Saturday, September 27, 2008

Defamation of religion and freedom of expression

In 2001 a UN Conference against Racism was held in Durban, which generated a lot of heated discussions and conflicts, in particular about colonialism and zionism. Now a follow-up conference – a Durban 2 conference – is being prepared for April 2009. This time it seems as if an even more serious conflict is building up. A number of Muslim countries under the umbrella of the Organization of Islamic Countries have proposed that islamophobia should be recognized as a racism, and that defamation of religion of religions therefore should be seen as a form of racism against which religious people should be protected.

Being a Dane I cannot help thinking that it is now pay back time for the Danish cartoons. In a way I appreciate that the reaction is diplomatic rather than violent, but still this move by Muslim countries has to be opposed as strongly as possible. In most countries we have laws against defamation of people – unwarranted attacks on somebody’s reputation - but now this concept of defamation is transferred to the realm of ideas, ideologies and religions, and therenby infringes on the freedom of expression of individual people.

I do not adhere to the position that we can have an absolute and unlimited freedom of expression. All ”freedoms”, irrespective of how fundamental and important they are, must by necessity be limited by other ”freedoms”. This also became very clear in the heated Danish debate in connection with the cartoon crisis. Freedom of expression is limited by laws protection the reputation of people, confidentiality and security, incitement to violence etc.

Another very basic human right is the freedom of religion. Some would say that defamation of religions infringes on people’s freedom of religion, but I hold the opposite view that any law forbidding defamation of religion is effectively undermining the individual’s freedom of religion. Practicing another religion than that of the dominant majority and advocating the beliefs of such a religion, which might contradict the dominant religion would very easily be understood as a defamation of that dominant religion.

Without the freedom to criticize religions – and to carry out critical research on religions – the freedom of expression becomes more or less empty and meaningless. For some Muslims Islam is not only a religion in a narrow sense of the word but a way of life encompassing all dimensions of human life, including politics. A prohibition against defamation of religions might easily be used as a legitmation to proscribe un-Islamic behaviours and statements. Furthermore, religions with their very strong both cognitive, emotional and social appeals to the loyalty of their adherents, are constantly in need of criticism in order to stay healthy and avoid becoming totalitarian.

Within a legal framework of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, in which defamation of religions is not criminalized, we must of course consider not only what is legal or unlegal to say or to do about other religions and their adherents, but also what is ethical and what is wise to do and to say if we want to live peacefully together and work together to develop our society in a healthy way and deal with the local and global challenges that face all of us irrespective of our religious or non-religious affiliations and views.

Saturday, September 27, 2008
Mogens S. Mogensen

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