Tag Archives: First Amendment

Islamophobia and Ignorance

Peter King, the man behind the recent "Muslim hearings." (Source: peteking.house.gov)

Earlier this month, Representative Peter King of New York held a hearing that was called to “investigate the radicalization of Muslims in the United States.” This sparked an uproar among religious and secular groups across the US, who were infuriated by what seems to be obvious bigotry.

King, who is pictured here, of course denies any such allegations. The man is adamant that this is not discrimination, and many people agree with him.

I have to admit that it’s an unavoidable (and unfortunate) fact that there tend to be more Islamist extremists than there are extremists in other major religions. (I pray that no one takes this in an offensive way!) But King’s approach to this problem of possibly-encroaching extremism is not just appallingly bigoted, but the wrong way to solve the issue.

First, the bigoted part. While it’s statistically true that there tend to be more Muslim extremists (at least here in the US) than those of other religions, it’s patently false that violent extremism is exclusive to any one religion. (Just take a look at Timothy McVeigh or Shoko Asahara, founder of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult.) By claiming that Islamist extremism is the only real threat to America from religious groups (which he hasn’t necessarily explicitly said, but seems to be pretty heavily implied in his singular focus on Muslims), King is isolating and discriminating against a typically peaceful and law-abiding group of people simply based on their religion.

Now, to me it seems obvious that this is religious discrimination. King is essentially leveling his gavel against an entire group of people based on the actions of a very few individuals. This is a vast and offensive generalization of Islam and of Muslims. It’s understandable that Peter King would want to hold a hearing on religious violence in general. But by focusing exclusively on Muslims, King is not only ignoring the possibility of religious violence from other sectors, but unfairly focusing on a religion whose adherents are almost totally peaceful.

The implications here are more than simple issues of religious fairness though. Radical Islamist groups’ resentment toward the United States is often based largely on the perceived bigotry of Americans toward Muslims, and sadly there’s often a lot of truth to accusations of religious animosity against Muslims among Americans. Besides this, many non-extremist Muslims in the US feel victimized by some Americans’ anti-Islamic sentiments. Peter King’s recent actions do nothing but add fuel to the fires of disenfranchisement among American Muslims, and make Islam seem like a religion that has no place in America. Other countries, including the United Kingdom and France, are also making moves that alienate their Muslim inhabitants.

This alienation is not just wrong, but a violation of basic American and human rights. If the US claims to be a country based on “liberty and justice for all,” then its public servants, especially its federal level ones, cannot single out groups of people, whether or not those groups have a greater tendency toward extremism. Peter King, and any other politician who wants to look into the radicalization of any religious group, must do it in a way that is not exclusively focused on one group. The longer our country, and really any country (or person), continues to foster this kind of prejudice and religious ignorance, the greater our problems with extremism will become.

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Pay Them No Mind

They must have missed the "Love your neighbor" part of the Bible.

In a striking and unilateral defense of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church today, guaranteeing them the right to picket at military funerals and stage the hateful protests they’re so well-known for.

According to the SCOTUS brief on the case, Snyder v. Fred Phelps et al, the church has a constitutional right to picket funerals and stage their demonstrations, no matter how controversial the message they preach is.

For those of you who are uneducated about the WBC, let me give you a brief primer. WBC is a “church” in Kansas headed by a rapidly aging, hate-spewing ex-lawyer named Fred Phelps. The church frequently pickets military funerals or gay pride events to inform Americans that their tolerance for sin, particularly the “sin” of homosexuality, has put them on God’s black list. You may recognize them from pictures of Midwesterners holding large signs that read, “GOD HATES FAGS.” A little further research on the insane beliefs held by the Phelps’ will show that they believe that more or less everyone person who isn’t a member of their hate-mongering church has been signed up for eternal damnation for some crime or other.

Back to the Supreme Court decision! The court ruled, in an 8-1 decision in fact, that WBC does in fact have a right to say what they want where they want, no matter how much hatred is behind their words. As long as Phelps and friends adhere to the given guidelines for orderly protests/pickets, which they did in the case brought before SCOTUS, they are merely exercising their constitutional rights.

