Saudi Arabian Women Hit the Road

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled by an absolute monarchy in cooperation with the vicious and medieval Wahhabist clerics, has some of the most oppressive and primitive laws in the world when it comes to the rights of women. Saudi women are forbidden to appear in public without a face-covering veil and a full-body shroud; they're forbidden to travel, get an education or even leave their house without the permission of a male guardian; and they're forbidden to mingle with unrelated men in public or in private, an unsubtle form of gender apartheid. Beaches, parks, restaurants, businesses and homes all have physically separate entrances for men and women and sex-segregated areas within to comply with these laws.

In her book Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes about her childhood, part of which she spent in Saudi Arabia when her father was in exile from Somalia; one of the most searing passages was when she wrote about how, at night, she could hear the screams of women in neighboring houses who were being beaten by their husbands. And then there's the infamous 2002 incident where the Saudi religious police, the mutaween, forced schoolgirls back into a burning building because they weren't properly dressed and veiled to appear in public.

But out of all these laws, the one that seems most pointless, even by Saudi Arabia's own sharia-based standard, is the one that forbids women from driving. That's why I was encouraged to hear that a few brave women are planning to defy it:

Manal and 10 other people are organizing a campaign on Facebook and Twitter urging Saudi women with international driver's licenses to join them starting June 17, risking their jobs and their freedom. The coordinated plan isn't a protest, she said.

"I'm doing it because I'm frustrated, angry and mad," Manal, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said in an interview from the eastern city of Dhahran. "It's 2011 and we're still discussing this insignificant right for women."

...The campaign has received the support of some Saudi men. Ahmad al-Yacoub, 24, a Dhahran-based businessman, said he's joined the effort because "these ladies are not fighting with religion or the government."

"They are asking for a simple right that they want to practice freely without being harassed or questioned," al-Yacoub said.

I'd hoped that the democratic revolution sweeping the Middle East would have spread to Saudi Arabia next, but so far, that hasn't happened. This is trivial in comparison, but in a country as oppressive and benighted as this, even a tiny glimmer of resistance is an achievement worth noticing. The protest itself probably won't accomplish anything, but far more important is the recognition among Saudi women that they're being denied freedoms that are theirs by right. That's a spark that's ignited revolutions in other countries, and if it lands on dry tinder, it can happen again - and when it comes to human rights, what place is drier than Saudi Arabia?

The reporter who wrote this article felt the need to contact one of Saudi Arabia's human-hating theocratic clerics for comment, who obliged by describing the evils that will happen if this protest succeeds:

The plan is "against the law, and the women who drive should be punished according to the law," al-Nujaimi said in a telephone interview. Driving causes "more harm than good" to women, because they risk mixing with men they aren't related to, such as mechanics and gas-station attendants, he added.

"Women will also get used to leaving their homes at will," al-Nujaimi said.

The Wahhabist complaint boils down to this: "If women demand that we stop oppressing them, we may have to stop oppressing them!" It should be no surprise that this is the best reasoning they can come up with to justify centuries of religious bigotry and misogyny.

On a related note, here's an e-mail I'm still thinking about:

Hello, my name is [omitted] and I am a Internet marketing professional. I had done a Google search under the keyword burqa store and had run across your website I see that you are not listed on the first page of Google for your particular search.

...I didn't send this email out to very many people but I do favor your website because I can see your website monetizing the targeted website traffic for the keyword burqa store can deliver.

I have to admit, I'd never have imagined that the target demographic for burqa buyers has such a large overlap with the readership of Daylight Atheism. I guess that's why we have Internet marketing professionals!

May 16, 2011, 12:42 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink18 comments

Photo Saturday: Ai Weiwei's Zodiac Circle

This past week, on a sunny spring day, I went on my lunch hour to see a new public art installation in midtown Manhattan:

Zodiac Heads
Zodiac Heads Zodiac Heads
Zodiac Heads Zodiac Heads

This exhibit, "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads", is noteworthy for being created by the internationally famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. After being chosen to design the "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was considered a national hero; but when he used that prominent platform to speak out against government corruption and censorship, the thuggish despots who rule China abruptly did an about-face.

