Category Archives: freedom of religion

“I am Charlie”: defending freedom of expression after French Cartoonists killed

je suis charlie

“I am strong, I will hurt them with my words” (My 3 year old son, when being told what happened in France today)

This post is not about cold legal analysis, or even about law. It will not be particularly structured or elaborate. It is an expression of shock and anger at what happened in Paris today.

Two armed men entered the most famous French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo and shot a dozen people before escaping. Apparently, the two men claim to do this in the name of Islam. The attack led to the death of four of the most famous French cartoonists (Wolinski, Tignous, Cabu and Charb, the editor in chief of the newspaper). These individuals represented freedom of expression in France and were known for fighting those who opposed this principle, whatever their creed and religion. These cartoonists helped me grow up intellectually throughout my youth and shaped my capacity for critical thought. They taught me that intellectual freedom and freedom of expression are the most important values and that words are the sharpest weapons.

France, the birthplace of Voltaire, is in shock today.

Charlie Hebdo had taken a stand in 2006 when it decided to reproduce the famous caricatures of Mohamed that had initially been published in a Danish newspaper and sparked tensions throughout the world.

It is the protection of freedom of expression which led me to start this blog nearly five years ago. My second post was to denounce a resolution from the UN Human Rights Council on the “defamation of religion”. The UN should not be held hostage or be complicit to such theories.

My one and only belief is in freedom of expression. Continue reading

Texas-style Education: the UN and Secularism put in doubt

I take a break for a few days and many stories worthy of attention start appearing, including the decision of the Cambodia Chambers on JCE III (see here and here) and the Kononov ECHR decision on war crimes and the principle of legality. I’ll comment on them later, but I also saw this news story about the Texas Board of Education changing its syllabus to invite students to question the separation of Church and State, and to teach them that the UN could be dangerous to American freedom. Apparently, it’s quite worrying because Texas is quite influential in imposing standards to textbook writers across the countries. Last year, the Texas board of education had already approved language that left the door open for teachers to slip in creationism in the classroom…

Here’s what one board member had to say on the first issue of secularism:

Board member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, another social conservative, opened Friday’s board meeting with an invocation that referred to the U.S. and its history as a “Christian land governed by Christian principles.”
“I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses,” she said.

 Once again, christian conservatives find themselves in agreement with portions of the muslim community that go against principles of secularism and for example argue that blasphemy should be banned because it would contradict the right to exercise religion freely, as suggested at the UN Human Rights Council, as I had discussed in a post last year…

Defamation of religions in a Brave new World…

As the Durban II Review conference on Racism comes to an end, I would like to come back to one aspect of my previous entry: the defamation of religions as an act of racism. It appears from the draft outcome document that it has not been adopted in Geneva.

The Human Rights Council, however, adopted a resolution at the end of March on the theme of “Combating Defamation of Religion”. In that document, Defamation of religion is presented as a component of incitement to religious hatred. It therefore “Underscores the need to combat defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general”. It justified the limitations of freedom of expression that would ensue, by saying that it is protecting Human Dignity and freedom of religion, thus putting us in front of a classic Human Rights balancing test: “Stressing that defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence”.

This is not a new issue, and painfully became of global concern when the caricatures of Mohammed were published in a Danish newspaper and in several other countries. The debate back then also focused on the freedom of expression Vs Freedom of religion/Human Dignity.

But the whole logic of this HRC resolution and of this debate in general is flawed at various levels.
First of all, it is wrong to balance Freedom of Expression and Freedom of of Religion here. Nobody is preventing anybody from practicing their religion. Expressing the view that such and such religious practice is to my dislike (whether the stoning of adulteress women, the fact that homosexuals should burn in hell, that women are treated as mere breeders, that I cannot smoke on saturdays, drink when I want, or have sex before marriage (!!!)) is of no relevance to whether the people who do believe in those practices can do so freely or not.
Second of all, since when do “religion” have rights? what does “defamation of religion” mean exactly? Who is this “Religion” who is going to go to court and sue me for having defamed his name? Maybe this a one more example of this trend of “collective” human rights that seems to be gaining ground in the past few years, like the “right to developement”…
Third of all, and more generally, we must not give in to the general trend of politically correct limitations to our freedom of expression. Under the umbrella of “Human Dignity”, pressure groups are trying to prevent any kind of comment that might be vaguely offensive. Comedians cannot open their mouth without someone making a formal complaint. Let me make things clear here. That people are unhappy with something being said and express it is perfectly ok. What I have a problem with is that we call for a legal and more specifically criminal response to offensive remarks. Because that is what we are talking about most of the time. It has nothing to do with “human dignity”. It has to do with being offended and, following this logic, why should “only” the people who call you a “nigger”, a “raghead”, or a “spick” be prosecuted? I should also be sued because I tell you that you are fat, or ugly, or short… Moreover, it leaves no room for irony, sarcasm, or second degree humour. what a sad and brave new world that is…
On a more philosophical level, any thought, philosophy or ideology that cannot accept contradiction is structurally defective. Moreover, I am not defined by the opinion others have of me. Why should I care what an antisemite thinks of me? It says more about him than about me. If we put all stupid people in jail, it would make finding a free stretch of sand on the beach in the summer easier (although I only go to the beach if it’s free…).

Finally, on a more subtantive level, and without taking sides, this general debate should not cloud the fact that certain religious practices are contrary to internationally recognised human rights. Religious leaders can spin it as much as they want, they can’t have their cake and eat it: sometimes strict religious practice is just plain incompatible with respect of human rights. What should be done about this is another issue, but the elephant in the the living room can’t be ignored forever, under the pretence that there isn’t enough light to see it…

PS: Someone pointed out to me that the speech in Geneva by Ahmadinejad was not only on the birthday of Hitler, but also on remembrance day of the Shoah in Israel… you have to love the timing…