorrupt police force to protect debaters from violent lunatics, to name just two required outside interventions) is naïve.

    You say naive, but I think you’re impatient. You’d like it done sooner rather than later. I think cultures each work in their own time which is why self-awareness is important.

    Firstly, these cultures do not exist in isolation. Cross pollination will occur through necessary interactions. But these things take time. The WWW is hardly 15 years old, and already has a revolutionary impact on the way wars are reported.

    Secondly, where we used to exploit these cultures for their raw materials, we now have a profit motive for exploiting their intellectual capital. If you decry the lack of progress and education in these countries, we should start by examining the brain drain from them that benefit capitalists. The educated should be sent back to be beacons in their countries, not used as wedge issues in ours (assuming that the arbitrary notions of borders, tarrifs, etc remain in effect).

    Thirdly, we already have way too much impact in many of these countries that makes the desires of their ordinary citizens irrelevant. We maintain Mubarek and his security apparatus that oppresses. At this point, we have so screwed it up that the Muslim Brotherhood would take over if free elections were actually ever held there, just so that the ordinary citizen can get a sense of responsiveness and empowerment.

    Every time an outsider comes to them and pontificates on how stupid and backwards they are, — fisking their culture — their heart hardens and we grow dearer. Foreigners have already caused a significant upheaval in these cultures, and adding a foreign moral code may just be too much, too fast for the madrassa educated.

    People that have lived under an occupation have a sense of this. People that have not, don’t.

    Further, I would think that such things as writing blog entries that can be seen in other parts of the world would be one way to further the exchange of ideas that will help humanity find the best ideas, no?

    Sure, but blogging isn’t what got this fellow in trouble. It was blogging to western standards and then signing his name to it. Even his father disowned him.

    Ed asked if it was just: But just can mean two things. Was it fair? No. Did it have the force of law behind it? Yes.

    What, then, is the problem with presenting the idea to the world that humans have inalienable rights? If the idea is wrong, then it will not survive, no?

    There’s nothing wrong with presenting the idea. But to insist on the truth of it is worth debating. As cited above, Jefferson was all for this (self ownership and an endowment of inalienable rights that flows from metaphysics), yet on the temporal plane, he had slaves until the day he died. And then his slave property was sold to another slave owner to satisfy the remaining financial obligations. Maybe internally inconsistent? Come on, just a bit, maybe?

    Is it intellectually honest to talk about self-ownership, pass laws that outlaw further slave ownership, yet continue to hold slaves? Heck, that’s about as consistent as John McCain or most modern day politicians. Nonsense on stilts.

    Will the idea of inalienable rights survive? That’s to be seen. In order to survive, self-aware humans need to assent to it, which has been the crux of my argument all along. It doesn’t come from the Creator; there’s no inalienability to it. It comes from us, when we see fit to give it. Like Jefferson sometimes saw fit to give it.

    We are moody chemical animals. And that includes post 9-11 security moms that said “Fuck em all up but good”, and Egyptian dads that disown their sons for insulting the culture.

  21. #21 James
    February 24, 2007

    Somehow post:
    Posted by: Francis | February 23, 2007 06:00 PM

    was attached with Francis’s name. It was in fact me.

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