At the beginning of April, Ai Weiwei was disappeared by the Chinese government, and his status and whereabouts have been unknown since then in spite of an international campaign calling for his release. Nevertheless, the exhibits he had designed and planned before his arrest continue to be unveiled all over the world, often with pointed jabs at China during the ceremonies. (At the unveiling of this one, a curator at the Guggenheim read an apt quote: "Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one.")

These sculptures represent the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac, but their somewhat generic appearance hides a pointed message. I've read that they're a deliberate homage to twelve similar sculptures which were once part of a famous fountain on the grounds of the Chinese imperial family's Summer Palace, but which were stolen when the complex was looted, sacked and burned by the British and French during the Second Opium War of 1860. Only five have since been returned to China; two others have been found, but the owner has refused to repatriate them.

With this history in mind, the exhibit is a subtle statement about the harm done by imperialism. But under the present circumstances, it's possible to discern another layer of meaning in it. The absence of the original sculptures was and is a long-remembered symbol of Chinese national humiliation. In their new incarnations, they more powerfully call attention to the absence of their creator - and remind the world of the shame and ignominy the current Chinese government has brought upon itself through its outrageous arrogance in believing that it can control all human expression through brutality.

May 14, 2011, 9:19 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink10 comments

India's Daughters Are Missing

I feel bad writing about so much terrible news for women so close to Mother's Day. On the other hand, what better time is there to emphasize just how much still has to be done in the global fight for women's rights?

Despite all the outrages against women committed by the religious right in America, at least here there's a baseline belief in women's equality (even if our society often falls far short of its aspirations). More fundamental problems still linger in the developing world, such as in India, where the pernicious custom of dowry persists despite repeated attempts to stamp it out. In many cases, the family of the groom expects payments large enough to beggar the bride's family. In the worst cases, dowry has become not just a one-time payment but a limitless stream of demands from the groom's family, with the bride essentially held hostage: if her parents refuse to pay, she may be beaten or murdered by her own in-laws. And India's growing economic prosperity has worsened this trend rather than mitigated it, leading to ever more exorbitant demands made of middle-class families - cars, electronics, gold jewelry, flat-screen TVs.

Given the huge cost of having a daughter in this sexist environment, it's no surprise that millions of Indian families strongly prefer to have sons. But they've expressed that preference in an awful way: expectant parents will go for a test to find out the sex of the fetus and get an abortion if it's female. (Some women are forced or bullied into this by their husbands, but others go along willingly.) In other instances, especially among the poorest families, girls are mistreated or neglected in the not-so-subtle hope that they'll die of disease or hunger, whereas the same parents would spare no expense to preserve the life of a boy. The epidemic of sex-selective abortion has led to severely skewed gender ratios - in some areas, as low as 825 girls to every 1,000 boys. Michelle Goldberg writes in The Means of Reproduction that the Sikhs, an allegedly peaceful religious sect, have some of the highest rates of sex-selective abortion in the world.

I'm strongly pro-choice, and I believe that, if performed before the fetus' brain develops to the point where consciousness is possible, abortion doesn't harm any person. (This, of course, doesn't apply to women who deliberately starve their daughters or neglect to provide them with needed medical care.) So who exactly is harmed by women who abort female fetuses? Is there any injury done to anyone that would justify banning this?

I think the epidemic of sex-selective abortion is like pollution - an act which is perceived to benefit the actor, but imposes a greater cost which all of society has to bear collectively. And in this instance, the cost is that a severe imbalance of men over women is bad for societal stability. It's bad for human happiness, making it harder for people to fall in love and start families. It's especially bad for women, as it will doubtless lead to more jealousy (and therefore more violence against women), more sex trafficking, and more rape. Some policy analysts even fear it will lead to more wars, as demagogic politicians appeal to the frustration of angry, unmarriageable young men.

This is Prisoner's Dilemma logic: in a sexist society which imposes heavy costs for having girls, it makes more sense for any individual woman to want a son than a daughter, but when everyone follows that logic, all of society suffers. India's somewhat draconian solution has been to ban tests that allow parents to find out the sex of a fetus, but that restriction is easily evaded with the help of unscrupulous doctors, and still doesn't address the problem of parents starving and mistreating daughters once they're born.

