A different kind of freedom in the Middle East
Could you imagine how different it might feel to be an American today if the ideas of individual freedom and secularism that took root in Enlightenment Europe and the American colonies beginning in the 1700s had flowered in the Middle East at the same time?
The recent demonstrations against America and the killing of our ambassador and consulate employees — though admittedly these acts were carried out by a small minority — got me thinking about this. But then two relatively mundane stories I read in our own newspaper brought the issue full circle.
In rural Swain County, the library is celebrating national Banned Books Week. We in the U.S. have such a secure sense of our freedom that librarians — government bureaucrats, really — have no problem poking fun at our humorous and puritanical history of censorship. Once upon a time, books about the likes of Tarzan and Jane were banned because a half-naked jungle man and a woman from high society were living together in the jungle, unmarried.
Sounds almost quaint to think that someone could find such a scenario disturbing enough to ban a book. In less-liberal countries, all kinds of books and information remain hidden or talked about only behind closed doors. To say we’ve come a long way is an understatement.
In Jackson County, a peaceful sit-in by illegal immigrants in the lobby of the Jackson sheriff’s office earlier this month has prompted the county manager to suggest that an ordinance governing protests is needed. Jackson County landed on the protesters’ national itinerary due to allegations that Sheriff Jimmy Ashe engaged in racial profiling with strategically placed traffic checkpoints.
We take for granted our rights to gather in public and engage in protests against our government. In fact, as this example shows, it’s the government who must get permission from elected leaders — in this case, the county commissioners — before anything can be done to stop a peaceful demonstration by those opposed to government actions.
The Arab spring may have brought democracy to countries like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but it didn’t bring our brand of freedom. The foundation of our democracy is based on the free flow of ideas — even those we detest — and limits on what the government has a right to do. In the infant democracies of the Middle East, that is not the case. The freedoms that come with the new democracies end where religion begins.
And though we enshrined religious and individual freedoms in our Constitution, it has taken more than 200 years for us to get where we are today, where minorities are protected and women have equal rights, where poll taxes have been abolished and we don’t kill black men for dating white women. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a Catholic was elected president, and today Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is a non-issue. Gay Americans, though, are still fighting for equal rights.
Our democracy has evolved over almost 250 years. With the Internet and social media, it will likely take half a generation — perhaps much less time — for those in the Middle East to move from free elections to some brand of institutionally accepted secularism. The time will come when a controversial Internet video poking fun at Mohammed won’t send violent protesters running into the streets but rather will be roundly ridiculed by Arab government leaders and citizens for its poor taste. Then it will be quickly forgotten; the end. Hopefully that day comes sooner than later, but it will come.