Miss Mabrouk of Egypt

Check the archives too - a lot of good stuff to enjoy. Me myself? Off to new adventures in the blogosphere, if time permits.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Europe vs. Islam, Continued

My previous post raised a few questions, delivered via e-mail and in the comments. While the promise to explain the remaining part of the argument still stands, I want to make a few pointers in that direction today.

Timothy Garton Ash wrote a comment in today´s The Guardian, titled "The struggle to defend free expression is defining our age."

Fanatiques sans frontières (my bold) are on the march. It's wrong to describe this as a single "war on terror"; our adversaries and their ideologies are so diverse. But if you think we are not engaged in a struggle against manifold enemies of freedom, as potentially deadly as those we faced in the 1930s, you are living in a fool's paradise. Which is to say: you are a fairly typical contemporary European.

Fanatiques sans frontières? Excellent expression! But is the threat from the fanatics as dangerous as the fascist ideologies from the pre-war era? It presumes that the larger Muslim population are inclined to embrace it. I do not think so and I am stressing think because I do not claim to know. But I doubt, because societies are complex by nature and it seems to me that Garton-Ash think that the fanatics are unofficial spokespeople for the Muslim world, which is not true. Perhaps he is giving them more credit than they deserve.

There was a book in the mid-90´s, a Harvard professor explaining why the German mindset at the time accepted the Nazi ideology. You would have to explain the Muslim society and "mindset" in a similar way before concluding that the fanatics can win the hearts and soul of the peace loving people I am acquainted with.

But let us move on to the core of Garton-Ash´s argument and two points that are often overlooked in this discussion.

First:
But self-censorship can also flow from a well-intentioned notion of multi-cultural harmony, on the lines of "you respect my taboo and I'll respect yours" - what I've described in this column as the tyranny of the group veto. And there are misguided attempts by democratic governments and parliaments to ensure domestic peace and inter-communal harmony by legislating to curb free expression. ...

Second:
We need a debate about what the law should and should not allow to be said or written. Even Mill did not suggest that everyone should be allowed to say anything, anytime and anywhere. We also need a debate about what it's prudent and wise to say in a globalised world where people of different cultures live so close together, like roommates separated only by thin curtains. There is a frontier of prudence and wisdom which lies beyond the one that should be enforced by law. ...

The fact is that the guiding principle of freedom of expression do not equal "anything said goes". International law - which is constituted by declarations, agreements and court-rulings - is full of explanations and decisions that try to draw the line between what falls under freedom of speech and what is abusing it. In the European "international" legislation, that is, principles and rulings from the European Court of Justice as well as national constitutional laws, you will find that the right is often defined as a right to hold an opinion, as opposed to express.

In other instances, it is well known that freedom of expression is limited. For example laws that state that you cannot desecrate the national flag or insult the royal family. Or that you cannot call your neighbour names or slander your workmates.

The second point I am picking up from Garton-Ash´s article is that it must be clear that the discussion of what is proper conduct is not necessarily a legal discussion. Laws typically reflect what we perceive to be right and wrong, but not all issues are always regulated by law. The law is only the codification of our position. Thus, the discussion about printed pictures of the Prophet and his head falling on a German theatre stage is primarily a discussion about how we respect each other and moral conduct in our society. It becomes a legal discussion when we start to debate whether someone ought to be punished for doing something we object to. It is perfectly possible to argue that by beheading the Prophet you are violating the principle of freedom of expression because that principle is resting on an assumption that we share a perception of morality and you are abusing it. But this is a philosophical discussion, not a political standpoint. We have this discussion because we want to strengthen the principle of freedom of expression. If we did not have this discussion we would leave the playing-field open to those who are violently attacking it and those who are allowing it to erode by thinking there is no need for a discussion.

Because of the grey zone in International law, our communities find it difficult to deal with issues of defamation, discrimination and hate-speech. It becomes extra difficult because the same communities nowadays are populated by people with sometimes fundamentally different views living side by side with people who fail to recognize that our own perception is derative from a common way of thinking at a time when a society only had to accommodate those Christians who were for the Pope and the Vatican, and those against these institutions. Facilitating a discussion that preserve values and include everybody does not have to be the same as giving up your values or excluding someone else. The point of discussion is to see what we cannot see today. Or, to clear the grey zone. That is, we have to trust that we are capable of preserve and include at the same time, even if we today do not know how.

Enough on this topic for today, please trust I will return with more to say. Please do read Garton-Ash´s article in The Guardian.

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