This almost seems like a problem that should take care of itself. One would think that the sheer force of supply and demand would kick in at some point, giving women and their families the leverage to refuse to pay dowry, but that hasn't happened yet. The prejudices against women must be incredibly strong, for these demands not to budge even in the face of scarcity. Nevertheless, from a purely economic perspective, there has to be an equilibrium point at which the rarity of women, which increases their bargaining power, balances and then overcomes the misogyny which decreases their bargaining power. But the gender imbalance will have to be even more severe for that to happen, and vast harm may be done in the meantime. There's strong reason to take action earlier, but is there anything that can be done, short of banning fetal sex-determination testing, which is a serious infringement on human liberty in its own right?

Some parts of India have tried paying for girls' education or meals, but it hasn't helped enough. I might suggest something a little more direct: outright cash payments for having girls, dispensed over several years contingent on the child being alive and healthy. This would be similar to proven-effective anti-poverty programs like Mexico's Oportunidades, which pay cash to the very poor to incentivize good behavior. The payments may not even need to be that large for this to work - thanks to the human bias toward hyperbolic discounting, a small payment in the present might easily be judged to outweigh a larger (but less certain) cost in the future.

This is only my suggestion, and it might not work in practice. But regardless, this is a problem that everyone, including people in the West, should be thinking about and discussing. With their growing economic power, India (and China, which also has this problem) are going to play a major role in shaping the future of humanity over the next several decades. If archaic and destructive sexist attitudes about the value of women come along for the ride, we'll all be much worse off for it. A huge part of calling ourselves a rational civilization is recognizing the equal worth and value of all human beings, and defeating the vicious prejudices - whether they manifest as religion, culture, or whatever else - that hold back any part of humanity and prevent them from making their full contribution to the welfare and happiness of the species.

May 9, 2011, 1:31 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink32 comments

The Republican Party Still Hates Women

This week, the House of Representatives voted for HR 3, one of the most vicious and horrendous anti-choice bills ever conceived. This bill revokes all federal tax credits for any health insurance plan that includes abortion coverage - in effect, it raises taxes on private employers who offer insurance to their employees that covers abortion, and even on individuals who purchase health insurance that covers abortion. Republicans, normally fanatic in their anti-tax stance, seem to have no problem with this tax increase. It also codifies the "conscience clause" exception which would arguably allow a doctor or a hospital to let a miscarrying woman die on the waiting room floor rather than perform a lifesaving abortion.

Like most of the other deranged bills passed by the House in this Congress, this one will be blocked in the Senate and has no realistic chance of passage. Nevertheless, it's another chilling glimpse into how far Republicans are willing to go to strip away the rights of women - like the horrible South Dakota bill which requires women seeking abortion to reveal their identities to an evangelical Christian church and then sit through a mandatory session of proselytizing.

The Republican agenda, pursued to the point of obsession, is to load abortion down with increasingly complicated and burdensome restrictions until it's out of the reach of nearly all women. If you ask when it will be restricted enough to satisfy them, the real answer is never, because their real goal is to outlaw abortion, and if they can't do that, their fallback position is to pile up more and more restrictions until it's impossible in practice even if it's theoretically legal. For pro-choice voters, it feels like we're fighting a constant rearguard action, always trying to prevent ground from being lost rather than making gains of our own - for instance, when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, there was no serious effort to repeal the awful Hyde Amendment.

Part of the reason, I think, is that there are too many liberals who treat this as a dispassionate political question - or worse, still assume good faith on the part of the Republicans pushing these policies - and therefore, aren't as vehement in their opposition as they should be. For example, here's Nicholas Kristof, who I usually find very insightful but who has a persistent blind spot of treating his ideological enemies as if they want the same things as him:

"With the best of intentions, pro-life conservatives have taken some positions in reproductive health that actually hurt those whom they are trying to help... liberals and conservatives should be able to agree on steps that prevent unwanted pregnancies and thus reduce the frequency of abortion." [Half the Sky, p.134]

He also describes New Jersey representative Chris Smith, the lead sponsor of HR 3, as "a good man who genuinely care[s]" about women (p.133).

What Kristof doesn't get is that Republicans don't care about reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. For them, this isn't about outcomes. (They're Kantians, not utilitarians, in that respect.) What matters is to them that they use the law to set forth their vision of an ideal society, and in their ideal society, there are no abortions. What would actually happen to women - forced birth, death from complications of pregnancy, inescapable poverty - is something about which they have no concern. And what's even more disturbing is that, in their ideal society, there's not just no abortion but no contraception.

