Judge did harm in the name of tolerance

Sohrab Ahmari
Sohrab Ahmari
Posted: March 07, 2012

Daily life in Tehran, Iran - where I was born and spent the first 13 years of my life - is frequently an elaborate cat-and-mouse game between citizens constantly pushing the cultural envelope and a repressive state bent on suffocating individuality. The stakes in this game can be very high.

Take the underground masquerade balls that members of Tehran's educated middle class are fond of throwing. By any standard, these are decadent affairs. Fueled by a benzene-like moonshine, Iranians dance the night away while donning provocative costumes - sometimes even dressing up as the ruling clerics right under their noses.

To escape radical Islamist tyranny, if only for a few blissful hours, Iranians risk jail, flogging, and worse. This sort of thing is par for the course in a theocratic state that draws its legitimacy from a particularly reactionary interpretation of Shia Islam.

It is not to be expected in, all of places, Cumberland County, Pa. Yet just last week, a state trial judge there dismissed harassment charges against Talaag Elbayomy, a 46-year-old Muslim immigrant so infuriated by a costume he saw at the Mechanicsburg Halloween parade that he felt the need to physically attack the man wearing it.

Ernest Perce, a member of the Parading Atheists of Central Pennsylvania, was dressed as "Zombie Muhammad" while a fellow nonbeliever walking alongside him was dressed as a "Zombie pope." Outraged by what he perceived to be an insult against the prophet of Islam, Elbayomy rushed Perce and then attempted to choke him.

By all accounts - including that of the victim, the police officer who investigated the incident, and even Elbayomy's own confession - this should have been an open-and-closed case. District Judge Mark Martin, however, thought otherwise. The incident's real victim, he held, was not Perce but Elbayomy. As an immigrant, the judge concluded, Elbayomy could not be expected to abide by American laws.

Martin also went out of his way to lecture Perce about his insensitivity. "Before you start mocking someone else's religion, you may want to find out a little bit more about it," the judge instructed. "It makes you look like a 'doofus' . . . In many Arabic-speaking countries, something like this is definitely against the law there. In their society, in fact, it can be punishable by death, and it frequently is in their society."

Coming from the state bench, these are alarming sentiments. Perce should be grateful he was only briefly choked, Martin implied in so many words, when in Iran or Saudi Arabia he would have been hanged or beheaded. Just two weeks ago, as it happens, a Saudi poet and columnist was charged with blasphemy - a crime that carries the death penalty in the kingdom - for allegedly insulting the prophet on Twitter. It should be needless to ask, but since when do American judges take cues from their counterparts in Riyadh?

Martin's irresponsible decision sends the worst possible message to American Muslims and non-Muslims alike about the rule of law in a free society, where there is no legal protection against having one's religious and political ideals offended. In his own misguided way, Martin probably imagined himself standing up for a maligned and misunderstood minority. He could not have been more mistaken.

Many Muslim immigrants have sought refuge in the world's leading liberal democracy precisely in order to escape religious tyranny. For them, hearing an American judge cite the Quran in defense of a violent assault on an expression of individuality is to relive the trauma of theocracy once more.

Thanks to Martin's irresponsibility, the paranoid fringe constantly on the lookout for signs of "creeping sharia" just had its worst suspicions reaffirmed.

"Having had the benefit of having spent over 21/2 in predominantly Muslim countries," Martin said while announcing his decision, "I think I know a little bit about the faith of Islam." That may well be. But, lest he render a similar decision again, I invite the judge to spend some time with Muslim freethinkers in Iran and across the Middle East - and witness firsthand their courage in facing violent persecution for a bit of fun and laughter.

 


Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian American journalist and a nonresident associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, is coeditor of "Arab Spring Dreams," a forthcoming anthology of essays by young Mideast dissidents.

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