by Michael Lame, posted January 6, 2011
Seventy years ago today, on January 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address to Congress, which became famous as the Four Freedoms speech:
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.”
With regards to these first two enumerated freedoms, FDR expresses his vision for the entire world in a uniquely American way, echoing the language and the principles of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
These two freedoms of speech and religion are closely related. People naturally talk about what they believe in and care about, as well as what they disbelieve and oppose. If one is free to practice one’s religion openly, then one might talk about it publicly, engage in religious disputation, even proselytize. There can be no freedom of positive speech without the freedom of negative, even derogatory speech.
Free speech, then, includes the freedom to publicly proclaim that Judaism is a gutter religion, that Jesus was not the son of God, that Muhammad was a false prophet, or that there is no God at all. Any government worth its salt, anywhere in the world, should stand up for that principle of freedom of speech, even in a country – perhaps especially in a country – which privileges one religion over others.
Compare that idea with the language of the Pakistan Penal Code –
295-C. Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet: Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.
The contrast between the First Amendment and 295-C is stark. Many commentators have pointed out that Pakistan has not actually executed anyone under this statute. On the other hand, “According to official figures, 131 people are being held in jails across Punjab on blasphemy charges. Eleven of them have been sentenced to death, including Asia Bibi, who was the first woman to be given the penalty…35 people, including Taseer, who were accused of committing blasphemy or defending those charged with blasphemy have been killed between 1990 and 2011. They were either victims of extra-judicial killings or found dead in prison in suspicious circumstances.”
Salman Taseer, referred to in the above article, was the governor of Punjab province until assassinated earlier this week for opposing the blasphemy law and championing the cause of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who worked in the fields with other women. Mrs. Bibi claimed she fetched drinking water for the group but some of the Muslim women refused to drink from the bucket she had touched, claiming it was now “unclean”. Words were exchanged about Christians and Muslims, and a few days later the women claimed she had blasphemed against Muhammad.
A couple months ago a Pakistani Christian told me that his community lives under the constant threat of accusations of blasphemy. He said that once an accusation is made, even if it is baseless and before it ever comes to court, it can result in a mob of people surrounding a house, burning it down and attacking its owners.
The 295-C death sentence for a Christian woman and the repeated deadly attacks on Christians, Ahmadis, Shia, and even Sunnis in their churches and mosques in Pakistan in recent years should be cause for concern among peoples and nations around the world. I expect the United State to be the world’s foremost champion of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but in this naïve expectation I am often disappointed.
Jackson Diehl wrote in the Washington Post this week of the Obama administration’s “notoriously weak defense of human rights around the world.”
As if to underline Diehl’s point, the next day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued the following statement in the wake of Taseer’s murder:
We strongly condemn the assassination today in Pakistan of Punjab Provincial Governor Salmaan Taseer. I had the opportunity to meet Governor Taseer in Pakistan and I admired his work to promote tolerance and the education of Pakistan’s future generations. His death is a great loss. Our deepest sympathies are with Governor Taseer’s wife and children.
The United States remains committed to helping the government and people of Pakistan as they persevere in their campaign to bring peace and stability to their country.”
That’s it. That’s all she wrote. Why issue such a tepid response? Perhaps from concern about making a bad situation worse, which is often the reason given for not speaking out powerfully about that which is deserving of moral outrage. The words “strongly condemn” are not actually the words of a strong condemnation. But a full-throated blast at the increasing violence and religious intolerance of Pakistani society would raise issues that this administration might prefer to defer.
America’s relationship with Pakistan is complex and the stakes are extraordinarily high. Pakistan’s partnership is essential to military success in Afghanistan, but Pakistan’s political system seems increasingly fragile. The possibility of a failed state with nuclear weapons must keep American policy planners up late at night. The stress of dealing with such momentous issues may have been a factor in the fatal heart attack of Richard Holbrooke.
The U.S. provides Pakistan with billions of dollars in military and civilian aid, partly in the hope of gaining whole-hearted support from the Pakistani military and intelligence communities in the fight along the Afghan border and inside Pakistan against Taliban and al-Qaeda.
For Secretary Clinton, these geostrategic issues and the lives of over 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan no doubt outweigh the human rights violations which occur with a high degree of public support in the land of our sometimes-ally Pakistan. But we ignore the attacks on freedom at our peril.
Columnist Irfan Husain, writing this week in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, notes that attacks by local Muslims on local Christians are increasing in other countries as well – Egypt, Nigeria, and Iraq are named – and the number of Christians leaving these countries is growing. He asks the awful question about attacks within the borders of such countries, “When did it become acceptable for Muslims to kill Christians?”
One approach that might seem like common sense is to have everyone shut up about their religious beliefs and deal with them as privately as possible, at least in countries where religious minorities do not enjoy the protection of law and law enforcement. But this approach is fundamentally flawed.
There is a real divide in the world on this matter, but not a divide between all Muslims and all Christians or between all religious conservatives (or fundamentalists) and all religious liberals (or moderates) – the terms don’t really fit. The divide is between those who would act to suppress or eliminate their religious opponents and those who are willing to live in the same society – perhaps not on the same block but in the same country – with those who do not share their faith.
The word “freedom” should not be partisan, belonging to one political party or another. The freedoms of religion and speech that Roosevelt held up as universal ideals seventy years ago are under attack again. The State of the Union address which President Obama will deliver later this month provides an excellent opportunity for him to reassert the centrality of those freedoms to America’s vision for the world’s future.
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