The New Thoreaus: A Video of My Talk at UT Law

I had a wonderful time yesterday at the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center at the University of Texas Law School, where I spoke about my draft paper on the New Thoreaus. I enjoyed meeting some students before my talk, and the talk itself. Excellent questions and a lot of fun. My thanks again to Steve Collis and the folks at UT for having me. A video of the talk is available below:

A New Book on Salafism

Salafism is a movement within Islam that seeks to return to what it understands as the earliest, and therefore purest, expressions of Islamic law and practice, from the time of the first few generations of Muslim believers. In a sense, it can be seen as a kind of originalism, opposed to the more conventional Islamic law traditionalism that views the earliest expressions as mediated through the writings of succeeding legal scholars.

A new book from Stanford University Press, On Salafism: Concepts and Contexts, by scholar Azmi Bishara, argues that Salafism is best understood as a contemporary phenomenon based, not in early Islam, but in the current social and political context. Here is the publisher’s description:

On Salafism offers a compelling new understanding of this phenomenon, both its development and contemporary manifestations. Salafism became associated with fundamentalism when the 9/11 Commission used it to explain the terror attacks and has since been connected with the violence of the so-called Islamic State. With this book, Azmi Bishara critically deconstructs claims of continuity between early Islam and modern militancy and makes a counterargument: Salafism is a wholly modern construct informed by specific sociopolitical contexts.

Bishara offers a sophisticated account of various movements—such as Wahabbism and Hanbalism—frequently collapsed into simplistic understandings of Salafism. He distinguishes reformist from regressive Salafism, and examines patterns of modernization in the development of contemporary Islamic political movements and associations. In deconstructing the assumptions of linear continuity between traditional and contemporary movements, Bishara details various divergences in both doctrine and context of modern Salafisms, plural. On Salafism is a crucial read for those interested in Islamism, jihadism, and Middle East politics and history.

Movsesian in Texas This Week

I’m looking forward to traveling to the University of Texas this week, where I’ll present my draft paper, “The New Thoreaus,” at the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center. The paper addresses the Rise of the Nones and what it means for the Free Exercise Clause. Details are available here. Center friends, stop by and say hello!

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • In West v. Radtke, the Seventh Circuit held that a Muslim inmate’s rights under RLUIPA were violated when prison authorities refused to exempt him from strip searches conducted by transgender men. The court rejected the prison’s Title VII and equal protection defenses and remanded the case for further development of the inmate’s Fourth Amendment claims.
  • In Maisonet v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a suit by a Muslim volunteer chaplain who claimed that his free exercise rights were infringed when he was prevented from being in the execution chamber when two inmates to whom he ministered were executed. 
  • A Christian rescue mission filed suit in a Wyoming federal district court by a challenging interpretations by the EEOC and the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services (“WDWS”) of the employment discrimination provisions of state and federal law. The complaint in Rescue Mission v. EEOC contends that the Rescue Mission’s free exercise and free expression rights were violated when the EEOC and WDWS found probable cause that the Mission engaged in religious discrimination in refusing to hire non-Christians as associates in its Thrift Stores. 
  • Four former employees of a continuing care retirement community filed suit in an Alabama federal district court alleging that they were wrongly fired for refusing the COVID vaccine on religious grounds. The complaint in Hamil v. Acts Retirement-Life Communities, Inc. contends that plaintiffs were subjected to a hostile work environment, harassment, and wrongful termination based on their sincerely held religious beliefs. 
  • Suit was filed in a South Carolina state trial court contending that a state budget appropriation to Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County violates the provision in South Carolina’s constitution that bars the use of public funds “for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.” The complaint in Parker v. McMaster asserts that the appropriation also contravenes the state constitution’s Establishment Clause.
  • The Hindu American Foundation (“HAF”) has sued the California Department of Civil Rights for alleged misrepresentation of Hindu beliefs and practices. HAF’s lawsuit claims that the Department of Civil Rights wrongly asserts that the caste system and caste-based system are integral parts of Hindu teaching and practices, and that in doing so, the California Department of Civil Rights violated the First Amendment rights of Hindus. 