This isn't widely known, because anti-choice forces are well aware that it would be electoral poison to say so outright. Instead, they've been trying to introduce it gradually, a little at a time, gradually getting voters used to the idea. (See this excellent column by Gail Collins.) We've already seen the contours of their strategy. If they succeed in making abortion unavailable, the next step will be the birth control pill and other hormonal contraception, which conservatives have always wanted to ban based on the junk-science belief that it's equivalent to abortion because it prevents implantation of a fertilized egg (there's no evidence to support this). If they succeed at this, the next step will be IUDs, which will undoubtedly come in for the same treatment. Even I can't guess how they'll demonize condoms or surgical sterilization as equivalent to abortion, but if we reach that point, there's no doubt that they would.

The essential step in stopping this is recognizing the whole sweep of the Republican strategy, which entails recognizing that their endless assaults on choice aren't good-faith disagreements or efforts to protect their own conscience, but attempts to impose a draconian forced-birth policy on all women. If we can see this, and get other people to see this, we'll be able to bring the same passion to the fight that conservatives bring to it.

May 6, 2011, 6:01 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink79 comments

Free Speech Still Under Attack

Free speech is always and everywhere under attack in the world, and as depressing as it is to have to keep pointing that out, I think it's vital to highlight it when it happens so that this human right is never taken for granted. Unfortunately, these past few weeks have offered a surfeit of examples.

First, there's India, whose government has quietly issued new rules allowing for the censorship of any internet content deemed "blasphemous", "hateful" or "disparaging". Apparently, all it takes is for someone to file a complaint. There's no mechanism of appeal, and websites created or maintained in other countries aren't exempted. Considering that India is beset with both Muslim and Hindu mobs that have shown themselves ready to riot over the slightest provocation, it's not hard to guess what kind of websites will be among the first targets of fundamentalist complaints. Speech which "outrages religious feelings" is already illegal in India, and journalists and publishers have been arrested and charged under this law for speaking their minds, but this attempt to censor the entire Internet is a new and frightening extreme even if it's certain to fail in practice.

From India to England, where a man has been sentenced to 70 days in jail for burning a Qur'an. The local police labeled this a "hate crime", and the judge explained: "People are entitled to protest in this country... but [not] in such a way as it will inflame". Since it "inflames" me to see a nonviolent act of protest punished with imprisonment, regardless of whether or not it was done with racist intent, am I entitled to demand that this judge and these police be sent to jail as well?

Meanwhile, in Italy, the director Nanni Moretti produced a satirical film called Habemus Papam ("We Have a Pope"), which depicts a panic-stricken incompetent thrust into the papacy who seeks psychiatric help to cope with the pressure. The shrieking denunciations and fatwa envy expressed by Catholic hard-liners were to be expected, but what's more noteworthy is that a Catholic bigot named Bruno Volpe promptly filed a lawsuit against the producers under the Lateran Pact, a treaty ratified by Mussolini's government that protects the "prestige of the pope". Yes, let that sink in: Right-wing Catholics are openly using a law passed by fascists to attack free speech!

And for the European trifecta, there's Spain, where a Madrid court has banned an atheist procession that had been scheduled to coincide with Catholic marches on Easter weekend. The "State Association of Christian Lawyers" (now there's a pro-theocratic group if ever I heard of one) filed complaints which spurred the government to investigate and, astonishingly, file charges against the atheists, just for seeking permission to march:

Madrid's local government... has launched legal proceedings against the group Ateos en Lucha [great name! —Ebonmuse] insisting it is 'ridiculing religion' and 'glorifying terrorism'.

Apparently, the official position of the Spanish government is that Roman Catholics own certain dates and all nonbelievers are required to stay indoors and keep quiet. I always thought Spain was a secular country. What on earth is going on there?

May 5, 2011, 6:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments

Marriage Equality on the March

At the end of last month, the Delaware legislature voted to approve a civil union bill. If Democratic Governor Jack Markell signs the bill, as he's said he will, Delaware will become the newest state to grant same-sex partnerships all the same legal rights as heterosexual couples - joining, by my reckoning, ten others: Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Iowa, plus the District of Columbia.

