Rights Around the World

I know this is how you wish the world was, it just isn't.
I know this is how you wish the world was, it just isn’t.

There’s been a lot of talk about a couple of guys in Muslim countries who have been arrested for violating the law, mostly blasphemy laws.  There are numerous atheist bloggers and tweeters who really want these people released.  I say no.

There are two people currently on the ever-rotating list of foreign people who have been “wronged”.  Right now, Abdel Aziz Mohamed Albaz, an Egyptian blogger living in Kuwait, has been jailed for blasphemy.  I see lots of atheist bloggers who keep saying he’s done nothing wrong.  Sure he has.  He blasphemed, as defined in the law.  That’s why he’s in jail.

The second is Saeed Abedini, an Iranian who converted to Christianity.  Like it or not, this is illegal in many Muslim countries, just like being non-Christian was, at one time, illegal in lots of Christian nations.  He has been in prison for months, his trial is supposed to be happening as I write these words.

Don’t get me wrong, I sympathize with these people, but I also strongly support the rule of law.  I’ve had my say over individual rights many times and, like it or not, rights are simply things that individual cultures or societies grant to themselves.  They are not something that just magically exist, floating in the ether.  Further, when you live in a particular society, by choice or not, you inherently agree that you will follow the laws of the land or pay the consequences thereof.  This is part of the social contract.  This applies to the country in which you live or in any country that you visit.  If I decide to head off to Mexico, for example, by crossing that border, I agree to follow their laws whether I like them or not.  If I strongly disagree with the laws, as I would in a country like Iran or Kuwait, I wouldn’t go there and if I lived there, I’d move, no matter what it took.

Look at Muslim nations where it is illegal to convert to Christianity, there are always stories in the news of people who do exactly that who end up in prison and whine about it.  It’s not like they didn’t know the consequences, they’ve lived there their entire lives.  It’s also not like you can’t be a certain religion and keep it quiet, they could have easily lived under the radar and likely never been caught.  No, these people went out and openly  displayed their Christianity and when they get picked up for doing so, whine how unfair it is.

This doesn’t work in the real world.

I really have no idea where people got the idea that civil disobedience automatically comes with a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.  In fact, half the reason for civil disobedience in the first place is to get punished as a means for drawing attention to the cause you’re trying to change!  You didn’t see the people in the civil rights movement in the 60s refusing to go to jail or whining about how unfair it was.  Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail multiple times and spent that time writing.  Actions, whether you like it or not, have consequences.  My issue here is twofold.  First, that the people who are breaking the law and being jailed for it are not trying to change the law, at least that’s not their primary purpose.  They’re just doing whatever they want to do and paying little attention to the law.  Second, in the vast majority of these cases, it’s people who live outside of the particular culture who are complaining about things, especially those who live in the very privileged west.  You don’t see an outcry from, in the case of Mr. Aziz, the people of Kuwait, who realize based on his actions that the blasphemy laws are wrong.

Perhaps the biggest issue I have is the utter hypocrisy of it all.  Lots of people are screaming that the U.S. ought to use military, political or financial means to forcibly stop these countries from acting in a means we don’t approve of.  Sure, that’s a common tactic by nations powerful enough to do so.  However, think about it.  If in a couple of years, if the U.S. keeps sliding into economic disarray, and a Muslim nation gains lots of power, would we bow down to an effort by that government to push Sharia law on us?  I’ll bet those same people who want us to do it to them would be screaming bloody murder if they tried to do it to us.  What about our right of self-determination?  Okay, what about the people of Kuwait?  What about the people of Iran?  What about their right to self-determination?  Or does that only apply when you’re on the “right” side of an issue?

In the end, this comes right back to something I spend a huge amount of time talking about:  responsibility.  Both Albaz and Abedini should have known that what they were doing violated the law of the nation they lived in.  They should have been aware of the consequences of their actions long before they committed them, yet they still went ahead and did so.  They knew what they were doing and they should have known the likely outcome.  So where is the complaint?  You don’t leap off a cliff and scream “gravity is unfair!” on the way down.  You have to deal with the reality that actually is, not the one you wish were true.

