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Posts Tagged ‘liberty

Franco-British Council: Magna Carta and the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (DDHC): Past, Present and Future – 11 June in London

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This is the transcript of a speech I gave at the Franco-British council event on the Magna Carta and the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (DDHC): Past, Present and Future – 11 June in London

My cop-panelists were: Shami Chakrabarti (Liberty) Andrew Copson (BHA), and pere Matthieu Rougé.

Transcribed by Sophie O’Flaherty, FBC Intern:

Panel 3 Freedom of Speech and Religion in the Public Domain

I am going to come at this as a journalist and also with my political scientist hat which is my other life in academia. I personally am always a little wary of the eulogising of so called ‘founding documents’ which I think are typically reimagined to accommodate modern sensibilities and thus designed in so doing to ignore the deep inequalities, some of which Shami mentioned, which were often less a sort of afterthought a little error in there and more actually part and parcel of the very constitution of who represents a true human being or in contemporary modern political language who is a true citizen. I am wary because it allow us to think of ourselves as arrived rather than working towards the very ideals which we claim to be celebrating, and it also means that those exempt from its application are often ignored and assumed to be undeserving of those rights and that somehow the removal of those rights is assumed to be because of this premise of this conception of ourselves as having necessarily integrated these values as somehow undeserving or justifiably removed from their application. So I am genuinely more interested in those who are seemingly excluded from these rights, the hundred thousands of immigrants left to drown in our seas, terrorism suspects extradited for torture, I did say ‘terrorism ‘suspects’, citizens that are stripped of their nationality both in this country and in France for given crimes, as if somehow there is something you could do that could deprive you of those rights that you were not constitutive of them in the first place. And that reminds me that perhaps we should view such documents as less an achievement and an indication of our presumed greatness and more a mile stone on an ongoing journey. To come to today’s discussion I thought I would speak to each question in a few lines mainly to deconstruct what I perceive as quite a problematic underpinning to a few of the questions.

I will start off with this idea of the secular settlements of Europe which to me speaks to the increasingly popular idea of Europe under siege from scary Muslims, and unsurprisingly perhaps I have a bit of an issue with that. The truth is and I am going to quote Professor Olivier Roy, who I had the honour quite recently of interviewing, who argues that laïcité in France has shifted from a critical judicial principle designed for the management of diversity, to what he calls an exclusionary ideology and I am going to quote professor Roy specifically on what he understands by that and he says, I quote “we demand that the believer disappear as a citizen that his or her beliefs not be known, a demand of cultural normative ethical homogenisation by the state, that is what I call an ideology, an ideology is when a system of values is not just considered dominant, but normative and official and we are no longer in a democracy when we impose a normative system of beliefs on people.” I think this leaves a particular issue for French Muslims and one he talks about in the interview that I did with him in terms of what we call a double bind that is that French Muslim citizens in particular, but people of faith more broadly are called to hide all aspects of their faith and we will talk a little bit about the extent to which that has become ever more intrusive, but they are once called to hide all aspects of their faith but then when terrorist attacks happen they are called to speak as representatives of that faith so at once you are unable to speak as a person of faith in your day to day as you go about doing normal good things within your society as a citizen, but when a terrorist attack happens you are demanded by the state, by society to speak from within that essentialised conception of your identity. So that is one of the issues I think that is very problematic, and I think it inherently problematizes the idea of French Muslims constructing them as the polar opposite of French culture, they are this sort of intractable minority that can never be fully integrated, hence the obsession in French national debates, you cannot switch the TV on in France without having another debate about Islam and integration in France. So there is a sense of Muslims being this inherent challenge to French culture, when in truth French Muslims have been part and parcel of French culture, part and parcel of constructing French culture for generations now and maybe it is about time we stopped asking them to justify that.

Do religions have a legitimate right to be exempted from special treatment?

