The UK, France and Egypt Need a First Amendment
April 12, 2011 4 Comments
Not to go all hyper-patriotic, because I’d probably sound like Christina Aguilera and get it sort of wrong. But I’m bluntly proud of three things that could never happen in America:
- British police arrest Sion Owens, a British National Party candidate, for burning a Koran on charges of a “public order offense.” The charges are dropped and Owens is released “on a technicality,” but further proceedings are promised.
- In Paris, Muslim Kenza Drider dons her niqab, challenging the new French law banning facial coverings, and gets arrested — which embarrassed French officials hasten to insist has nothing to do with Ms. Drider wearing a niqab, but “for trying to hold an unauthorized demonstration.”
- In Cairo, blogger Maikel Nabil is sentenced to three years in prison for insulting the Egyptian military. His crime? Accusing the Egyptian military of continuing repressive practices of the Mubarak regime, and quoting liberally from international human rights organizations.
Owens, Drider, and Nabil would be in no trouble whatever in America. They might be reviled in some quarters, hammered by private counter-speech that took them to task for insisting on their particular viewpoint — but never remotely in trouble with the authorities. We extend to the Koran burner, the niqab-wearer, and the anti-government blogger inalienable rights. We permit them their schtick, and the rest is debate among free citizens.
Sion Owens is a hatemonger. Burning a Koran as a public stunt is evidence of impaired judgment — and in America, a plain disqualification for public office, or public credibility of any kind. The UK contemplation of making Owens a “criminal” guarantees a legitimacy that his viewpoint would never have otherwise enjoyed. Instead of leaving it to private citizens to debate robustly what Islam is or isn’t, British prosecution of Owens ensures that the focus will continue to be on insulting Islam — to the exasperation of increasing numbers of Brits.
Kenza Drider protested bravely against a frankly (pun intended) bizarre French law. To conclude that the niqab is so “oppressive” that it warrants criminalizing women who voluntarily wear it is to play into precisely the Islamist agenda that the West is at war with Islam. Let Muslim men and women conclude that the niqab is oppressive. A government dictate indefinitely defers that conclusion.
Maikel Nabil is an interesting Egyptian. His lawyer calls him the first prisoner of conscience in post-revolution Egypt. And what an easy target. Nabil is a pacifist as well as a champion of Israel, often praising its democracy, educational standards and innovations. So the still-barely-budding-democracy in Egypt picks Nabil to imprison, thinking surely the population will approve, and the precedent means power against freedom and democracy.
The UK, France and Egypt need a First Amendment — an absolute guarantee of speech, press and religious freedom. These guarantees aren’t merely window-dressing freedoms. They mediate diversity better than any formula yet devised. They permit love-speech and hate-speech, and robustly counter-hate-speech. The citizens do it, and sometimes they’re stupid and always they’re free, and always, the citizens are better-informed and more comfortable wherever they are.