Freedom in the Classical and Christian Traditions

When I taught my Jurisprudence course last spring, one of the many striking moments was in reading Aristotle’s discussion of freedom in The Politics with my students. Toward the end of Book V, Chapter 9 (1309a33-1310a38), Aristotle says that two criteria are generally countenanced for judging the efficacy of democratic regimes: the sovereignty of the majority and freedom. In democracies, he writes, “freedom is seen in terms of doing what one wants.” But this conception of freedom is a pathology of democracy for Aristotle. To focus entirely on the state as a coercive power, a force that demands obedience, and to ask why we should obey, is to look at only one aspect of politics. Citizenship is not just about being ruled, but about ruling well and about being ruled well. Freedom, like the accumulation of wealth, is not the purpose of politics. I tell my students that Aristotle could never endorse the view, stated by a famous American president, that the business of America is business. Freedom, wealth, property—these exist for the sake of virtue, in Aristotle’s account, not virtue for the sake of them.

A new book by the political theorist, D.C. Schindler, looks like a superb new intellectual and political history of classical conceptions of freedom, as adopted and modified by various figures (some of whom I confess not to have known about) in the Christian tradition: Retrieving Freedom: The Christian Appropriation of Classical Tradition (Notre Dame Press).

Retrieving Freedom is a provocative, big-picture book, taking a long view of the “rise and fall” of the classical understanding of freedom.

In response to the evident shortcomings of the notion of freedom that dominates contemporary discourse, Retrieving Freedom seeks to return to the sources of the Western tradition to recover a more adequate understanding. This book begins by setting forth the ancient Greek conception—summarized from the conclusion of D. C. Schindler’s previous tour de force of political and moral reasoning, Freedom from Reality—and the ancient Hebrew conception, arguing that at the heart of the Christian vision of humanity is a novel synthesis of the apparently opposed views of the Greeks and Jews. This synthesis is then taken as a measure that guides an in-depth exploration of landmark figures framing the history of the Christian appropriation of the classical tradition. Schindler conducts his investigation through five different historical periods, focusing in each case on a polarity, a pair of figures who represent the spectrum of views from that time: Plotinus and Augustine from late antiquity, Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor from the patristic period, Anselm and Bernard from the early middle ages, Bonaventure and Aquinas from the high middle ages, and, finally, Godfrey of Fontaines and John Duns Scotus from the late middle ages. In the end, we rediscover dimensions of freedom that have gone missing in contemporary discourse, and thereby identify tasks that remain to be accomplished. Schindler’s masterful study will interest philosophers, political theorists, and students and scholars of intellectual history, especially those who seek an alternative to contemporary philosophical understandings of freedom.

Podcast on the Situation in Armenia

Last Friday, I sat down (virtually) with Geoff Shullenberger to record an episode of “Compact Conversations,” Compact Magazine’s podcast series. Geoff and I discussed my recent essay in Compact on Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia–specifically, on how the West’s indifference to the invasion of this aspiring democracy by a dictatorship reflects a combination of hypocrisy, cynicism, and shortsightedness. Here’s the link. Listen in!

A New Book on Human Rights and Islamic States

Several years ago, I wrote an essay on the concept of human dignity in different legal systems, including the Islamic. Most legal systems honor human dignity, but the concept has different meanings, depending on history, culture, tradition, and deep political and religious commitments. I believe the same thing is true for the concept of human rights. The universal acknowledgement of human rights obscures real differences across the globe.