I do not actually think that is the issue, rather than exemption I think maybe an inclusive conception of society might be more beneficial. I think more often than not we assume that religious folk want differential treatment when actually what they want is to have the same treatment and not be the victims of prejudice. Take the Rushdie affair, which people always refer to as the landmark issue in Europe, the protest that happened in England during the Rushdie affair were calls for the application of the same blasphemy laws which existed in this country until 2008 I believe to all citizens, including Muslim citizens. So they were the calls to the application of the same rights for all citizens, they were not calls for an exemption or for some sort of special treatment, in fact it might be nice not to have special treatment for a lot of people of faith, because it is not that special most of the time.

Freedom of expression and the protection of religious feelings

There are huge national differences on the conceptions of freedom of expression, I often come into discussions on this and if people are not familiar with the French setting its worth pointing out that there are pretty significant restrictions on free speech in France already, some of which might shock an Anglo-Saxon audience. I am not convinced that religions are the issue that pose the greatest threat to the freedom of speech in France or here in the UK for that matter. Just last year a French court fined a blogger and ordered her to change her headline to reduce its prominence on google for a negative review of a restaurant, it is also worth pointing out that Charb did face threats from Muslim extremists but do you know what he also faced? Threats of criminal prosecution, for some of the things he said. So I think free speech is certainly an issue I am just not convinced that it’s the big bad Muslims that are the problem. I would rather ask whether the ideology that Professor Roy refers to, and specifically the political instrumentalisation of the concept of laïcité is not being used to overrule the civil rights of religious citizens, when a Jewish man in a Kippah come to a polling station and is turned away under the guise of laïcité, you need to question whether the civil rights are being applied to all citizens equally. Similarly now we have French citizens who are excluded from public spaces, from schools, from universities, from hospitals, from using public transport, I call that a civil liberties issue, and essentially to me the real civil rights issue is the profound racism that exists in France today, where there are huge inequalities when it comes to access to housing, to access to power even access to funding religious organisations it is worth pointing out there is still a Christian bias in that sense, a Christian citizens is two and a half times more likely to get a job interview in France than an equally qualified Muslim citizen according to a study by Stanford University not that long ago. I think there are numerous indications from human rights organisations including Amnesty International that have pointed to a climate of what I would call pervasive discrimination against Muslin citizens in particular. To come back specifically to the issue that everyone wants to talk about and this is the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, I would make a lot more about the fact that, this discussion is usually framed as Muslims being offended by cartoons. Actually a lot of Muslims were offended by images but a lot of Muslims did not rock up to the offices and to a Kosher store and shoot people. I will end that by saying that actually and I think on this one the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has it right when he says that the Muslim crowds did not react to Mohammed caricatures as such, they reacted to the complex figure or image of the West that was perceived as the attitude behind the caricatures.

Thank you for your time.

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Written by Myriam Francois

June 23, 2015 at 17:26

Huff Post: Rowan Atkinson Is Right – We Need More Free Speech – But We Also Need More Responsible Speech

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This post was originally published on my Huff Post blog, here

Comic Rowan Atkinson has reignited debate over free speech this week through his campaign to ‎reform Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act which outlaws “threatening, abusive or insulting ‎words or behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”. Specifically, Atkinson ‎believes, and I share his concern, that the term ‘insulting’, in addition to the phrasing “likely to ‎cause”, are far too subjective and as such, threaten free speech. That the law has already been ‎used in Kafkaesque fashion, is well illustrated by the case of the Oxford University student ‎arrested for asking a policeman: ‘Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?’ and pertinently, by a ‎‎16-year-old boy held for holding a placard reading ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’. (For the record, ‎yes I would still be defending his right had the placard read “Islam is a dangerous cult”). Civil ‎liberties campaigners, Liberty have stated Section 5 “can have serious implications on peaceful ‎protestors and others exercising their freedom of expression, as someone who uses insulting ‎language that might distress another were they to hear it could be guilty of an offence.” ‎

The concern lies in a scenario where meaningful criticism can be curbed under this banner, where ‎accounting leaders through peaceful protests, or any other language or behaviour that might be ‎deemed ‘insulting’, could be curtailed. While we should be able to say something which might be ‎perceived as insulting about someone’s religion, more importantly surely is the fact we should be ‎able to say something insulting, or even act ‘insultingly’ towards those who enact regressive ‎policies, who threaten the NHS, who cut support for the disabled and vulnerable, those who make ‎higher education unobtainable for the majority. As things currently stands, the poor phrasing of ‎Section 5 joins a host of other worryingly vague limits placed on free speech which, rather than ‎protecting minorities, carry the seeds of state censorship.‎

