Taming the gods: How should we deal with religious threats to free speech?

At the 2013 Jaipur Festival, Ian Buruma, Reza Aslan, Ahdaf Souief and Timothy Garton Ash, in conversation with Shoma Chaudhury, talk about the relationship between religion and politics and how to deal with religious threats to free speech.

Shoma Chaudhury, journalist and managing editor of Tehelka, observed that the topic of this session – the relationship between religion and politics – was ‘one of the most important topics that concerns us globally today’. (1:00) Dutch writer and academic Ian Buruma discusses Islam, saying there were two reasons why it was criticized by Europe: firstly, because of violence engendered in its name; (6:00) and secondly, because although it was itself historically religious, Europe had transformed itself to tolerance and the defense of equal human rights for all, and was concerned about fundamentalist views regarding human rights and freedoms. (7:00) Timothy Garton Ash qualified this, observing that ‘the problem is not Christian views verses Muslim, Islamic or Buddhist views, it’s the violence and the threat of violence.’ (8:00) He went on to discuss how it was not political disagreements but violence and the threat of violence that handicapped politicians, which created a negative feedback loop as then fundamentalists saw violence as an effective way to achieve their aims. (10:00) Timothy Garton Ash contrasted this with the true ‘criteria for religions,’ which he said was to ‘avoid violence and not hurt feelings.’ (12:00) Ahdaf Soueif, Egyptian novelist and political commentator, discussed the transition in Egypt in which they are re-writing their constitution in a way that ensures there is full transparency, so that it is not written ‘in bad faith with ambiguous wording to manipulate the laws at a later time.’ (13:50) All the panelists agreed that neither modernism nor fundamentalism were not the issue in this debate, but rather it was a question about violence. Writer and academic Reza Aslan observed that one can have very strong beliefs, but “the only dividing line that matters is violence.” (18:30)She commented that religious nationalism was part of reality at this stage, and it led to two options: either to suppress it, or make it a part of the political process with rules and boundaries.  Ian Buruma concluded that the ‘universal formula’ should be laws that are based on basic moral values and not on a ‘God said so’ basis. (15:00)

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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. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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