With a little luck and a lot of political elbow grease, my own state, New York, may be next. New York already recognizes same-sex marriages performed legally elsewhere, making its refusal to perform them itself more than a little ridiculous, since a gay or lesbian couple can just step across the border into Canada or any of the neighboring states that do. Still, a coalition of Republicans and a handful of religious-bigot Democrats have so far managed to keep marriage-equality bills bottled up in the State Senate, despite the fact that polls show large majorities of New Yorkers in support. A marriage-equality bill failed in the legislature in 2009, but since then, two Democrats who voted against it have been replaced by supportive votes. Six more votes are needed, and a statewide campaign is targeting 15 potential swing votes this summer, with support from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Meanwhile, on the wider national level, the ground is shifting with dramatic speed. Back in 2009, I wrote about how supporters of marriage equality had become a plurality. Now, for the first time ever as far as I'm aware, several polls over the last few months have found that support for marriage equality has become the majority position in the United States of America!

Our losses in California and Maine were disappointing, but as these polls show, they're only temporary setbacks. Support for marriage equality is growing every year, arguably even every month. Opponents of equality are trying to hold back the tide of history, but they can't hope to plug every hole in the dike. And it's increasingly obvious that they know this too. Their opposition seems more tired and perfunctory all the time, as if they recognize that they're fighting a losing battle. In Delaware, only about 200 people, even by their own reckoning, showed up for a rally at the statehouse to oppose the civil-unions bill.

One last, feeble whine of protest came from two Christian pastors in Delaware, who filed an editorial last week which makes the following entirely secular arguments:

S.B. 30 is morally wrong and biblically incorrect... In our opinion, God's design for marriage is between one man and one woman only... Lev. 18:22 tells us that "a man should not lie with another man as he does a woman because it is detestable"... Nowhere have we read in the Bible that it is all right for people of the same sex to marry... We believe civil unions between members of the same sex are contrary to the will of God.

They plead that if the bill passes, God "will judge us, and [we] don't want our state and our nation to be judged with the wrath of God." You have to feel sorry for these people, living in a self-imposed world of fear: their argument is essentially "Help, God is holding me hostage and he'll kill me if you don't meet his demands!"

Finally, I have to report on one more piece of news to make bigots cry: Louis J. Marinelli, a former spokesman and organizer for the anti-marriage National Association for Marriage, has publicly announced that he's changed his mind and now supports civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples. That ground is shifting faster than anyone could have anticipated - and I'm willing to bet that, in the next few years, his won't be the only high-profile defection from the ranks of those who oppose equality.

May 3, 2011, 6:26 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments

Pro-Family Christians Support Child Kidnapping

Yesterday, I came across a story that was so appalling I had to write about it. It shows the true depths of the Christian right's hatred for gay and lesbian people, and the lengths they're willing to go to - up to and including defying U.S. law - in the name of that hatred. (HT: The Wall of Separation)

The story in a nutshell: A same-sex couple in Vermont, Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins, were married in 2000 and had a legally recognized civil union. Two years later, they had a daughter, Isabella, with Lisa the biological mother. In 2003 they separated, and a court ruled that Lisa should have primary custody of Isabella and Janet should have visitation rights.

But Lisa Miller moved to Virginia, joined an evangelical Christian church (for reasons that remain unclear to me) and decided that she had been "cured" of being a lesbian. Since Virginia doesn't recognize same-sex unions, Miller filed suit to overturn the Vermont court's custody decision, arguing that under Virginia law her former partner wasn't a parent to their daughter and should have no parental rights. In this effort she was assisted by Liberty Counsel, a religious right legal group founded by Mat Staver, who's also the dean of the law school at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

This didn't go well for the religious right. The Virginia Supreme Court denied Miller's petition, citing a federal bill called the Parental Kidnapping Protection Act which was passed specifically to prevent this kind of forum-shopping. Meanwhile in late 2009, finding that Lisa Miller had been consistently refusing to permit Janet's court-ordered visitations, the Vermont family court overturned its earlier decision and awarded sole custody of Isabella to Janet Jenkins.

The deadline for the custody handover was set for January 1, 2010... and at the appointed time, Lisa and Isabella didn't show up. The police obtained an arrest warrant, and since then both of them have been missing.