To me, this really brings up a crucial and confusing moral question: Do people have a basic right to say and believe anything they please, so long as it doesn’t bring direct harm to others? The Supreme Court answers that question with a definitive yes, and so do I. The most basic principle of the First Amendment to our constitution is the right to free speech. Even if the only things that a person or a group has to say are hateful, disagreeable, or downright wrong, that person or group has a right to say them.

Now, I’m by no means defending the opinions of the Westboro Baptist Church. On the contrary, I’m saying that, while the opinions that these people hold are utterly despicable and deplorable, they still have a right, in this country, to voice those views. Because our government is made up of so many diverse groups of people, often with diametrically opposite views, and our broader population is even more diverse, it’s impossible to say that any one view should get special treatment. While almost everyone in the country disagrees with WBC, if we were to make a law against them, then we would be institutionalizing the majority viewpoint, rather than an unbiased law. And that’s exactly what the Constitution was meant to prevent… right?

This does bring up one issue though: What if what they say is more than controversial, but outright dangerous? The UK has explicitly banned Fred Phelps and one of this daughters from entering their country, and threatened to exclude any other WBC members who tried to get in. Their reasoning is that the message of hate that the Phelps’ preach has the potential to incite hatred and violence toward gays in the country, and that this is reason enough to keep them well away from British soil. This other side of the argument is a difficult one to deal with. On the one hand, I want to say that I support the rights of all people to say and believe what they choose. But isn’t there a limit? Once a person’s belief starts inflicting terrible emotional harm on others (as WBC does at military funeral pickets), hasn’t it gone too far?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know which way I should lean on this issue. I do, however, have an answer for how to handle the WBC: Minimize their impact. As it is, the WBC makes national news more often than almost any other religious institution (though I would be hard-pressed to say that the WBC is really any kind of religion), even though the church is really only composed of a small core of insanely radical nutjobs. Because they’re so radical and hateful in their message, the church gets an incredibly disproportionate amount of coverage and attention. So, I would say that their power doesn’t come from their message, their signs, or even their protests. It comes from their infamy.

People treat the WBC as an influential force of evil in the States, which to some extent is true. But truth be told, they have almost no real power or influence on peoples’ opinions! The more the Westboro Baptist Church is treated like a force to be reckoned with, the more strongly they’ll voice their repulsive opinions. Counter-protest them when you can, tell your friends who they are, but don’t treat them as if they matter even a bit. The more distress and pain we show because of these peoples’ actions, the more they’ll continue to inflict suffering. So if you ever come across Fred Phelps and his cronies, turn around and pay them no mind, instead focusing on the people they’re trying to hurt. Because we want our children and grandchildren to look back at these people with utter disbelief, and laugh at the idea that someone could ever be so ridiculous.

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Freedom from the State?

Quite the idea, but is it the right one?

Ten years ago, a young man named Jason Sorens published an article in The Libertarian Enterprise, a libertarian web journal (admittedly, one with a tendency toward sensationalism). Sorens challenged his fellow libertarians on their collective failure to elect any libertarian politicians to any federal positions. He also summarized his ideas for a new secessionist movement. His ideas got a large response, and he began organizing what he called the Free State Project. The project’s goal is to inspire 20,000 people to move to the state of New Hampshire, in an effort to turn the state into a kind of bastion of libertarian ideals, and perhaps get more momentum going in the political sphere, at least in New Hamphsire. At the time of this writing, they have 10,641 participants, and 889 of those have actually made the move (this from their website).

I actually heard about this from a Facebook ad for a documentary called Libertopia, which was made to explain the Free State Project and profile some of the key members of it. I watched the trailer for the movie, and it fascinated me, not necessarily because I agreed with all that was said, but because it was just a such a strange new idea to me.

The core idea behind libertarianism is the minimization of the state. Of course, there’s a wide range of specific philosophies and approaches to bringing this about, but all of them focus on this one idea of a small state, if any. Now, I quite like this ideology in theory, but it gets a little (by which I mean a lot) more complicated in practice. Rousseau was famous for saying, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” It’s true that humanity has become tied up and bogged down in an often complex and rigid system of rules and regulations, many of which may seem utterly meaningless. Taxation is particularly odious to libertarian thought, as it sometimes comes across as nothing less than state-sanctioned robbery.

