The harmfulness of protecting religious feelings

Timothy Garton Ash in an interview with Karolina Wigura · 10 July 2012

Karolina Wigura: Liberal rhetoric is in retreat everywhere. Hilary Clinton declared herself as being “more progressive than liberal”. In Poland, Donald Tusk wrote about abando- ning the idea of liberalism, because “an individual is more important than any idea or doctrine.” Why is that?

Timothy Garton Ash: The first reason for that is that the in- ternational political climate has changed. Francis Fukuyama prophesied the end of history only two decades ago, claiming that there is no ideological alternative for liberal democracy, an alternative that would have a transnational importance that would pull people from other countries. Today, we know that he was wrong. Such an alternative exists and it’s the Chinese authoritarian capitalism, called by some people ‘Leninist’. This is an attractive model, not only for the rulers of China, but also for governments in developing countries, for instance in Africa– especially since the economic crisis started in 2008. We are living in a more and more post-Western world. The whole global liberal order, which we built after 1945, with the United Nations and the Declaration of Human Rights is in danger. We are in defensive mode right now.

And the other reason?

Western multiculturalism. I find the term itself very harmful. However, if we talk about social reality – multiculturalism exists. We won’t find it in Poland, but if we go to London, it’s multicul- tural. Therefore, a liberal state has a duty to provide freedom of speech and equality to every single person, regardless of his or her culture or religion. We have conflicts in social practice, though. Switzerland has recently held a referendum as to whe- ther minarets should be built next to mosques. The answer was ‘no’. It’s completely absurd, since the right to build a temple is the basis of religious freedom! All the discussions about hijabs, cartoons, theatre plays which are charged with being a terrorist threat – these are all sources of very strong negative emotions. That’s the social climate in which we are living. From both points of view, a Western, and a global one, we lack a peaceful discussion about the priorities of a liberal society, what should be protected at any price, and where we might have some space for compromise and negotiation.

So, you’re basically saying: the West is becoming weaker, its sermons about freedom are not convincing – even for itself – so let’s enter into discussion with those who will dominate us anyway…

‘Domination’ is a too strong word.

Right, so let’s try a different way. We engage in dialogue with China and we say: these are our rules, you have to follow them, even if we are in conflict, and we’re weaker than you are.

Completely wrong. At home, in the Western world, we are not weak. We build our own rules here. But we also do that realisti- cally: there is no place for faith in universal liberalism, in the same fashion as we were thinking about international order after 1945.

If not universal liberalism, what then?

We are looking at the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill, Gladstone, Orwell, and for a way to adapt it to our times. I was discussing such an understanding of liberalism, both classic and modern at the same time, with Ralf Dahrendorf, who was my long-time friend until his death in 2009. That means not only political liberalism, not only economic, but also social, following the conviction that the very poor, people without education, or the sick without health care, do not have conditions to fully use their freedom. The social aspect is very important.

How does this relate to the global reality we have just talked about?

Very closely. People from all over the world live in London or New York because of mass migration. But apart from the physi- cal aspect, there is also a virtual one. It is estimated that out of seven billion people that live on our planet, about four billion are connected to the internet through PCs, mobile phones andso on. All cultures, all languages and nationalities are neighbours in that virtual world. We are all there. And this is a great oppor- tunity for freedom, for discussion, for an exchange of views and information. At the same time, the Net has many threats: there’s paedophilia, racism, hate speech, lies. This is where we need the discussion I’ve talked about before.

This all sounds very interesting in theory, but how should we do that in practice?
In practice, we invite all the readers of ‘Kultura Liberalna’ to the website freespeechdebate.com, where you can discuss the ten principles of freedom of speech in thirteen different languages, including Mandarin, Urdu or Russian. We debate our approach to religion, privacy, national security, etc. We discuss not only general rules, but also – and this is more important – some spe- cific cases. Muhammad’s cartoons are now a classic example, and Poland has recently provided a new one: pop singer Doda who was sued for her critical comments about the authors of the Bible.

This is a hot topic in Poland right now. We earlier discussed a Black Metal artist Nergal, who ripped the Bible into shreds on stage, calling it ‘a lousy book.’ The courts eventually de- creed that Nergal did not harm anyone’s religious feelings, because he had done that during a performance with his own band, before a specific audience, whose musical taste suggests that they’re not involved in religion. His behaviour was understood as an artistic performance.

But, in my opinion, the law should not protect religious feelings at all. Nergal or Doda should be allowed to express what they want and they shouldn’t be threatened with a subpoena because of that. We don’t have a law like that in the UK any more. Poland remains,however, a very homogenous country. This will change, when society becomes more diverse. Otherwise, you will have a huge problem, because all religious and ethnic minorities will expect to have their own feelings, their taboos, preferentially protected. And then you will face the multiplication of taboos, blasphemies, defined by Islam, Buddhism, or the Scientologists in different terms… And if we follow the definitions of Scientologists, then why not of Satanists? And so on, and so forth. For who decides that Christianity is a serious religion, and Scientology isn’t? The only thing left is to be consistent in our liberalism. And this means constantly adapting liberalism to new situations.

