Report on the Clash between Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Expression Webinar organized by the Center for Study of Society and Secularism in India

Author: Neha Dabhade

“Clash between Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Expression, mapping the contours of the Conflict in France” is a Webinar organized on November 3rd by the Center for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) India,  run by ILN India Fellow Mr. Irfan Engineer.

If under the doctrine of laicite in France, positive display of religion is prohibited then negative display of religion should also be equally prohibited”, said Prof. Tahir Mahmood, former Chairperson, National Commission for Minorities and former member of the Law Commission of India. He was speaking at the webinar titled, “Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Expression: Contours of Conflict- France, Muslims and Islam” on 3rd November, 2020 organized by Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. The webinar came on the heels of the beheading of Samuel Paty, a school teacher in Paris by a Muslim Chechen teen, after Paty allegedly showed his students the controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammad which are deemed derogatory and offensive by the Muslims. This incident was followed by killing of three innocent citizens in Nice, France. This violence in France triggered a debate on the role of freedom of religion on the one hand and freedom of expression on the other hand. French President Emanuel Macron has zealously defended the freedom of expression in this debate, going to an extent of equating the right to show the controversial cartoons to the French way of life. This has led to alienation and stigmatization of the Muslim community in France resulting in outrage the world over. However, the violence in the name of religion that France is witnessing was unequivocally condemned by the speakers in the webinar.

All forms of violence in the name of religion are condemned irrespective of wherever it takes place in the world and against whomever”, said Prof. Akhtarul Wasey, Professor Emeritus in Islamic Studies and President at Maulana Azad University. Fr. Victor Edwin, Secretary and Editor at Islamic Studies Association, also added that as much as he opposes the publication of the controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammad which hurt the sentiments of the Muslims, he condemns violence based on religion or any ideology. Jean-Thomas Martelli, Head Researcher at Centre de Sciences Humaines, called the killing of the innocent in France as heinous crime. At the same time, the panelists also expressed concern that freedom of expression can’t be limitless and allowed to trample on freedom of religion. Prof. Tahir Mahmood pointed out that both, the freedom of religion and freedom of expression are not unbridled under any human rights instruments or constitutions including that of France. He stated that while the doctrine of laicite in France prohibits positive display of religion in the public sphere, for example, wearing of the hijab by Muslims, the turban by Sikhs or the cross by the Christians, it should equally prohibit the negative display of religion. The cartoons showing Prophet Mohammad in a derogatory light is a negative display of Islam he observed and that too, should be prohibited in the realm of secularism that France advocates. He further observed that the ruling dispensation in France is encouraging negative display of selective religions especially Islam which is leading to disharmony and alienating Muslim community in France. Prof. Mahmood quoted the foreign minister of Finland, who criticized France by pointing out, “while abuse of black Africans in France is termed as racism, the abuse of Jews termed as anti-Semitism, the abuse of Islam is couched as freedom of religion”.

Jean- Thomas Martelli also pointed out that France has a militaristic approach to Secularism. This model of secularism though initially was adopted to renegotiate with the Catholic Church which was the dominant religion in France and challenging the authority of the state, in recent times, it has become a tool to target the minorities in the country. He made an interesting comparison between the trajectories of secularism in France and India which he said are exactly the opposite but resulting in the same thing- narrow idea of nationalism which is not inclusive of minorities. He elaborated that though in the Indian context, the doctrine of secularism is on a decline in public discourse, in the French context, secularism is vehemently repeatedly asserted. In India, this lack of assertion of secularism is leading to ethno-nationalism and in France, to alienation of minorities and the binary of French way of life versus the practices of the religious minorities.

Martelli pointed out that Charlie Hebdo paper, founded in 1968 started as and still remains an anarchist paper to challenge the conservatism in the society. Ironically it is now hailed as the symbol of laicite in France, a symbol of national identity and even a normative symbol. He further clarified that the recent incident of violence in France is not reflective of the norm but is marginal. He reflected that the individuals indulging in violence in such attacks are not recent converts to Islam or second generation immigrants settled in France who feel a loss of moral roots of Islam or culture of Islam as speculated by some, but they are newly arrived immigrants. This fact calls for attention to the international connections of the attacks and dispels the theory of radicalization of Muslims in France.

Fr. Victor Edwin citing arguments from theology and historical context argued that Christians and Muslims have had a harmonious relationship. Condemning the publication of the offensive cartoons of Prophet Mohammad, he said that they are not only offensive to Muslims but also to Christians since both are adorers of one God and Catholic Church teaches to respect Islam and the Muslim brethren. Christianity teaches to respect all faiths as well as people who don’t follow any faith. In response to the publication of the cartoons and its connection to freedom of expression, he cited the response of Pope Francis in 2015, when he clarified that caricatures of Prophet Mohammad can’t be used as freedom of express to offend or provoke the Muslims.

Fr. Edwin dwelled into the historical relationship between Christians and Muslims and elaborated that there were possible contacts between Prophet Mohammad and Christians of Nazareth where they held different views but still had fruitful engagement. He pointed out that there is also possibility of Muslim refugees in Lagos and how they harmoniously contributed to the society. He observed that while the Arab Christians positively evaluated Islam and praised Prophet Mohammad, the western philosophers and chroniclers vilified the Prophet and spread negativity about Islam. In this polarized context, he believes that engagement with people of all faiths is the key to the understanding of Islam and inter-faith harmony. He said the negativity towards Islam stems from ignorance and it’s important to facilitate exposure and engagement with Muslims and facts to dispel myths. He emphasized that freedom of religion and freedom of expression; both are inherent to human beings and equally important. The key to this supposed conflict between the two is positive constructive engagement and upholding dignity of all human beings leading to universal fraternity and solidarity.

Prof. Akhtarul Wasey along with condemning the violence in France pointed out that there are limitations on freedom of expression. While he admitted that freedom of expression is indispensable in a society and to human beings, care has to be taken it doesn’t hurt or harm anyone. He stressed on the principle that no prophets or gods from any religions or faiths can be insulted under the name of freedom of religion. Prof. Wasey reflected that when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist structures in Bamayan, Afghanistan, he had strongly condemned the violence because we live in an interconnected world.

Prof. Wasey further appealed to the Muslims to nurture the value of forgiveness citing the example of none other but Prophet Mohammad himself. He narrated the story where an old woman threw waste on the Prophet everyday to insult him when he passed her house. But he never retaliated or confronted her. One day when she didn’t throw waste on him he went to check on her and found her very ill. While the woman expected scorn from the Prophet in her moment of illness for her conduct, she was surprised that he was kind to her and took care of her. The Prophet through forgiveness and kindness could win her over. This was his most important teaching and should be followed by Muslims all over the world. He appealed that Muslims should not forget their akhlaqs. This he believes will salvage the image of Muslims the world over where they are viewed as intolerant and violent. He urged the Muslims to not come on the roads to protest during the time of corona virus and when internationally countries like Bahrain is coming closer to Israel. He appealed for tolerance, forgiveness and peaceful co-existence for all communities.

Irfan Engineer, the Director of Centre for Study of Society and Secularism and a prolific writer, moderated the discussion. He too unreservedly condemned the violence in France. Citing the Quran, he clarified that Islam respects the freedom of religion and freedom of expression of people belonging to all religions. He emphasized that Islam doesn’t teach or sanction killing of any innocent- in fact saving one life is saving the entire humanity according to the teachings of the Quran. He said that this unfortunate incident should not be used to target Muslims since co-existence of all communities is imperative for a diverse country. The webinar was attended over 120 participants and well appreciated.

Click on this link to watch the entire webinar