On the one hand, I can agree with these complaints. I agree that there are some areas where government intervention and interference is too strong, especially areas that relate to such personal matters as sexual orientation or religious preference. I think government, particularly the American government, has taken far too much into its own hands as regards gay rights and freedom of religion, with many politicians being elected based on their Christian beliefs rather than their qualifications, and states being as conflicted as they are about the marriage rights of gays and lesbians.

That said, I still think that government is both necessary and proper, even though it often falls short of its obligations and oversteps its restrictions. For one thing, few are the societies or civilizations that last long with no civil government in place and no law but a call for mutual harmony and peace. I feel I should note here that this isn’t a universal principle of libertarianism, but more of a hallmark of anarchism (one of its subgenre). A number of libertarians, particularly minarchists, simply insist on a smaller state, one that more or less only provides physical protection and prevention of fraud, theft, etc.

Now back to the Free State Project! As I mentioned before, I think this is a really interesting and novel idea. The founder, Sorens, noted that this movement is another political migration, in the vein of the Mormon move to Utah or the dispersion of Amish communities. But what’s the right response to it? As I mentioned, I like the idea of an increase in freedom, especially in the areas of religion and sexuality. I don’t think that the state should be minimized almost to the point of disappearance, but I do think it’s possible that American politics is due for a thorough examination, from the ground up. While our representative democracy is a fairly good system, and one that’s definitely much better than the governments in many other countries, I think there frequently is an abuse of power, on both sides of the aisle. The Free State Project might be taking a more extreme approach to fix this than I would, but maybe they have the right idea: A restructuring of state-level government, one piece at a time.

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God & Government

Just as it should be.

“Separation of church and state.” It’s one of those phrases that gets thrown around the political arena endlessly, and permeates almost all talk involving the role of religion in government (and really, vice versa as well).

But what exactly does (and should) this mean? That’s where the conflict starts arising.

The phrase itself isn’t actually found in the Constitution, but instead in a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote about said document, in which he praised the American people for building a “wall of separation” between the church and the state in the form of the First Amendment.

A number of conservative Christians claim that “separation of church and state” is found nowhere in the Constitution, but it seems crystal clear that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment doesn’t want the state to influence the church, and especially doesn’t want the church to influence the state, at least outside of the normal voting rights of members of the church. “No law respecting an establishment of religion” seems pretty black and white to me.

And yet, as usual, there’s conflict. The issue from the typical Christian’s viewpoint though, is that God unilaterally supersedes government, no matter what. I hope it’s as obvious to my readers as it is to me that this is an incredibly dangerous way of thinking, at least from the perspective of the general public. The religious right is already adept at insisting that all members of American society should adhere to their definition of what is right. In doing this, they are both invoking and revoking the First Amendment simultaneously.

Let me explain what I mean by this. The religious right (and, to a lesser extent, the majority of the evangelical Christian movement) is invoking their First Amendment right to freedom of religion, refusing to let the government repress their religious expression, which is a good thing. But at the same time, they’re essentially saying that all citizens of the US must respect their establishment of religion. Laws that are brought into being out of religious conviction are inherently un-Constitutional, as they turn the state into a vehicle of whichever religion those convictions sprang from (mostly Christianity).

So many evangelical Christians (I’m sort of zeroing in on this one religious group, I know. I give no excuse for this, having been one in past) have such a strong “God over government” mentality that they don’t hesitate at all in their willingness to trample the rights (and sometimes humanity) of others to do the “godly” thing. In a democracy, disdain for the authority of government in some ways shows a disdain for the rights and authority of the governed, because the authority of said government is derived from the consent of the governed. The laws and protections afforded by the government don’t just reflect the desires of the president or Congress, they reflect the desires and needs of the people under said government. And if the religious right thinks that that government, the one whose job it is to protect religious and ideological minorities (no matter how much disagreement the evangelical Christian community raises), is still beholden to a homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic God (just to give a few religious right examples), then they will stop at nothing to mow down the institutions of that government that they don’t think their God would agree with.


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