So how does that discussion look today? How many people visit the website, what does the exchange of arguments look like?
We have a very vibrant discussion, with subscribers from over 86 countries, and more than 100,000 visitors so far (data from June 2012.). We expect an intensive exchange of arguments about the issues related to religion, but also some that are more difficult to foresee, about privacy, anonymity, national security and so on. Surprisingly, the most popular discussions are not on Islam, but on China.

Which issues require, in your opinion, our utmost attention in modern liberal societies?
The most important issue today is probably multiculturalism. I have said before that the term is unnecessary in my opinion. When liberalism was adapted to the 19th century society, with a strong working class, no one talked about ‘multiclassism’. And no one talked about ‘multigenderism’ when women were granted electoral rights. Multiculturalism is nothing other than developed liberalism that is adapted to a new situation. It follows the rule: we respect the believer, but not necessarily the content of the belief.

I understand then that the rules of discussion on your website are established by your team, and not forged during the discussion?
We rather suggest something like, as we call it, draft principles. These are necessary, we would have to deal with a Babel tower otherwise. Religious freedom is a very interesting case here, since problems with the discussion start at the level of language and translation. We managed to translate the sentence about a ‘belie- ver’ and his convictions from English into Polish, but it’s almost impossible to translate that into Arabic or Urdu, as the word ‘believer’ means an ‘Islamic believer’ almost exclusively. Even if we don’t have problems with translation, religious freedom might be in conflict with freedom of speech.

What kind of results do you expect from that debate? Truly liberal societies, or rather states? Some vision of a perfect global debate?
Kant wrote that some form of conflict, within civilized limits, is inevitable. The question is to what extent should that be regulated by the state, by law. It’s unacceptable that the state would be in the role of teacher. Liberalism is for adults, everyone must think through his or her behaviour and be ready to face consequences. There are, however, some spheres where the state must take charge. The sphere of privacy is a good example. The CEO of an important company, I think it was Microsoft, said famously:“Privacy is dead, forget it.” Every user of Facebook understands what this is about. The Internet is a great opportunity for freedom of speech, but is also a great threat to privacy. I personally believe that we need more state intervention, courts and international laws. We need to protect the sphere of privacy that means con- scious and free choices for an individual. Basically, we more or less know what kind of information the state might have about us, and what the others may know about us. But if I decide to delete my Facebook profile, it turns out that it’s not so easy. Everything remains there, despite deletion, with all the embarrassing photos, different stupidities, which a future employer could find.

But when facing a conflict in the virtual world, can we imagine an institution that would arbitrate between us? Maybe the European Court of Justice could deal with such cases, like in the Lautsi v Italy or Dahlab v Switzerland?

Unfortunately, the court’s sentences are often contradictory. We have to remember that we are not dealing only with states. In the Internet, Google is stronger than Germany and Facebook is stronger than France. What is really decisive when it comes to our freedom of speech is vast corporate superpowers. So the crucial question is about the rules governing Facebook. What is allowed and what isn’t on Google? These questions are as important as the ones we can ask about the limits of what the Polish state allows within its own borders. Or another example: Holocaust denial. What do you call that in Polish?

Kłamstwo oświęcimskie (The Auschwitz Lie). Weird, isn’t it?

Yes, this is a very bad translation. Nonetheless, Holocaust denial is forbidden in Germany for obvious reasons. That means you won’t find that term on google.de. But if one could find such examples, would this mean that the Federal Republik should sue Google. com? But Google.com is something like the virtual United States. In short: decisions about these issues are not made on a level of one, or even of few countries. It’s much more complicated.

In your last book ‘Facts are Subversive’ you write about access to information. You distinguish it from opinions, claiming that the core of freedom is access to information…

One cannot make reasonable opinions without access to infor- mation. We cannot make decisions about the right policy in some area without it. We know very well that it is exactly the way in which totalitarian states functioned: lies and the party’s mono- poly on information were the rule. We now return again to the challenges of classic liberalism: John Stuart Mill, living in 19th century England, could not have had any idea what the USSR would become. So he ignored the issue of the state’s control over information. But today, we know that access to information is one of the basic human rights. I travel to China quite often. You can freely discuss ideas there – democracy, freedom of speech, etc. But if you want to get the information about the actions of the Chinese state, that’s a completely different story.

Aren’t you afraid that all of these people from all over the world, who are invited to your discussion, will not be ready for the peaceful, professional debate you want to have? By adapting liberalism to the modern age, do we not trigger many problems, which have already been faced by the system, but also some problems with whom it failed? For instance, John Stuart Mill believed that public debate will lead us to the truth, but he didn’t take into consideration the alternative that people are not ready to discuss issues. By ‘ready’ we mean that we would be able to listen to each other, respect each other, debate over rational arguments, and not just follow the desire to be right at any cost…

But the whole history of liberalism is about dealing with such issues. We only need to compare Mill with new social problems, national or class conflicts, look at the place of ethnic minorities in his writings, in order to understand that classic liberalism is only one kind of a model, which we need to interpret in accordance with modern conditions. Liberalism develops in accordance with such challenges.

The interview was conducted in Polish