Private Islam, public protection

Around discussions of perhaps no other topic have the proper roles of public governance and private behavior been more convoluted.

Ground zero 311 (photo credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Ground zero 311
(photo credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
If you’ve ever taken a literature or cinema class, you probably heard the professor or parroting students say something like, “The main trope in this piece is a clear example of ‘public vs. private.’ The protagonist’s private introspection is at odds with his public persona.”
“Public vs. private” is a common and now cliché line of analysis of contemporary art.
If you’re like me, though, half the time you wondered what on earth these people were talking about. Public versus private? What does that mean? Couldn’t any piece of art depicting animals contrast the public and private? Applied narrowly to at least one real-world topic, though, I do think considerations of private expectations and public involvement can be especially instructive, and that topic is Islam.
Despite my complaining of some of the uncritical, philosophical waxing in college art classes, the public-versus- private routines helped me better understand something material and important.
Around discussions of perhaps no other topic have the proper roles of public governance and private behavior been more convoluted and inconsistent than with regard to Islam. Maybe this is true of religion in general, but Islam seems particularly pesky when it comes to clouding the way we think about government and private rights.
American conservatives, who generally favor limited government involvement in private affairs, rush to their public officials when construction of a private mosque is planned near New York’s Ground Zero. Other Americans are livid that a Muslim driver of a private taxi would refuse to transport passengers carrying alcohol, but say nothing of Amish restaurants, hassidic delis or Mormon universities that might enforce their own similar restrictions on patrons.
Many conservative Muslims around the world who favor government limitations on anti-Islamic material in books, movies and music cry foul when European governments ban minaret-building and Muslim garb. Some of these same Muslims are incensed when secular governments in Egypt and Syria try to place government surveillance equipment in private mosques.
For their part, majorities in many Western European nations, who proudly occupy the freest region on earth, are giddy when given the opportunity to limit the rights of private citizens to build complete mosques and publicly observe their faith.
LET US all just put our pitchforks in a pile and go back to our private barns and think about what we’re saying.
Groupthink discussions of the proper role of Islam in public life tend to make people nuts.
Take this thought with you, though, before returning to your sheds: No one will take us seriously in defending the rights of private citizens unless we defend them sincerely and 100 percent of the time.
If Americans who would swing a wrecking ball at the Ground Zero mosque want publics around the world to protect the rights of Christians, Jews, Mormons, atheists and flat-earthers to build worship halls and practice religion freely, they have to deal with Muslims in Manhattan.
If Muslims around the world want opinion leaders to consider their complaints about racist laws in Western Europe, they have to accept the fact that a few private citizens around the globe can draw pictures of the prophets, Buddha, Vishnu or the Berenstein Bears.
Europeans who boast about how their strong public sector protects the rights of private citizens like no other system on earth expose themselves to derision abroad when they vote to publicly ban conservative Muslim clothing.
I’m not suggesting a compromise, for there’s no compromise with human rights. Either you’re consistent in your desires to guard basic human freedoms or you aren’t and can’t be taken seriously in matters of protecting private rights from public control.
A critic here may say that communal, less individualistic Eastern and Near Eastern societies aren’t likely to agree to protect individualism across the board. Well, perhaps.
But blowing the whistle on European laws curbing fashion decisions seems like pausing for individualism to me.
I think most human beings, regardless of where they live or to whom they pray, favor the public sector telling private citizens what to do less of the time.
But when we cherry pick our favorite human rights and leave others to rot under the tree, we’re not thoroughly tending the orchard. And for some reason, this selective progressivism is especially common in discussions of Islam.
I’ll tell you what. I’ll go about my business being a non- Muslim in Cairo. You go about yours as an agnostic in New York, a Jew in Dearborn, Michigan, a niqab-wearing Muslim in Brussels, a beef-eating Methodist in Mumbai or a teetotaling Mormon in Dublin, yet when the public sector threatens the peaceful, private decisions of any one of us, let’s all speak up.
The writer teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo. Follow him on Twitter @Justin_D_Martin, or e-mail him at