18 thoughts on “Rights Around the World

  1. Although I agree with what you're saying here overall, the reason that people in Kuwait, for instance, don't say anything about Mr. Abaz is probablt because they don't know about it. The media in Kuwait is state controlled. Those that might know something about the situation would most likely be too afraid to even discuss the situation among friends for fear of being reported to the authorities as supporters of a blasphemer.

    1. While you might be right, the fact is that this isn't widely reported in the mainstream media anywhere, it's certainly not the lead story on the nightly news. The people of Kuwait can find out about it the same way most Americans did, online and through word of mouth. I think a much more likely situation is that most of those people in Kuwait who do know about it simply agree with what has happened and think that Abaz deserves to be in jail for blasphemy. To be totally honest, those who fear to speak up about social wrongs are just as guilty for what happens as those who wholeheartedly support them.

  2. Excellent post, Cephus, and I never thought about it like you did, a whole new perspective. I know what you mean about atheist bloggers getting on this particular bandwagon and with some I find you can't express a contrary opinion or they unload with shit-load of invective. This happens with many issues and I'm getting to the point where I seldom visit their sights with a few exception. At least vjack is always civil.

    1. I honestly think their hearts are in the right place and they're doing what they think is best, it's just that so many of them are so enculturated in western ways, they grew up having all these wonderful rights that their forefathers fought and died to obtain that they think everyone ought to have them. Well, not ought to have them, but *DO* have them! That's simply not true. It's like they think that the rest of the world is some suburb in Kansas and they can apply American justice and American law to anyone worldwide and it's just not so. I absolutely support the right of these people to determine their own fate. If they want to be a western-style democracy, more power to them. If they don't, I'm fine with that too. So long as those people who want to leave are allowed to do so, and I'm unaware of any country that has entirely locked the borders and won't let anyone out, they can do whatever they want to do. The people who remain do so willingly and as such, are bound by the laws of the country in which they willingly hang their hat. I might feel sorry for them but I still remain an outsider without influence or ability to force these nations to change their social structure. That's for the people involved to do if they so choose.

  3. There are certain basic rights, such as freedom of conscience and free speech that supersede complying with oppressive laws. These people are within their rights, regardless of any laws, to exercise their basic rights.

        1. Not a government-granted privilege, a socially-determined right. Governments are merely the political arm of a given society. They exist so long as the people allow them to exist or are unwilling to change them. So yes, I am saying that there is no such thing as a basic human right, they simply do not exist.

  4. A couple of things. To my knowledge, neither person who has been arrested has "whined" and both knew the risks of what they were doing. Abedini had been in trouble before and went back to Iran to work in orphanages. He knew the risks. He isn't speaking out, others are doing so for him. The same is true for Albaz. He too knew the risks and isn't whining…in fact, he can't say anything from his current location. Once again, it is others doing so on his behalf.

    Second, I think your characterization of human rights is incorrect. Human rights exist. You touched on some of them, self-determination, for example. The people in these countries do not have that, we can't pretend that they do. It is impossible for them to affect their situation if they can't speak about it. How can Kuwaiti's protest Albaz? They would go to jail. Instead ex-pat Kuwaiti's protest their Embassies and Consulates. Can people outside those countries affect change? Who knows? Even if you are correct and it fails, that does not mean we should not make the attempt.

    Abedini is likely going to die solely for something that he believes in his head. If you do not think that it is a human right to have your own thoughts…well, that is indefensible. You're telling me the government of the country YOU ARE VISITING has the right to control your thoughts? Bear in mind that he is a U.S. citizen. He is not Iranian. You are telling me that our government has zero responsibility to one of its own citizens who is likely going to die in a foreign country for something he thinks? For something that is in head? Let's not confuse human rights with privilege. It is not a privilege to be able to have thoughts…that is a human right. Hell, it doesn't even need to be discussed, its simply human to think. We often can't control the outcome of those thoughts…

    Albaz is in a similar situation. He is Egyptian and not a Kuwaiti citizen. You are incorrect about his not trying to change things. He is a secular blogger, who by all accounts treats religion quite fairly and advocates for greater freedom of religion. Things like self-determination, free-speech, free-religion/thoughts are basic human rights. You can't say they do not exist simply because some dictatorships choose to ignore them. I can choose ignore all sorts of things, that does not mean they do not exist.

