A Kuwaiti man was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Monday after he was convicted of endangering state security by insulting the Prophet Mohammad and the Sunni Muslim rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on social media.
Sometimes we in the U.S. seem shrill about our own problems, such as the people getting spamblocked on Twitter, Obama’s infamous “truth teams,” and the conformist mentality threatening many of our institutions. And there’s an important distinction between those things and what has happened to Hamad al-Naqi with this ruling: as horrible as those three above examples are, they are still (for now) the free actions of free people. It’s not welcome for them to merely shout down others, but in itself it’s not the same thing as active State interference in our ideas and opinions.
The problem is that it never just stops at that. If it did, it would be inconvenient to the one side, but eventually futile for the other. Those who have been “twitmo’d” have their accounts restored; “truth teams” meet with the approbation and scorn they deserve; the conformists eventually get out into a real world that they have yet to succeed in silencing. Ultimately those things hurt professional lives and reputations, but in the States, at least, you don’t yet go to the pokey for merely insulting someone.
But it’s worth saying that all those things lie on the same continuum that gets us to the criminalization of thought. Those who are comfortable with those acts are usually also comfortable with the next step – from insult, to dirty tricks, to getting people in actual trouble with authority for daring to say such things. In Canada and England people have gone to jail for expressing unapproved opinions, under their hate-speech legislations. Mark Steyn was called onto the carpet by Canada’s Orwellian Human Rights commissions for article he wrote that appeared in Maclean’s, and he’s only the most prominent example. (You’ll all have seen the clip of the unhinged high school teacher insisting that her student can be jailed for speaking out against the President’s policies and qualifications.) Most recently, Robert Stacy McCain was forced to relocate his entire family because of the “lawfare” tricks of Brett Kimberlin, while Aaron Worthing has actually been jailed (hopefully temporarily) through Kimberlin’s legal bombardment – more a wearying of opponents rather than carrying the day with actual proof of tangible harm.
These are dangerous precedents, and not to be encouraged. There’s no guarantee that Western governments won’t simply ignore the Constitution and rule rather than serve. We could fall into the worst trap of all – so thoroughly internalizing such onerous rules that we become our own thought police, denouncing ourselves to our betters, or not speaking when challenged. Every time someone says something that “requires’ one of those “public apology” statements, a part of me sickens worse. Often, the opinion itself is misquoted or not all that objectionable; even if offensive, well, again, there’s no law against that. But even if it’s appropriate to apologize, shouldn’t that be something the person does unprompted? By forcing the apology, we tend to rob all such statements, however heartfelt, of sincerity. “Oh, he did that for the PR,” we say, because half of the time it was just for the PR, just to fulfill that part of the cycle of theater that passes for too much public discourse.
Imagine a world where those momentary affronts stood. Wouldn’t that be a world in which we could judge for ourselves if an apology was genuine, rather than assume it was a sham? For that matter, wouldn’t it also be a world in which we could judge for ourselves if the affront was actually all that offensive? Could we not, in this world, pick and choose our protests, and have the other party pick and choose what they are and aren’t sorry for? I think I find even the possibility preferable to the endless parade of off-the-cuff comments leading to ginned-up “controversy” followed by routine “outrage” and automatic statements from “representatives.” Hell, we might just run the risk of not being so darned thin-skinned all day long, thinking a little before reacting, and maybe getting along better in the long run.
A world where everything triggers a quick, automatic (and completely predictable) reply is not a world where people are really thinking and interacting. It’s replacing the effort of human relationship with the simple stimulus-response of animals or machines. It can’t be healthy. We’re not to the point, quite, where we do risk a jail cell for protesting our leaders, or our religious figures. However, I don’t want to risk getting there. I also want you to actually read the article and note three things:
- This was a Kuwaiti man jailed, in part, for protesting OTHER governments, not his own.
- al-Nagi’s defense was that his account was hacked, not that the statements weren’t made.
- We’re told he insulted Mohammed, but the Reuters reporter does not repeat what was actually said.
This last is key. We are not Kuwaiti; why can’t we read for ourselves and make up our own mind about the statements? They wouldn’t warrant a prison term in any case, but really, what was written? Why did Reuters neuter its own report and deny us a key piece of information in the story? The piece had an author, two additional reporters, and two editors, and none of them felt it was worth the trouble of repeating the statements. It’s entirely likely they were expunged to “avoid offense” to anyone’s delicate ears.
“This verdict is a deterrent to those who insult the Prophet Mohammad, his companions and the mothers of the believers,” civil plaintiff Dowaem al-Mowazry said in a text message.
It worked on Reuters, anyway, and I’m not OK with that. We have every good reason to resist any hint of such a thing happening where we live. On with the truth, and up with the volume.