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Debating freedom of expression, religion and secularism

11 November 2010

Joe Gonzales, MRG’s Media Intern in London, reports back from a recent MRG council seminar debating the increasing discord between freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the notion of a secular state.

The 32nd floor of the Broadgate Tower in the City of London, the site of MRG’s recent Council Seminar on MRG Policy Issues, offers a sweeping panorama of London’s impressive skyline.  From it, one can see all the way from Canary Wharf’s sky-scraping banks in the east, past Victorian icon Tower Bridge and Sir Norman Foster’s famous “gherkin” building, and westwards towards the colossal London Eye ferris wheel and beyond.

Closer to the building’s base, indeed only a few minutes’ walk away, is the East End’s Brick Lane. The heart of London’s mostly-Muslim Bengali population, Brick Lane and the surrounding Bethnal Green area represent a commendable example of successful coexistence between secular European tradition and the growing presence of Muslim cultural values.  A walk through the area reveals fashionable nightclubs around the corner from a mosque, and Londoners and tourists from all backgrounds convening on a row of restaurants to negotiate the best prices for a Halal-certified curry meal.

Thus, the area acted as an appropriate setting for the MRG Council Seminar, entitled “Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Religion, and the Separation of Religion and State.”  While a successful balance between these principles seems to have been found around the corner in Brick Lane, it is obvious that elsewhere the intersection of these concepts is often met with public controversy and uproar. A variety of issues seem capable of instigating such upheaval:  the Swiss ban on minarets, the French ban on face-covering veils, the Danish cartoons portraying the prophet Mohamed, etc. The sensitive nature of religious belief, and the diversity of circumstances it affects, clearly has made it difficult for policy makers worldwide to reach a consensus on the appropriate method for handling such conflicts of interest.

The MRG Council, a group consisting of accomplished individuals from a wide range of professional and national backgrounds, was presented with the task of analysing and discussing a number of topics in order to identify the positions which would be most logical and appropriate for MRG to take on such nuanced issues.

Two topics of debate were specifically put forward.  One considered the possible limitation of freedom of expression in order to protect against hate and discriminatory speech.  The other debate examined the relationship between the freedom of religion and the secular notion of separating religion from state. These specific enquiries, however, acted less like limitations as to what could be discussed and more as the centrelines on which to base a wider avenue of debate that included the very nature of the rights to free expression and religion.

The discussion concerning the relationship of religion and state created a noticeably tense atmosphere and unsurprisingly quickly focused on the French Senate’s September approval of a ban on full-face veils in public.  Azar Majedi, an Iranian activist and chairperson of the Organization for Women’s Liberation, passionately defended the French ban, making a variety of points that induced widespread, head-nodding acknowledgement from other participants (an impressive feat given the near-unanimous anti-ban position that the majority of the room seemed to take).

Drawing upon her personal memories of growing up in Iran, Majedi claimed that Islamic traditions that require women to cover themselves are both the symbols and the tools with which women are marginalised. She feels that the burka and the niqab are misogynistic and disadvantage women to such an extent that they represent “gender apartheid.”   She quickly admonishes claims that veils and burkas are simply misunderstood symbols of Iranian culture by wondering aloud, “Just because I’m born in Iran, my culture is misogynist?  No. Cultural relativism is racism.”

Representatives from MRG presented the issue’s other side, stating that the veil ban denies personal autonomy, particularly in cases in which an individual has genuinely chosen to cover their face of their own volition.  Secularism, it was claimed, requires the government to be free from religion, not society as a whole.   If this is true, then if it is possible to manifest one’s religion without harming society, it should be done.

Majedi responded that permitting the veil’s use is not in the interest of the common good.  She interestingly compared the veil ban to the more commonplace ban on smoking in public places.  This is not done because the government has decided that individuals are unable to make decisions concerning the negative effects that smoking may have on their own health, but instead because second-hand smoke poses a serious health risk to others.  According to Majedi, the existence of essentially “identity-less” individuals within a community is not only degrading to those individuals, but also negatively affects public wellbeing, trust and security.

The other debate, concerning the notion of protecting against hate speech, saw most participants cite the controversy surrounding a series of Danish cartoons. The 2006 publication of a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten sparked waves of protest from the worldwide Muslim community. MRG’s representatives quickly identified one of the key tasks at hand as acknowledging that neither of these human rights automatically takes precedence over the other.

Guest speakers Sejal Parmar and Jonathon Heawood, representing the NGOs Article XIX and English PEN respectively, predictably took a more hardnosed defence of freedom to expression, claiming it to be a necessary component of any human rights-based society. Many participants noted the seemingly baseless distinction often made between offending others on religious grounds and doing so on a political or personal basis. Such a distinction is unfounded, it was argued, and as such individuals should be able to criticise religion to the same degree as they can criticise political beliefs, art and everything else in society.

Majedi, also a fervent defender of unlimited freedom of expression, stated that it would be foolish to believe that the outcry caused by the Danish cartoons was caused simply by their offensive nature, hinting that such protests were more organised than they appeared.  Referencing the widespread burning of Danish flags that occurred after the cartoons’ publication, she humorously remarked on the strange fortune it was that so many average Middle Eastern families happened to have Danish flags at hand ready to burn en masse.

MRG purposefully added a non-European perspective to both debates, indirectly mentioning the significant effects that the elasticity of language has on human rights concerns.  The European secular state often identifies secularism as the absence of religion.  Secularism as defined in India’s constitution, however, is defined as a tolerance of all religions.  When viewed through the lens of the latter definition, the French veil ban seems to be in fact anti-secular, as it abandons religious tolerance.  Similarly, in the debate concerning freedom of expression, it was noted that often such discussions focus on a free press more than other sorts of expression.  As such, monitoring mechanisms often neglect other forms of expression more prevalent in the developing world, such as printed pamphlets and village meetings. Monitoring mechanisms, it was argued, also often ignore the less visible barriers to free expression caused by one-sided societal power structures that intimidate certain groups from criticising others.  The effects such structures can have on the freedom of expression of minorities are self-evident.

By the end of the seminar, MRG’s position on both issues still remained to be determined by further discussion among members of the Council and MRG’s staff.  It is amusing to note both the near religious fervour often displayed by those praising and defending secularism, as well as the fact that criticising unlimited freedom of expression is only possible if the freedom of expression is present.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.