That was the last update in this case, until now. It was reported this week that the FBI has arrested a Tennessee pastor, Timothy David Miller, and charged him with helping to arrange for Lisa and Isabella to flee the country and travel to Nicaragua, where he had worked as a missionary. More, according to the affidavit, he wasn't acting alone:

Ms. Miller and Isabella stayed in a beach house in Nicaragua that is owned by a conservative businessman with close ties to Liberty University, an evangelical school in Lynchburg, Va., and whose daughter works at the university's law school, according to the affidavit...

[Mat Staver] said he knew nothing about the accusations involving a law school office assistant, Victoria Hyden, and her father Philip Zodhiates, the beach house's owner...

Much of the evidence in support of the criminal charges and other accusations, the affidavit said, was obtained through court-approved, covert searches of e-mail accounts, uncovering messages from Mr. Miller that appear to arrange the mother and daughter's 2009 flight to Nicaragua and from Mr. Zodhiates arranging to send them supplies.

Let's not mince words: If these charges are true, then the FBI has uncovered an international Christian child-kidnapping ring, a premeditated conspiracy to defy the law and keep same-sex parents apart from their children - and one, moreover, that has close ties to Liberty University and the religious right's political infrastructure. Notwithstanding Mat Staver's denials, I have no doubt whatsoever that even if he didn't personally participate in any illegal act, he either knows where Lisa and Isabella are or could find out if he wanted to.

Unfortunately, it seems that under the relevant law, the most that anyone could face is three years in prison. That's not nearly enough - a religious fanatic who believed he needed to "save" a child from the love of her same-sex parent could easily wait that sentence out and consider it a small sacrifice, and of course, he would be hailed as a hero by the religious right upon his release. If the law allowed, say, 20 years in prison rather than three, that might be enough to make even the most defiant zealot consider cooperating with the authorities - and give him an incentive to name the others who were part of this conspiracy. I have little doubt that the full list of names would be a major embarrassment, possibly even a crippling legal blow, for the Christian right. (I wonder if federal prosecutors have considered using RICO against Miller.)

But most of all, my heart breaks for that little girl, who must be going through intense brainwashing sessions in an attempt to poison her mind against her legal mother. I hope with all my heart that she resists and that she understands the crime that was committed against her. In the name of "protecting" her from exposure to gay people, the religious right has taken her out of the country, torn her away from her friends and family, quite possibly destroyed any hope she'll ever have for a normal life, and is no doubt trying to indoctrinate her into a cult of bigotry and hate. Are these the people who dare to call themselves "pro-family"?

April 26, 2011, 6:46 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink18 comments

The Abuse of the Doctrine of Standing

In what's becoming a depressingly predictable trend, there's bad news on the church-state front: the Freedom from Religion Foundation's legal victory over the National Day of Prayer has been tossed out by a federal appeals court. A three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the FFRF lacks standing and ordering that the lower court decision be vacated. The FFRF plans to seek an en banc rehearing before the entire Seventh Circuit, although this is a long shot at best.

Sadly, I'm not surprised. It was always more likely than not that this ruling would be overturned; the only real questions were how high it would get before this happened and what legal fig leaf would be used to dismiss Judge Barbara Crabb's carefully reasoned ruling. In this case, it turned out to be the doctrine of standing, which says that only people who have a concrete interest in the outcome of a legal controversy can bring suit.

In general, there has to be something like this - as Glenn Greenwald says, the courts can't be "free-floating omnipotent tribunals" with the power to decide any controversy. A person or interest group should have to have a stake in the outcome of the case to participate in a lawsuit. But standing should be a low bar to clear, blocking only frivolous and pointless legal claims. Instead, the courts have twisted it into a convoluted and arcane rule where only certain highly specific kinds of injury are permitted as grounds to sue. This means that many meritorious claims, even those relating to the violation of constitutional rights, can never be heard.

In this case, the Seventh Circuit found that the FFRF had suffered no injury from the National Day of Prayer. Apparently, this is true even if public money is used to sponsor and organize the day's events, even if participation is restricted to certain religious sects that work hand-in-glove with elected officials, even if NDP events specifically endorse one version of religious scripture over others, even if said events include official statements questioning the patriotism, morality or citizenship of those who refuse to participate. Never mind all that - when the President tells you to pray, you can say no, and that's all it takes for your civil rights not to be violated!

