Tolerating Dissent

Countries that fail to safeguard free speech and press freedom are likely to be visited first by dictatorship, and then by threats to the governing regime.

Salman Taseer, the late governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, was assassinated on Jan. 4 of this year, killed by his own bodyguard. He would have turned 67 on May 31. Another top Pakistani official, Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot dead in early March. 

Both men were outspoken opponents of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which criminalize a range of offenses against religious symbols and institutions. Despite the stated intent of such laws to protect freedom of religion, their practical consequence is very different, often serving as licenses for governments and individuals to harass rivals, legitimize violence, and settle petty disputes.

In February, more than 1,000 people stormed an Indonesian court protesting what they believed was too lenient a sentence for a Christian found guilty of blasphemy. Last summer, a professor in Kerala, India, accused of blasphemy and suspended from teaching for distributing an exam question with an allegedly derogatory reference to the Prophet Mohammed was attacked with an ax on his way home from church. The list goes on and on in countries stretching from Europe to Southeast Asia. More than 70 recent cases of violence resulting from blasphemy laws have been documented by the organization Human Rights First.

For years now, laws that criminalize statements impugning religion (commonly referred to as "defamation of religion" or "blasphemy" laws) implicitly have condoned violence against those who depart from a country's dominant sectarian views. These government sanctions have contributed to the preservation of intolerant cultures antithetical to open debate and democracy. It is therefore of great significance to the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that U.S. efforts within the U.N. Human Rights Council recently have succeeded in putting the council on record as repudiating defamation-of-religion laws.

The council, a body heavily influenced by the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference and criticized frequently for its reflexive condemnation of Israel and for the human rights records of its own member countries, formally advocated the criminalization of blasphemous speech through defamation provisions as recently as 2008, making the council's reversal of its position through the adoption of a resolution on March 24 all the more striking.

At its latest session, which began this week, the council's member countries must continue this course of embracing free speech and becoming more tolerant of dissent. The United States' own experience over the last century teaches that this transition will be essential to the project of building stable democracies.

America's historical experience has been that its society's capacity for tolerance grows stronger through exercise. Protections afforded speech and the press are not only a means of safeguarding something of great and unique value (that is, open discussion), but also a means of developing the habit of moderating natural but dangerous individual and societal tendencies.

In a case this year involving an anti-gay protest by members of the Westboro Baptist Church at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his dissenting opinion that the protest "brutalize[d]" the dead serviceman's father. Yet by an 8-1 vote uniting justices across the political spectrum, the Supreme Court demonstrated once again how far the insistence on tolerance has evolved in American law and society, placing the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. alongside Hustler magazine's publishers and the American Nazis as offensive figures warranting free-speech protections. Through this ruling and many others the court has conditioned Americans to shift their focus from seeing the value of speech itself to seeing the need to deal with the problems revealed in reactions to speech. The Supreme Court, in other words, has insisted that the United States will be a country that tolerates extremist speech in service of its democratic ideals.

The global public forum is much less mature and, as reflected in the recent action of the Human Rights Council, is only now confronting the serious challenges of embracing tolerance and dissent without banning speech. Unsurprisingly, there is vast disagreement among countries regarding the governing norms for a global forum. Yet with the passage of time it becomes clearer and clearer that countries that fail to safeguard free speech and press freedom are likely to be visited first by dictatorship, and then by popular dissent and threats to the governing regime. As an official of Human Rights Watch has said, "Talibanization is not combated on the battlefield alone; it is also combated by creating greater social space for plurality, progressivism, and tolerance in society."

Clearly there are ways to promote respect for contrary views, including religious belief, without criminalizing speech. America's defining social experiment in tolerance has demonstrated the value of rejecting any hint of the punitive vindictiveness that leads to and then preserves authoritarian regimes. The U.S. State Department and a group of dedicated and courageous NGOs should be recognized for the progress they have made in spreading this truth around the globe.

Given the steady flow of reports of intolerance and violent suppression of speech from around the world, we should have no illusions about the size of the challenges involved in putting these principles into practice. Nonetheless, the American experience during the last century provides reason for measured optimism: The U.N. Human Rights Council's rejection of defamation-of-religion clauses may signal the eventual acceptance of the view that the capacity to cope with radical dissent and extremist speech is not a threat to society but the highest proof of political stability and democratic vigor. If that comes to pass, this period will have marked an important new beginning.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


Frau Flip-Flop

How Angela Merkel went from pro-nukes to no-nukes.

Germany's decision this week to turn its back on nuclear power by 2022 and embrace a future fueled by renewable energy may have been historic, but it was hardly the product of a political visionary. German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived at this achievement almost despite herself, and only by means of a conspicuous and careening political U-turn. Although the new nuclear policy is a real cause for celebration for Germans, Merkel, try as she might, can't plausibly bask in the limelight: In the words of German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, "It's as if the pope were suddenly advocating the use of birth control pills."

In keeping with the rest of her tenure as chancellor of Germany, Merkel's scrapping of nuclear energy has been stumbling and reactive, not confident and bold. In Europe, Germany's goodbye to the atom -- as the world's fourth-largest industrial nation -- is being compared in its political magnitude to reunification at the end of the Cold War. But while Helmut Kohl's deliberate diplomacy in 1990 secured him a place in history -- and two more terms in office -- Merkel is suffering miserably at the polls and in the press.

Indeed, it's impossible for political opponents and the media to resist pointing out that her conservative coalition's new stance on nuclear energy amounts to a drastic volte-face on one of its signature electoral platforms: Merkel's latest plan directly contradicts a law passed just six months earlier, designed to extend the operating lives of Germany's nuclear energy facilities by up to 14 years.