A new book from Bloomsbury, Human Rights Commitments of Islamic States, by Paul McDonough (Cardiff), examines questions at the intersection of international human rights and Islamic law. Looks very interesting. Here is the publisher’s description:

This book examines the legal nature of Islamic states and the human rights they have committed to uphold. It begins with an overview of the political history of Islam, and of Islamic law, focusing primarily on key developments of the first two centuries of Islam. Building on this foundation, the book presents the first study into Islamic constitutions to map the relationship between Sharia and the state in terms of institutions of governance. It then assesses the place of Islamic law in the national legal order of all of today’s Islamic states, before proceeding to a comprehensive analysis of those states’ adherences to the UN human rights treaties, and finally, a set of international human rights declarations made jointly by Islamic states.

Throughout, the focus remains on human rights. Having examined Islamic law first in isolation, then as it reflects into state structures and national constitutional orders, the book provides the background necessary to understand how an Islamic state’s treaty commitments reflect into national law. In this endeavour, the book unites three strands of analysis: the compatibility of Sharia with the human rights enunciated in UN treaties; the patterns of adherence of Islamic states with those treaties; and the compatibility of international Islamic human rights declarations with UN standards. By exploring the international human rights commitments of all Islamic states within a single analytical framework, this book will appeal to international human rights and constitutional scholars with an interest in Islamic law and states. It will also be useful to readers with a general interest in the relationships between Sharia, Islamic states, and internationally recognised human rights.

Smith on Liberalism and Hate Speech

This past July, the Center co-hosted a conference in Rome, “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech.” The conference, which addressed the challenges that religious exemptions and hate-speech regulations pose for liberalism, was divided into three workshops, for which participants submitted short reflection papers. Professor Steven D. Smith (University of San Diego School of Law) submitted the following paper for Workshop 3, on hate speech, which we are delighted to publish here:

What is the relation between liberalism and the regulation of–or, conversely, the legal protection of–“hate speech”? And what if anything does the problem of hate speech tell us about liberalism?


Hate speech is pretty much by definition vicious and hurtful, and a legal regime without “liberal” aspirations might have no prima facie reason to respect or protect it (assuming that it could be adequately defined). Conversely, a liberal government might extend constitutional protection to hate speech–for pragmatic reasons (slippery slope concerns, for example, or worries about overbreadth) but also for more principled reasons. More specifically, liberalism implies that people should have the freedom to do and say things that are objectionable or wrongful so long as they cause no harm to others.

“Harm,” to be sure, turns out to be a complicated–and often conclusory or question-begging–notion. Suppose Puritan is profoundly disturbed by his neighbor Pru’s practice of watching prurient movies in her basement. Puritan’s emotional distress may be real enough. And emotional distress is unpleasant; in other contexts it can constitute a compensable injury. But under liberalism, Puritan’s emotional distress in this context will not count as “harm”–or at least not as the cognizable harm that can justify a restriction on Pru’s liberty. Why not? We will say that Pru’s practice cannot be restricted because it causes no harm, but what we mean is that Puritan’s very real pain cannot count as harm here because (we know in advance) Pru’s liberty should not be restricted. We will express this foreordained conclusion by saying that Puritan’s “offense” or “hurt feelings” do not amount to cognizable “harm.”

But offense and hurt feelings are exactly the kinds of harm–or rather of non-harmful “hurts”–produced by hate speech (unless, that is, such speech goes beyond mere hatefulness by, for example, inciting listeners to violence). Or so it may seem. And on this view, there is no justification for regulating people’s ability to express themselves hatefully, no matter how worthless such speech may be.

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Pin on Hate Speech on the Web

This past July, the Center co-hosted a conference in Rome, “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech.” The conference, which addressed the challenges that religious exemptions and hate-speech regulations pose for liberalism, was divided into three workshops, for which participants submitted short reflection papers. Professor Andrea Pin (Padua) submitted the following paper for Workshop 3, on hate speech, which we are delighted to publish here:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.  On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone . . . You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve.  You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts.  Many of these problems don’t exist.  Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means.  We are forming our own Social Contract . . . We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity . . . Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.”