Such reasoning could only come from the mind of someone who's spent their entire life comfortably in the religious majority and has never had to experience the exclusionary effect of being told that they don't belong to a privileged circle of political insiders. Under this new era of legal thinking, Congress could pass a law declaring Christianity the official religion of the U.S., and still no one would have standing to object as long as they weren't being forcibly marched into church by government agents. (And maybe not even then - after all, right-wing judges would reason, they aren't forcing you to agree with what's being preached, now are they?)

Turning "standing" into an all-purpose excuse to dismiss a lawsuit is an increasingly common tactic of conservative judges. Another example is the awful 2007 Hein decision which held that expenditures of money by Congress to promote religion confer standing to sue, but expenditures of money by the executive branch somehow don't. This nonsensical and indefensible decision was obviously decreed by conservative justices in order to reach their desired policy result: permitting the faith-based initiative to continue. (I fear that there are now five members of the Supreme Court who are prepared to bless any church-state violation whatsoever.)

Yet another example would be the Bush-era legal position, shamefully perpetuated by the Obama administration, that even if the government is spying on American citizens in violation of the Fourth Amendment, no one has standing to bring a lawsuit unless they can prove that they personally were illegally surveilled. This is a ludicrous claim that creates a horrendous perverse incentive: the government can get away with any lawbreaking conduct as long as they can successfully cover it up, in which case the courts will do nothing to adjudicate the truth.

The evisceration of the standing doctrine creates a legal paradox: it may well be that some actions by the government are unconstitutional, but no one can do anything about it because no one has standing to have their objections heard. This position makes the Bill of Rights meaningless. The laws set out in the Constitution aren't just noble aspirations our government should try its best to live up to: they are strict and settled limits on what our elected public servants can and can't do, and the reason we have a system of checks and balances is to enforce that guarantee. The court, in effect, is abdicating its constitutionally given role by denying a hearing to citizens with a grievance. A more rational position, though one that stands no chance of passing in our current political climate, would be that any governmental action which breaches the Constitution confers standing on any citizen to sue.

April 19, 2011, 5:44 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments

Marching for Oppression

Over the past few months, we've seen amazing and inspiring demonstrations of people power erupting across the Middle East, toppling dictatorships that have been in place for decades. It's far too soon to say what form of government will emerge from these movements - whether they'll give rise to true democracies, or whether new dictatorships will replace the old - and the unwelcome news that Egypt's transitional military government has just sentenced a blogger to prison shows that it will take far more than toppling one dictator to break the old, entrenched habits of oppression and illiberalism. But whatever the future holds, the success of the protests has shown, at least for one shining moment, what free human beings can achieve when they cooperate to defy tyranny.

But there's a dark side to people power as well. America's founders knew that rule by a mob is no better than rule by a dictator, which is why they built so many counter-majoritarian safeguards into the Constitution. Democracy is an essential ingredient in a free society, but it's no panacea, especially when the majority of people are openly prejudiced toward minorities. This past week, we saw this vividly in Bangladesh:

Dozens of people have been injured as Bangladesh police battled Islamists protesting against new government policies aimed at giving women equal inheritance rights.

The violence came as the hardline Islami Oikyo Jote, a coalition of Islamic groups, enforced a nationwide general strike on Monday, demanding the government institute Islamic law and scrap policies aimed at giving women greater rights to property, employment and education.

Although Bangladesh's population is about 90% Muslim, its laws are relatively secular by the standards of the region. Its current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, is a woman, and it's invested heavily in education and job training for women, as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote in Half the Sky [p.238], which has created a stronger civil society and a thriving export industry, part of the reason it's far more stable than nearby Pakistan.

However, for Bangladesh's overwhelming Muslim majority, laws relating to marriage, family and inheritance are based on the principles of sharia. Among other things, these laws mandate that daughters inherit only half the share given to sons. Sheikh Hasina's government has proposed changing this to give women an equal share, which enraged the Islamic political parties who turned out to demand that sexism remain enshrined in the country's family law. A main highway in Dhaka, a city of 10 million people, was blockaded by the strike until riot police dispersed it, and schools and businesses throughout the country remain closed.