However, in the words of Spiderman (and possibly someone else!), with great power, also comes ‎great responsibility. The right to insult means we should have the right to express our views ‎without fear of prosecution, even if they happen to insult someone. What it surely doesn’t mean is ‎the obligation to intentionally trample upon people’s sensitivities. One might express a view which ‎might be deemed insulting by someone, but surely the objective of seeking to insult them, for ‎insult’s sake, is simply egregious. It shouldn’t be illegal, but it should be deplored. In real life, ‎people who walk around insulting people for the sake of it are called idiots. They’re not lauded as ‎the human embodiments of free speech.‎

Should we have the right to say things to one another which might be deemed insulting? ‎Absolutely. Should we define the European ‘creed’ as the obligation to insult one another – ‎definitely not. None of us want to see free speech used as an excuse to go back on hard fought for ‎tolerance, for bigots to have free rein to spout racist/homophobic/sexist/islamophobic/etc tirades ‎unchallenged, just as much as one might not wish to see such statements prosecuted or censored. ‎It is possible to believe in the need for clearer, less restrictive legislation whilst also calling for more ‎empathy and understanding of the experiences of those minorities who will inevitably be on the ‎receiving end of some of the less palatable free-speech. ‎

The concern is that the free speech debate actually masks an underlying concern that religion in ‎general but Islam in particular, represent an inherent threat to the secular liberal worldview. From ‎this perspective, insulting Islam and Muslims represent not merely a right to free speech, but an ‎obligation to confront values assumed to be incompatible. According to a YouGov poll, more ‎Britons (43%) than Americans (39%) believe in a fundamental clash of cultures between Islam and ‎the West, and this has bred the sadly widespread view that not only are religious people not ‎worthy of protection but that their ‘pre-enlightenment superstitions’ must be derided at all costs, ‎including the cost of our social cohesion. There surely is some irony in discussing the ‘issue’ of the ‎integration of Muslims, if they’re deemed inherently incompatible by virtue of that religiosity. As ‎with all minorities, the two-way process of civic integration requires broader society to ‎acknowledge the particular sensitivities of those we regard as our democratic equals. It doesn’t ‎mean minorities will never be insulted, it just means there won’t be a concerted campaign to insult ‎them. When comedians or satirists choose to mock the most marginalised and disenfranchised, ‎rather than the powerful and the corrupt, it poses much more significant questions than ‘can we ‎insult Islam’. It raises rightful concerns over the use of such arguments as a smokescreen to ‎obscure some of the crudest forms of racist vilification. In some cases, rather than representing ‎the best of the European tradition of satire, such material can be located within a tradition of racist ‎representation.‎

When the way we discuss minorities impacts their life, through discrimination and sometimes even ‎violence, there is a responsibility upon us all to ensure the vilification is not afforded a credence ‎which bolsters the hate-mongers. Studies of hate crimes suggest a link between negative ‎representations of minorities and their targeting by violent individuals or groups. Protecting the ‎psychological and physical wellbeing of fellow citizens is as about as axiomatic as any value gets. To ‎do so should not require further ambiguous legislation but rather a shift in our perception of ‎Muslims – as an integral part of our society, their grievances are, like the grievances of any ‎minority, our grievances. Freedom of speech may well be a central British value, but so is live and ‎let live. It’s a mistake to assume they’re mutually exclusive, but it’s also complacent to assume that ‎either is immune from erosion.‎

Written by Myriam Francois

October 19, 2012 at 13:41

Islam and Life: Discussion with Prof Tariq Ramadan on the burka ban in Italy

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A discussion with Prof Tariq Ramadan on the Italian Burka ban on his show “islam and life

You can view the show here: http://www.presstv.ir/section/3510523.html

Written by Myriam Francois

September 9, 2011 at 17:47