    I do not believe that there is some kind of "objective morality" or any such thing. That would imply that it is some kind of fixed set of rules. I don't buy that. I do think that ethics, morality, and you can throw human rights into this, are things that evolve. Something is either moral today or it is immoral today–where you do it does not change that fact. I can't kill someone here and think its moral. If I went to some remote place where that law didn't exist, it would not then make it moral for me to kill that same person. We can't confuse "moral" with "legal". I don't believe in objective morality because at some point, murder may have been seen as moral. These things are not absolute and eternal objectives. They are, in a sense, the agreed upon norms of the age in which one lives.

    The same goes for freedom of thought. It is folly to say that depending on where you live, you have the right to your own thoughts and in other places you do not—sorry Mr. Abedini. That just doesn't fly. The same goes for self-determination and free speech. They may not be legal everywhere, the basic right, recognized almost universally still exist, even if it is ignored.
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    1. I'm not so much talking about those two in particular, but their story is hardly unique, there are always people who do things that are against the law and then they do whine about the consequences that they suffer. Mostly, they're not people who are sorry they did anything wrong, they're sorry they got caught. If Albaz and Abedini have willingly violated the law and willingly been caught in order to bring attention to the cause, I support them entirely. It's an extremely brave thing to do, especially since it very well may bring about their deaths. However, that makes me wonder even more why so many people worldwide are trying to reverse the work they're trying to do. If they're willing to sacrifice their freedom or their lives in an attempt to have these laws overturned, why are so many people worldwide screaming "let them out"? If they are not willing to sacrifice their freedom or their lives, then why did they commit the crimes in the first place? It seems in either case, someone is operating at cross-purposes to logic. Either these people have a goal and others are trying to subvert that goal, or they were stupid and did something they knew full well was against the law and now want to get out of it.

      The problem here is that you, and others, simply keep repeating that some things are "basic human rights". Says who? How do you come to that conclusion? Is it just because you want them to be, or because you can actually demonstrate that they are? This really goes back to the points I was making in the post on Matt Dillahunty's secular morality. So much of this is just an assertion, you *WANT* this to be true, therefore you simply declare it to be true. However, the one thing that cannot be done is to demonstrate that it actually is. The near universality of a thing does not make it universal, nor does the ability to force a thing upon a people through military, economic or social pressure magically make it right. You can think these things are "moral" all you want, just like the people in these countries can think that what they do is "moral" and what you do is "immoral". Both are simply opinions and neither of them can be demonstrated to be objectively correct.

      1. I would say it has nothing at all to do with what "I want". I would say they are universal because most humans accept these things as true. It goes beyond legalities. What prevents you from murdering your neighbor? Is it solely fear of punishment? Or, do you find the act to be immoral itself? Would you say that he has a basic right to life? If your answer is no to punishment, then we can continue.

        Would you not agree that most of us find the act of murder immoral? That most of us would say that he does have a basic right to life? I would say that. I have no idea what percentage of the global population is required before we consider something universal, but I think with certain things, we would meet any realistic percentage you want to set as a standard. I would agree that they are not eternally objective. Morality and rights can and do change over time. By the phrase universal, I mean universally accepted TODAY on this planet. Who knows what the future will bring.

