The following editorial appeared recently in the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer:
Sometimes reminders of the preciousness and durability of American freedom can come from sources we might not expect — like, for instance, an Egyptian TV comic.
Bassem Youssef, sometimes referred to by his fans as the Jon Stewart of Egyptian television satire, was arrested last week in Cairo on what the Associated Press reported were "charges of insulting the country's leader (President Mohammed Morsi) and Islam."
Run that one through the mind's ear again: charges — charges — of insulting the country's leader and Islam.
The idea of being charged with a crime for making fun of society's most powerful people and institutions is so far out of the realm of American consciousness we don't even think about it.
American comedians skewer leaders relentlessly, and we roar with laughter or seethe with resentment, secure in our freedom to do either, neither or some of both. Americans call radio and television talk shows, write letters to the editor, voice their opinions in online message and chat boards, and the idea of being hauled off to jail isn't even on the radar. Commentators can (and do) openly refer to public officials, up to and including the president of the United States, as communists, fascists, war criminals, thieves, thugs and moral degenerates, and fear no ominous late-night pounding on the door.
So when the Egyptian prosecutor claims he is protecting "social rights" by arresting Youssef, it sounds to an American like something out of Orwell (as indeed it should).
Like most good satirists, Youssef reportedly dishes it out to all sides — the government and Islamists, but also the excesses and follies of the opposition parties and the news media.
Hassan Yassin, the prosecutor, denies trying to suppress criticism of the government, saying he has also prosecuted people for insulting Christianity — as if that explains or justifies anything to an American sensibility.
This whole episode should serve as a reaffirmation of the freedom we assume as our birthright. But it is more than that. It's an object lesson in theocracy — government controlled by the power brokers of the majority faith, usually out of motives that are anything but spiritual. ("If anyone is to be investigated for insulting religions," Youssef said, "it should be all those who use Islam as a weapon and a political tool to swallow others using religion.")
It's a cautionary tale about leaders deciding that freedom of expression comes at too high a price — for them. It is, or ought to be, a needed dose of perspective for apocalyptically inclined Americans prone to interpret every political development they disagree with as the iron fist of dictatorship.
And it's a hope, even if for now a faint one, of change wrought not by war, but by wit.