United Against Violence in the Name of Religion

”How can freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief coexist in Europe?”

15-16 June 2015

The subject we are discussing is one of crucial importance, and not only because this discussion is taking place after the tragic events that befell Paris in January 2015. It is of crucial importance also because, today, religion and freedom of expression seem inevitably to come into conflict.


I ask myself how much we can learn from the profound changes that are transforming the world and that seem to have erected an insurmountable dividing wall between freedom of belief and freedom of expression. The question of “blasphemy” or “offending religious sensibilities” has crystallised, although artificially so, the conflict between these two notions of freedom. I propose to offer several avenues for approaching these issues; a few key concepts that I hope and believe will enable us to revive what is a foundational dialogue. To this end, I will suggest a three-stage process that will address three limitations: (a) fundamentalism as an impediment to freedom of religion; (b) potential limits on freedom of expression; and (c) limits that allow dialogue. I will make the third point my conclusion.


  1. Fundamentalism and the impossible freedom of religion


Fundamentalism is a global phenomenon that is present in both Christianity and other religions and that is too often used to describe not just a return to religion in politics, but also the conservatism that is inherent in that revival.


The phenomenon is therefore symptomatic of a dynamic that crosses religious lines and is a reaction to the principles of modernity and its corollary, secularisation. In addition, fundamentalism is characterised today not only by an attachment to the foundational principles of religion, but also to a moral puritanism that must be applied to the social and political, and to uninhibited proselytising. Fundamentalism is understood as the possession of an absolute truth, segregating theological space from social space based on an ahistorical religiosity. Olivier Roy has even spoken about ‘soilless’ religion, religion cut off from its cultural roots.


Fundamentalism is the ultimate secularisation movement, in the sense that it separates the religious person away from him/herself by denying any possibility of dialogue. It is in conflict with freedom of religion and belief, as well as freedom of expression alike. Both the media and minorities, each of them the guarantors of pluralism, are the targets of direct attack.


  1. The limits of freedom of expression


Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”


As it is stated, this right is extremely open-ended, but there are three schools of thought on freedom of expression. The first is the libertarian, which will brook no limits on freedom of expression. This is the perspective from which the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America is often read. The second school allows consideration to be afforded to the individual as a permissible basis for regulating speech. The right allows individuals to protect themselves against slander, for example. And the third is that under the rule of law, hate speech that incites murder, violence and public disturbance is punishable. Freedom of expression does not apply where the intent is to violate the security of a person or group of people.


If we agree that freedom of expression does not amount to saying anything one wants, it is readily understandable that it would be limited by respect for the security and dignity of the person. When we speak of dignity here, we again come up against the difficult question of caricature and blasphemy. What we therefore have is an extremely complex balancing act between a cultural liberalism that is detached not only from the religious, but also from any relationship with the sacred, and an inversely proportional reaction to it that puts the sacred within the realm of the limits on freedom of expression.


  1. Freedom of expression, dialogue of conversion and living together


Freedom of religion and freedom of expression coexist at the points where their respective limits intersect. The double bind of liberty itself seems to create the prerequisites for a dialogue of conversion and living together.


In orthodox theology, all dialogue originates with God Himself, who makes Himself known through Logos. St John Chrysostom believed that this characteristic of the divine dialogue must first and foremost be received as a gift bestowed on us by God Himself. God gives of Himself through speech: through the prophets, the apostles, the saints, prayer and nature. God speaks and converts hearts. Conversion is thus, like repentance, the only way by which to gain access to the promise, not only that the divine curse will be lifted, but that a time of joy and abundance will begin. Conversion is reconciliation, a reversal also called metanoia. This reversal of logic also enables us to grasp the necessary freedom of expression through silence, and the freedom of belief that is essential for dialogue.


When we consider that each person’s unique value lies in the image of God within us, any racist act is a denial of human dignity and a crime against the Holy Spirit. With the resurgence of acts of this nature, the social exclusion of the national minorities of Europe is exacerbated and their need for protection is at its most intense. Dialogue, reconciliation and living together come down to recognising the dignity and liberty of our neighbour. I believe that the commitment of religious ideas and people is to make the unspecified “other” a person who is close to us, to make that person our neighbour, while respecting what makes them unique; to make of our freedom the horizon of our relationship with others.


While freedom of expression and freedom of religion are indeed the measure of our liberty, let us treat that liberty as a precious gift in the service of the relationship we seek to build with God and with our neighbour. Only by doing that will we be capable of respecting others through the expression of a loving liberty.