        When it comes to freedom of thought, which is what Abedini is guilty of, this is a no brainer. Regardless of what I want or think, there is no way you could rationally argue that whatever country you happen to visiting or living in has the right to control your thoughts. I think we can safely state that the overwhelming majority of human beings alive today would recognize this as a basic human right. I do not have a study to specifically confirm this. However, can we not look at treaties signed by the overwhelming majority of countries as some proof that this is so? Can we not look at the countries that fail to sign these treaties and see that the treatment of citizens in those countries is abysmal by any standard you want to set for the rest of the world to use in evaluation? I think we can. In this sense human rights exist, but they are evolving. Several hundred years ago slavery was legal pretty much everywhere. Today, the overwhelming majority of nations reject this concept. They state that you have a right to your own body/self-determination, etc. How is that not to be considered a human right that is universal on this planet today–even if some countries violate it? Their violation does not mean that their citizens aren't entitled to that right, it means that they wrong and are not upholding something the rest of humanity has accepted.
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        1. If the majority of people want such a right to themselves, they are more than welcome to decide that the culture in which they live provides that right. They are not welcome to vote that right upon others who do not want it. I find this as offensive as Mormons baptizing the dead. What you are really saying is that these people are too stupid to choose these rights for themselves, therefore you're going to impose them upon them without their consent. In order to find something universal, it must be shared by 100% of the population, something that simply is not true in this case. Besides, if we go back to my earlier suggestion that if Islam were to take over the world, would you be okay with them doing to you what you're proposing to do to them right now? Do you want their ideas forced on you just because they are in the majority? As far as treaties go, did these countries in particular sign them? If not, you cannot hold them accountable for something they didn't agree to.

          I don't think killing as immoral, I can think of plenty of circumstances under which I'd kill another human being and not feel a bit of remorse for it. In the scheme of things, people just aren't that special, except to ourselves.

          As for Abedini, he's not guilty of freedom of thought, no one can stop him from thinking whatever he wants to think. He's guilty of acting on those thoughts. I'm sure there are tons of Christians living in those countries who believe what they want to believe, they just don't talk about it to others. They worship privately in their own homes, but outside, they don't act the part. Those people don't get arrested for blasphemy either because nobody knows what's going on in their heads.

          You are right that most nations rejected slavery over the past 200 years, but not all. There are still a very few where it's perfectly legal to own slaves. Clearly it is not a universal human right if it's application is not universal. You simply cannot grant a right to people who have no interest in having it, nor the will to fight for it. People can only apply a right to themselves through their willingness to make it their own. However, this plays into something I've said before about slavery. 200 years ago, when most nations accepted slavery, was it moral? Was it moral 200 years ago to own slaves? If not, why not and if so, is any widely held belief suddenly moral? What about mass murder? If the majority of people thought it was a good thing, would it become moral? The majority of people in these Muslim countries think blasphemy is immoral, why do you get to declare that it isn't? Why does their majority not matter?

          These are questions that just don't get answered.

  5. Cephus—Naturally, I disagree with your comment. This wouldn’t be any fun if I didn’t. Lets look at it bit by bit.
    You wrote: “If the majority of people want such a right to themselves, they are more than welcome to decide that the culture in which they live provides that right.” This fails to recognize reality. If you truly believe what you said there, then this conversation is over and YOU agree with ME. But that isn’t the case is it? Why? Because, the people in those countries do not have the ability to do what you just required them to do. You can’t put this on the people there. You are completely ignoring the “in your face” fact that basic human rights DO exist everywhere on this planet EXCEPT in spots where a dictator is preventing that from happening. What you are failing to recognize is that we truly have no idea what the people of Iran (for example) think. You are basing your entire argument on what their government looks like. You are assuming that they support that government. In fact, perhaps the best argument you could have taken against my position is: because the people living in dictatorial regimes do not have a voice, we do not know what they would think. Therefore you can’t claim universal human rights exist. But you aren’t making that argument. You are actually saying that because they don’t have them, the belief in them doesn’t exist. That is absurd. You are holding the “inmates” accountable for the actions of the “jailor”.

    Further, If you were to take the argument that I said was best against my point of view, that too would fail. Why? Because the issues we are discussing are exactly the sorts of things that lead to revolution. It is these sorts of things that lead to “Arab Springs”…though they still have much work to do. You want proof that you are wrong? Here it is: Name me one country that has rejected what are considered commonly considered Universal Human Rights when they have had the ability to do so. It doesn’t happen. Look at Egypt, they may have a second uprising because the government still isn’t getting it right. Your argument is completely devoid of history. People demand certain rights once they are aware that they have that option. Those are the things that are deemed as universal. Period. You accused me before of claiming that human rights exist “because I want them too”. I can make the same accusation to you, but I can back mine up. You can’t say that they do NOT exist simply because you want that to be true, and every time a society has had the choice, the choose the universal human rights we are talking about. The rights we are talking about, since about 1776, HAVE been universally accepted when put to the test. You can’t count people who have not been allowed to “take the test” as your argument.

