Can Europe and the Middle East agree on the terms of freedom of expression?

A lecture by Timothy Garton Ash in Egypt at the AUC New Cairo.

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  1. In response to a question from a member of the audience regarding legitimate limitations on freedom of expression in times of national security, Timothy mentioned the Johannesburg principles and other pieces of international law specifically designed for such situations. Whilst this is the case these international standards are not always met by states when imposing restrctions. Take the UK Terrorist Act 2006 for instance. Part 1, sections 1,2 and 3 prohibit glorification and encouragement of terrorist acts, aprticularly when such statements are posted online. On the surface this seems an acceptable limitation on freedom of expression- indeed, incitement to terrorism is prohibited in international law- however, once the Act itself, particularly the wording that it used, is examined in detail it becomes highly questionable whether this is in fact a legitimate restriction or encroaching upon on civil liberties without justification (not to mention whether it is entirely the wrong approach….).

  2. It is a really controversial debate and events have shown how there are some theoretical issues in the assumption. If we consider the case study of the cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad by Jyllands-Posten, we will perceive how agreements are hardly achievable. From a European perspective freedom of speech is theoretically absolute: each individual has the right to freely express his opinion, despite it may become offensive towards the target of the critique. On the other hand in the Islamic culture, there are still taboos and traditions, which limit a total freedom of expression. This does not mean that Islam is a totalitarian religion, but instead it has to be viewed as an alternative model to the western one.
    Often, occidental academia take for granted that satiric is a positive critique, which promotes critical thinking and culture, although ignoring the possible repercussions which it may have on the targets, and in cases even establishing permanent offence. On the other hand, in order to achieve an agreement within the two dominant discourses, boundaries have to be tracked.
    Agreement can be achieved but the two actors have to give up part of their ideology in order to promote an acceptable model. It is easy to say but hard to implement: the West has shown reluctance in the past towards evolution of its dominant discourses, due to the deep-rooted pretension by the academia of holding the truth. Post-colonial and post-structuralist thinking have to be taken into consideration and as far as I am concerned agreement can be achieved just if both actors will move outside of their cultural structures and design a new concept, which is barely related to the current dominant ones. The west will have to give up the concept of universality and redirect towards particularism, just in this way, agreements will be more accessible. On the other hand Islam should move on from the more traditional interpretations of the Koran and try to meet the West in the middle.
    Freedom of speech is absolute relatively to the western perceptive and not necessarily it is the better way of interpreting freedom; to have freedom security has to be assured, for this reason maybe absolute freedom is not the key to achieve peace but instead the matrix of violence and conflict.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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