This is what Islamist political movements stand for, this is how they want the world to see them: the spectacle of people marching not to end oppression, but to perpetuate oppression - not to demand that justice be done, but to demand that injustice continue to be done. The contrast is stark, especially when compared to the determined displays of national pride and secular unity in the popular uprisings that have toppled dictators. People joining together regardless of their beliefs are usually demanding something beneficial, some shared notion of rights; people marching together who are all of one belief, especially when that belief is in the majority, ought to be immediately suspect.

This ought to be a lesson to us about the terrible importance of secularism, for all human beings in general but for women in particular. Around the world, there are religious groups - not just Muslims - to whom modernity is meaningless, who would gladly drag us all back to medieval mores if given the chance. As societies become more prosperous, their influence tends to wane, but Bangladesh is still far from that point. The government needs to press on with their plans to give full and equal rights to all human beings, because only in this way can they leave the past behind and create a stable and secure society where the voices of religious extremism will no longer be a threat.

April 13, 2011, 6:35 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments

On Qur'an Burning, Redux

A few months ago, I wrote briefly about an obscure Florida pastor who had the idea of burning a Qur'an. At the time he backed off under intense pressure, but later changed his mind and went through with it. This would have gone nowhere, except that some Islamic mullahs in Afghanistan (aided by Hamid Karzai, who cynically fanned the flames), incited their worshippers to frenzy. The mob proceeded to storm a U.N. compound, brutally killing a dozen U.N. employees. Protests and riots are still ongoing, and more people have been killed.

I deplore this violence, as any civilized person would. But I don't believe that, just because bad things happened, there must have been a way to prevent them. Unfortunately, it seems that in this I part company with two U.S. senators who hinted that they were looking for a way to punish the book-burner ("Free speech is a great idea, but...") Even more appallingly, the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, was quoted as follows:

"I don't think we should be blaming any Afghan. We should be blaming the person who produced the news - the one who burned the Quran," he said.

Reading sentiments like this, I feel like Greta Christina must have done when writing about Fred Phelps: I hate having to write this post. I hate having to defend this wannabe cult leader with delusions of grandeur who would, if he could, impose a theocracy scarcely distinguishable from the Taliban's. I hate having to give more attention to someone who obviously has an unhealthy craving for it (which is why, you'll notice, I'm not naming him in this post).

But First Amendment test cases rarely come about because of popular or nice people. If we don't have the freedom to utter speech that annoys, upsets, even infuriates other people, then we don't have free speech. The freedom to express only opinions that don't make anyone upset isn't worth defending.

I'll grant that, very probably, the pastor staged the book-burning as a deliberate provocation, intending that something like this would happen. But however malicious his motives, his act was a nonviolent expression of opinion. He may have foreseen how Afghans would react, but he didn't control how they would react. They could have marched in peaceful protest, as so many others throughout the Middle East have done, and put him to shame by claiming the moral high ground.

Instead, some of them exploded in unreasoning savagery, choosing to murder innocent people for the act of a deluded nobody half a world away. No destruction of ink and paper, regardless of how petty the motive, can ever justify or excuse the taking of human lives. Put the blame where it belongs! - on the mob that committed those murders, and on the insane religious beliefs that motivated them. These fanatics believe that human individuals, every one of them unique and irreplaceable, are less valuable than one particular copy of a mass-produced book. Isn't that belief more deserving of condemnation than anything an attention-seeking ignoramus has done?

Even if you grant that the Qur'an burning was deplorable and should be punished, what principle could we invoke to justify it that wouldn't also sweep up a vast number of other speech acts? What rule could we make that wouldn't be open to endless abuse? Consider some parallel cases:

There will always be thugs who want to impose their beliefs by force, and who will lash out at the slightest provocation. But we as a society can't limit permissible speech to only those messages guaranteed not to offend them. That principle incentivizes violent irrationality. It says that, if you want your doctrine or your ideas to be shielded from criticism, all you have to do is threaten to get violent, and then the machinery of the state will swing into action to protect you from other people's disagreement. This is the very definition of a perverse incentive, and it's exactly what the thugs want. All the more reason not to give into them - neither by censoring our own speech, nor by letting the state censor the speech of others. If we shelter violent insanity from criticism, the advocates of those beliefs will only become more emboldened and aggressive.

April 6, 2011, 6:07 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink24 comments

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