No, it wasn't foresight or vision behind the new policies, but desperation. In the face of overwhelming public skepticism of nuclear power in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster, a Green Party topping Merkel's Christian Democrats in regional elections, and an anti-nuclear energy movement mobilizing hundreds of thousands in the streets, Merkel believed she had no other choice. The real kudos go to Germany's tenacious anti-nuclear opponents, who over four decades never wavered from their insistence that nuclear power had no future in Germany. Unsurprisingly, the environmentalists who are cautiously sizing up the newly accelerated phase-out aren't tempted to give Merkel a smidgen of credit for something she and her conservative party long resisted.

Merkel latest policy shift has thus put her government in a quandary, sacrificing the wishes of her coalition's conservative base -- and, critically, the powerful nuclear energy lobby in southern Germany -- without plausibly picking up any new voters from elsewhere on the political spectrum. Were national elections held today, her conservative-liberal alliance would be trounced, and rightfully so. A share of the blame certainly goes to the Christian Democrats' junior partner, the Free Democrats, whose missteps and unhappy figure in the foreign ministry, Guido Westerwelle, have contributed to the free fall of the coalition's popularity. But Merkel's flimsy leadership and singular lack of vision are the real grounds for the crisis. It has become impossible to decipher what Merkel really believes in, a puzzle reflected in her administration's meager record.

It seems an eternity ago that Merkel won Germans' hearts and votes. Kohl took her under his wing in the 1990s, but it was Merkel, and Merkel alone, who made the most of her opportunity in a Catholic, male-dominated, thoroughly West German party that direly needed modernizing. Merkel stood out in every way: an East German, female, Protestant, professional, twice-married, childless physicist. In contrast with Germany's traditional alpha-male politicos, her unglamorous style, straight talk, and down-to-earth manner were a welcome relief. Her unique biography and outsider status made her the perfect person to sweep aside cobwebbed thinking and challenge the interests that were blocking reform in her party and the republic at large.

But that was then. Since taking the country's top office in 2005, she has flip-flopped so many times that her twists and turns have become impossible to keep track of. Candidate Merkel originally ran on a radical free-market platform that went over so badly with voters that Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats very nearly snatched victory from the jaws of certain defeat six years ago. Thereafter, Merkel became overnight a convincing spokesperson for the social welfare state, even reversing some of the Social Democrats' more dramatic liberalizing reforms.

And then there was Merkel the "Climate Chancellor," who as European Council president in 2008 boxed through tough carbon dioxide emissions standards for the continent. In no time, though, she was pushing through exceptions for Germany's auto industry, producer of Europe's most notorious gas guzzlers.

So too on other EU affairs. Merkel was briefly heralded for her pro-Europe convictions, as the legitimate heir of her mentor Kohl. But in dealing with the European financial crisis, her instinct has been to play to Germany's id, rather than its superego. Her recent broadside about southern Europeans' early retirement ages and long vacations -- in other words, their laziness -- went over well in Germany's tabloid press, precisely because they fanned the latent anti-EU sentiments smoldering in the country. A truly worthy heir of Kohl would have explained to the average burgher in plain-speak that Germany profits enormously from exports to southern Europe and the European Union in general. At a time when the German economy is booming, this should have been possible -- and would have boosted Germany into the role of EU guarantor rather than priming it to view Europe as its adversary.

Nor has Merkel's foreign policy displayed consistency that hints at any bigger-picture plan. When in the opposition, she took Schröder's left-leaning "Red-Green" government to task for spurning the U.S.-led coalition on Iraq. Yet when it came to aiding the Libyan rebels trying to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi -- a mission considerably less dodgy than ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003 -- Berlin opted to sit it out, for reasons no one in Merkel's government can quite explain. It's no wonder that U.S. President Barack Obama flew straight over Germany on his recent trip to Europe, an unprecedented snub in the history of transatlantic relations. Since Europe's most powerful woman took office, Germany has undeniably lost clout in the international arena, and its dreams of a permanent U.N. Security Council seat are now pure fantasy.

Merkel's fans call her a pragmatist, one not keen to fight losing battles and with an appetite for sniffing out political consensus. The flip-flop on nuclear energy, say these admirers, is another example of how she can employ her ideological flexibility to defend her party's gains in a hostile political landscape. According to this theory, Merkel was smart enough not only to recognize that her energy policies in the wake of Fukushima were no longer tenable, but also that the implosion of the Free Democrats has made the reelection of her coalition a near impossibility. The only chance for Merkel to remain chancellor after 2013, then, is as head of a Christian Democrat-Green coalition. Even though the Greens have condemned the conditions of Merkel's nuclear pullout plan as inadequate, a "Nein, danke" to nuclear power is a nonnegotiable precondition for a "black-green" coalition, the likes of which have already popped up in smaller German cities and states. Some observers even say she has cleverly stolen the left-wing opposition's trump card and will win back voters by making Germany a model for clean, energy-efficient states with a thriving trade in solar panels and wind turbines. Finally, a vision! Even if it's not hers.

But it's hard to believe that Merkel can credibly reinvent herself again as the "ecology chancellor" and simply follow the path of least resistance to another term in office. In fact, her dramatic confirmation of Green policies will probably put wind in the sails of the original environmental party, cementing its status as a viable alternative to both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. What Merkel may well have done is pave the way for the first-ever Green chancellor in 2013, as head of a ruling coalition like the one currently in the southwestern region of Baden-Württemberg. If this happens, Merkel will certainly be a chancellor for the German history books, if not in the way she may have wished.

Michael Kappeler/DPA