    Your comment about Mormons baptizing the dead is irrelevant here, unless you are seeking to destroy the concepts of democracy and modern theories of International Relations. I assume that isn’t your goal, so we can move on. Otherwise, voting for things that dissenters have to support, when they lose, is democracy…and a large part of modern IR, which has done a decent job of preventing war among developed countries…though is still not perfect. However, you are correct on one thing here. We do not have the right to impose our values on other countries. If Iran suddenly had a revolution, and everyone in that society had a free vote—they can choose whatever they wish their country to look like. My challenge still stands though—find me one country that has chosen to ignore what are widely considered “basic human rights” when given that choice—the point is—we wouldn’t need to force our values on them…they’d just do it on their own, if history has any predictive power.

    Next, you create a straw man when you talk about killing. In my previous answer, I did not say “killing”. I said “murder”. There is a difference. I agree with you on killing. My question, so it is clear this time, what prevents you from murdering your neighbor because of something trivial? Is it just the law and fear of punishment or is it something else?

    You are still not correct on Abedini. His case is going on now. He is only charged with being a Christian. Period. Nothing else. He was there to work in orphanages. The government does not like him because 10 years ago he wanted to set up a church. However, he is NOT being charged for that. His rap sheet reads one word: “Christian”. He is on trial for his life because of his beliefs. You cannot change that fact and assume he did something else when there is no evidence for that, nor any charges being laid against him for that. (Cont)

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    1. Wow, these things are really hard to respond to when they get so long, I wish there was a good WordPress plugin that gave us true WYSIWYG comment editors.

      Anyhow, whether the countries in question have the ability to change laws ingrained into their system is irrelevant. England didn't have a way for American colonists to address their grievances either, that's why we went to war. Rising up and fighting for your rights is always an important option if you feel strongly enough that you want to change the system. If they refuse to do so, then changing the system isn't that important to them. You keep repeating over and over and over that these basic rights exist yet you have done nothing to demonstrate it. If you want your argument to be taken seriously, you need to be able to support it with evidence, just like we expect theists to do.

      As for countries that reject universal human rights, every country where they are not in force has done so. Mostly, it's for religious reasons, these people are not thinking rationally and the religion forces people to accept what you and I might consider barbaric conditions, but to them, it is a choice. The majority of the population chooses to act that way. You are trying to insist that no matter what the population wants, no matter what the majority of people continually support, you think you know better what all of them actually want and think you get to impose it on them, wholly without their consent. It doesn't work that way.

      And for your "murder" question, it was disingenuous. Since murder only refers to killing that is not permitted by law, you're trying to limit possible responses. However, I'll go with that and say there are quite a few cases I can imagine where, legal or not, accepted or not, I'd have no problem putting a bullet in someone's head, trivial or not. At a point where I'd do something like that, I wouldn't much care about the law. However, since you're limiting this to something trivial, the fact is, the law has nothing to do with it, nor does morality. I simply lack any reason to kill my neighbor. His "right to life" would never remotely come into it.

      As for Abedini, being a Christian is illegal in his nation. He knew that being a Christian was illegal and carried the death penalty. Certainly, he must have done something to draw attention to himself, the government wouldn't have sat around for 10 years, knowing he was a Christian and ignoring it, only to pop up right now and jail him for it. There has to be some extenuating circumstance that took it from "this guy has illegal beliefs" to "we have to prosecute this guy for his illegal beliefs". I'm just thinking about this logically, was he teaching kids about Jesus in the orphanages? I don't know and neither do you.

