What Islamists and nontheists have in common

Apparently, it’s not only politics that make strange bedfellows, but religion (and the struggle against it) which does as well. … Continued

Apparently, it’s not only politics that make strange bedfellows, but religion (and the struggle against it) which does as well. That’s a lesson brought home by the unlikely triumvirate of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, Yemen’s President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The first two men, Islamist leaders who rose to power in the Arab Spring, each spoke at the United Nation in support of laws that limited expression when it is “directed toward one specific religion or cult” in the words of Morsi, or when it “blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures,” in the words of Hadi. In other words, when the ideas include opinions they find offensive, those ideas should not be expressed.

Those views are also entirely consistent with what I have heard in my own conversations about freedom of expression with Islamist thinkers and journalists, especially among members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. For them freedom of expression is limited to that which does not violate their particular beliefs.

Most interesting however, is how that same approach to freedom of expression can be found right here at home, and not only among Islamists, but among aggressive secularists, including the folks at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. While they probably wouldn’t like being lumped together, they too are demonstrating how little respect they have for genuine freedom of conscience and speech.

The foundation is suing not one, but two school districts in Pennsylvania over displays of the Ten Commandments on school grounds. There are certainly potential problems with such displays, and there is no doubt that plenty of religionists lack appropriate sensitivity to either the needs of their secular neighbors or the limits on public displays of religion as laid out in the U.S. Constitution. So were that all the foundation were suing over, I might disagree with them, but would not be comparing them to the leaders of Egypt and Yemen.

Unfortunately, and foolishly, the foundation leaped right past the zealous defense of their own position, and chose to pursue the suppression of others’ views and their right to express them. Not only is the foundation suing for the removal of the displays from school grounds, they are suing to block a local church from hosting the displays on their grounds. Why? Because the church is next to some school athletic fields and might be seen by students!

In other words, very much like the laws proposed by leading Islamists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation seems to believe that people must be protected from ideas which the foundation finds objectionable. The legitimate fight to secure their own rights has become the fight to strip others of theirs. If that doesn’t sound like what’s happening all over the Middle East, what does?

The similarity is clear. It’s a similarity grounded not in the protection of free expression for all, but about limiting the expression of ideas because some people find them distasteful.

The test of any movement or cause which associates itself with freedom, whether in the Middle East or the Unites States, is how hard its proponents will fight, not only for their own freedom or the freedom of those ideas with which they agree, but how hard they will fight to protect the freedom of other people, and those ideas with which they disagree. And this week, it looks like lots of folks should be getting failing grades on that test.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • WmarkW

    Rabbi, the distinction you miss is that Morsi and Hadi want to criminalize expression by INDIVIDUALS, while the Freedom from Religion Foundation, only wants to curtail its endorsement by GOVERNMENT.

    The FFA is not attempting to limit speech by a homeowner on his property; by any church, synagogue, mosque, etc. on their land; or by streetcorner preacher on public parks or sidewalks. They only want public schools, a government agency, not to endorse the tenets of theism as being prefered over opposite beliefs.

    The distinction is not endorse of the particular content of religious speech; but that government should neither prohibit it by private entities, nor conduct it themselves.

  • It wasn’t me

    “Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” Napoleon Bonaparte

  • Kingofkings1

    Mr. Hirschfield,
    Here are 2 examples of utilizing freedom of speech and expression. Please support its dissemination. I have to print and suggest portions of my expression, as WAPO will not print it otherwise(contrary to freedom of speech and expression):
    1. The fi—- jews are a problem throughout the world
    Caricatures to include rabbis drinking blood and pulling the hearts out of live children

    2. The uppity ni—-s need to be taught a lesson and their place in society
    Caricatures to include an black man licking his white master’s toes, and another black man hung from a tree, with a sign that says “I was uppity”

    Please support freedom of speech and expression

  • Marta Layton


    That was my first reaction on reading the comparison, but I’m not sure it’s accurate. Mr. Hirschfield points out that the FFA also objected to a church near the school displaying the monuments, on their own property.

    Assuming this is true (I don’t know enough about the case to decide there), then the FFA seems much more analogous to the Islamist groups. Both seem to be against private individuals expressing something the FFA/Islamists find offensive. Can you explain how a church displaying the Ten Commandments on its own property involves the government endorsing that display?

  • tatooyou

    So turn about is fair play for those who create laws to make it illegal for people whose beliefs it is to deny the holocaust, is an infringement on their freedom of ideas too, right ?

  • Kingofkings1

    In certain western european countries, you will enocunter no problem if you think the world is a square, but if you want to question the accuracy of body count of the jewish victims of WWII era, you will be taken to prison. Meanwhile, europe has rid itself of the jewish question, paid for by the suffering of the palestinians, and maintained by the threat of the combined western war apparatus. What is your take regarding this freedom of expression and ideas, mr Hirschfield?

  • jhmi

    I agree with Marta Layton’s caveats, but would note that, to the extent that until churches renounce their tax-extempt status, we might be forgiven thinking of them as wards of the state, or state sponsored.

    It rankles to think this church asserts it’s proper to promote as beneficial (let alone necessary) it’s irrational teaching to children and expects privileged tax status to boot.

  • aby

    The freedom of speech as excluding any that offends their sensibilities is adopted by the insecure . That definitely includes more than the two ideologies mentioned by the author.

  • larryclyons

    there is not one true statement in your screed.

  • Rustylizard

    Brad Hirschfield,

    I would have agreed with you, but I smelled a skunk and contacted FFRF. It appears that you and the school and the church are being disingenuous.

    FFRF is objecting because, “The school actually has contracted use of the field through the church, so it acts as school property during athletic practices.”

    So, the remedies are: 1. The school can stop contracting the use of church property with religious monuments on it, or 2. The church can remove the religious monument when the land rightfully belongs to the lessee and return it when it does not .

    I have never known FFRF to be disrespectful of the Free Exercise Clause. The members I know think believers should be free to embrace any goofy idea they want, so long as it does not involve a criminal act.

    Muslims, however … well, that’s another matter.

  • Rustylizard


    And the Ten Commandments start off with a violation of the constitution right off the bat with, “Thou shalt have no other gods …”

    The constitution gives us the right to have any god or none at all, and believers of the Old Testament and New Testament cannot even agree on who that is.

    Perhaps we should set a granite monument next to them, explaining their shortcomings. A little education might be in order.


    Disingenuous? Do you mean the rabbi is lying? That’s against the ten commandments!

  • MSRJ

    The author of this article clearly confuses Freedom of Expression with Freedom of Breaking the Law. FFRF fights those who abuse the U.S. Constitution for their personal agendas. Forcing people to be unwilling participants in your particular religion goes against the basic principles by which this country was founded. It is arrogant and ignorant to assume that everyone attending a football game or a school event is Christian. Why should only your faith be celebrated in these events? Freedom of Religion does not mean that everyone should be Christian, even though this is clearly what the author of this article would like. Maybe the conclusion after reading the article is that the author is actually more like the extremist Muslims, who want to impose their way over all others. Thanks to the US Constitution you can pray freely to whatever god you believe in. Keep stepping on the US Constitution and we may just lose that freedom.