This is an excerpt from A Declaration of Independence of the Cyberspace.  The visionary thinker John P. Barlow proclaimed it in 1996 in Davos, Switzerland – the Sinai of globalization.  Barlow’s pride for what the cyberworld would become in the future was largely misplaced.  As many soon acknowledged, Barlow’s prophecy, that from online anarchy would almost spontaneously rise an order based on freedom, was wrong.  The cyberworld, after all, is just as much a part of our world as we are a part of it. 

Philosopher Luciano Floridi suggested we now live an onlife existence, in flux between the physical and virtual world.  Cyberspace cannot claim an independent life any more than we can claim our independence from it.  Our reputation, social relations, and political sphere take shape in an environment where cyberspace occupies a special place.  AI technologies affect how we perceive ourselves and others.

The issue is whether there is a sufficient public philosophy – or at least an intellectual framework within which our onlife sustains itself. As a recent book noted, 

“The medieval world had its imago dei, its feudal agrarian patterns, its reverence for the crown, and its orientation toward the soaring heights of the cathedral spire.  The age of reason had its cogito ergo sumand its quest for new horizons–and, with it, new assertions of agency within both individual and societal notions of destiny.  The age of AI has yet to define its organizing principles, its moral concepts, or its sense of aspirations and limitations.”[1]

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Madera on Religious Hate Speech in Europe

This past July, the Center co-hosted a conference with LUMSA University in Rome, “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemptions and Hate Speech.” The conference, which addressed the challenges that religious exemptions and hate-speech regulations pose for liberalism, was divided into three workshops, for which participants submitted short reflection papers. Professor Adelaide Madera (University of Messina) submitted the following paper for Workshop 3, on hate speech, which we are delighted to publish here:

In modern multicultural societies, various groups claim visibility in the public space and an equal opportunity to manifest their views, values, and convictions, even of a religious nature. In Europe, since the release of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, further events, such as the Danish cartoons controversy and the Charlie Hebdo killings, have given rise to increasing skepticism and prejudice against religious minorities and emphasized the risk of a clash between religious freedom and freedom of expression. The crucial questions are whether and to what degree freedom of expression can be subject to restrictions to protect the religious feelings of the faithful and what are frontiers of freedom of expression. Hate speech could be entangled with freedom of religious expression, which could degenerate into a dangerous religious hate speech, aimed at offending those who do not share analogous convictions. However, the difficulty of defining hate speech has given rise to a proliferation of claims of hate speech. The risk is the rise of a culture of offence where everyone can claim a right not to be offended.

Indeed, the construction of a hierarchy between the two liberties concerned would provoke a constitutional conundrum as both concern fundamental rights. So a careful case-by-case balance is required, which takes into careful consideration all the circumstances of the case. Thus, not only should the content of the message be assessed, but also the expressive waysused. Furthermore, who speaks and who the audience is can make a relevant difference.

The search for such a balance acts as a stress test for domestic legal frameworks and emphasizes their inadequacy. At the moment, the notion of hate speech is extremely fluid in Europe, due to the lack of a uniform legislative approach. Although in many European countries there is a progressive dismantling of traditional blasphemy laws, which were based on a privileged link between the State and the predominant religion, various States are experiencing some difficulties abandoning regressive patterns aimed at highly protecting religion—preventing an offence against divinity—and moving toward models of protection of religious adherents (hate speech).

In Recommendation 1805 (2007), the European Parliamentary Assembly urged national law and practice to “permit open debate on matters relating to religion and beliefs” and not “privilege a particular religion in this respect, which would be incompatible with Articles 10 and 14 of the Convention,” and to “penalise statements that call for a person or a group of persons to be subjected to hatred, discrimination or violence on the grounds of their religion as on any other grounds.” Finally, a decriminalization of blasphemy is solicited. Despite these guidelines, states have struck disparate balances between free speech and freedom of religion, due to their various historical, political, and social background, exacerbating the political debate and giving rise to litigation.

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