  6. I also disagree with your comments on slavery. Again, the fact that some societies do not recognize that slavery is “wrong” does not mean that it is “right”. Again, name the society, where all members of that society have the opportunity to speak—not just the privileged few that haveupheld slavery? You can’t do that because it doesn’t exist. Don’t point to those countries and say, “see I’m right!”—at least not until you count the votes of those in chains! Also, do not compare the ability to fight for a right to the willingness to fight for a right. If we played by that logic, we may still have slavery in this country… That argument just doesn’t work.

    You write that “people can only apply a right to themselves”. That is just false. I can’t pick and choose what rights I think I have and which I do not. That is a recipe for me to end up violating laws of my country. But I do agree with you on morality, in the way you use it here. I don’t believe that there is an eternal universal moral code or human rights list. These things DO change with time. What is moral and a “right” today may not have been in the past, and may not be in the future. We can only speak about today. However, I do not think that our disagreement has to do with the time component of the word “universal”. To be clear, I am arguing for “global” human rights, that exist today—not several hundred years ago or several hundred years from now.

    To sum up, it would seem like you are the one who is ignoring history and reality and claiming a global (if you prefer that word better, that is fine) human rights list does not exist, simply because you do not want it to, not me—as you accused. History and reality both reflect my argument. Unless you can start naming societies where all members (excepting children of course) have the right to voice their opinion that reject such concepts, your argument doesn’t pan out, has no evidence to support it, and is basically a fallacy of “special exception”—you can’t point to a handful of dictators to prove your case.

    Good conversation though, I like being forced to think!

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    1. There is no such thing as objective right and wrong, those are subjective positions. We return to something I said in the article, you just don't see Muslim women standing up before the UN council on human rights, asking for help in ridding their land of Sharia law. It just doesn't happen. You are simply assuming they wish to be free of it. I'm stating that they've given no evidence of that desire in large numbers. You haven't seen Muslim women taking up arms and fighting for their rights, speaking out, trying to get across the border and escape, etc. The fact is, sometimes people need to be willing to fight and die for things they believe in. That doesn't seem to be the case in many Muslim countries. Until they do, until they're willing to take to the streets by the thousands, to speak out regardless of the consequences, to fight for their freedom and perhaps die in the process so that their daughters and sisters and future generations might have what they did not, you cannot simply assume they want it but are being restrained. The people in Egypt and Libya did exactly what I described, they put their lives on the line and some of them died fighting for what they believed in and theirs was a largely peaceful demonstration.

      Perhaps a better thing to say was, people, as a part of a society, can only apply a right to themselves. You can certainly assign yourself any right you want within your own house. If you and your family want to declare your right to pick your nose in your house, more power to you. However, that right doesn't extend outside of your house and out of your familial society. Likewise, you have rights that only apply to you on the local level, you have rights that only apply to your state and you have rights that only apply to your nation. If you go to a nation where those rights are not recognized, say Kuwait or Iran, you don't get to thumb your nose at local customs, you simply do not have those rights in those places, regardless of where you come from.

      Now the reason I've been so adamant about universal rights applying through history is because Matt Dillahunty has, on many occasions, opined that slavery being wrong is universal. It has always been wrong, it will always be wrong, whether people thought it was right or not. If you don't think that way, that's fine, but it brings up the same problems, how does one come up with an actual objective secular morality that isn't just someone's opinion? There needs to be something that goes beyond "this is right for me" to "this is right for everyone".

      If you want to know why universal rights are such a non-starter, go back and read my article on "natural rights" and libertarians. They make essentially the same argument. Rights exist, they cannot demonstrate why they exist, they cannot demonstrate that they exist, they can only state, with no evidence whatsoever, that they do, what they are and amazingly enough, it's always the rights they, themselves, favor. If we remove your personal opinions entirely from the picture, if we remove any human opinions entirely from the picture, what are you left with? How do you determine what these rights are without imposing your preferences on the selection process? Why are your "universal rights" any better than, say, a Muslim who wants to impose Sharia law on the entire planet? All you're really doing is taking a vote and forcing majority rule on the entire planet. What happens when the vote doesn't go your way? Are you going to shrug and say that whatever the majority wants is going to apply to everyone, like it or not? Somehow, I just don't think so.

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