Freedom of Expression and Religious Rights: Struggles and Challenges

Conference Summary

The second conference of our 2017 Spiritual Human Rights series, hosted by Soteria International and ENAR Denmark, was attended representatives with a variety of backgrounds, including spiritual practitioners, academics, law, students, and human rights activists.

Konrad Swenninger, of Soteria International, moderated the conference and set the stage by stating the need to raise the level of the conversation that is being had on the topics of the freedom of expression, and the freedom of conscience, thought, and belief.

The speakers of the panel included: Josephine Carlson from Soteria International, Jens-Peter Bonde, a former member of the European Parliament; Siri Tellier from the University of Copenhagen; Advaita Stoian representing Natha Yoga Center; Jette Møller from SOS Against Racism; Anette Refstrup from the Church of Scientology in Denmark; and Bashy Quraishy representing European network against racism ENAR.

The general theme was the unfortunate and actual situation in many European countries where the rights of minorities, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the right to freedom of opinion and expression seem to clash due to social tensions that manifest as hate speech and defamation of certain cultural and spiritual groups. Each one of the participants brought their unique view to the table, and the audience participated with comments and questions.

Josephine Carlson, the representative from Soteria International, defined freedom of expression and religious freedoms and stated that they don’t necessary have to be seen as conflicting. In the both of these freedoms the core idea is everybody’s right and ability to express him/herself and to live in his/her own truth from the heart. She also pointed out that the verbal violence is a form of violence that also can have severe consequences and that it’s important for all people to aim to respect the principle of “do no harm.” According to Carlson, the mature merging of these two fundamental rights is possible when human beings take a higher perspective upon them and cease to see them as opposing.

Jens-Peter Bonde, former Member of European Parliament, gave the history of human rights in the context of European Union, with the use of the court cases which gradually led to the current EU regulation and the supremacy of the court of human rights over national laws. He also suggested that when executing human rights law in the European context, it is still necessary to have flexibility and take into consideration the varied situations in different member states. In He stated that we are used to obtaining the protection of freedom of religion and freedom of expression in the national constitutions and the European Convention on Human Rights. Yet, only few are aware that today it is, in fact, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, which has supremacy for all human rights rulings. He urged us to start informing ourselves on the EU rules and verdicts in order to truly know and understand human rights law. In legal terms, the EU is actually its own state with its own human rights and duties. A federal court that judges on breaches of the EU Agency for fundamental rights, established in 2007 with 90 experts, took over after the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC).

Siri Tellier from the University of Copenhagen used the case of the documentary film 'Behind the Veil’ to draw some lessons. Reporting on the film in Danish media has given the impression that an imam is giving a young woman the advice that she should accept that her husband is beating her, and not report it to the police, thus going against both Danish values and Danish law.  Tellier noted that when she finally saw clips from the film, it seemed it had been somewhat misrepresented. She drew four lessons: 1) as a concerned citizen, she had the duty to go to the source before drawing conclusions 2) as a professional, she has the obligation to speak out (and she has done so) if public discourse is misrepresenting issues within her area. In this case, apparently some journalists judged the film to be made with poor journalistic standards 3) whereas she felt the film should not be censured, it should be complemented with other media giving other views, especially if shown on public media 4) inasmuch as there seems to be an increase of hate speech, defamation, threats of physical harm, not only against Muslims but from and against a wide range of groups, it would be useful to provide more explicit discussion  and information - to school children, professionals and the general public - about relevant codes of conduct and laws, both on what is legal, encouraged or discouraged. Her conclusion was that freedom of speech should generally not be further limited, but should function together with institutions that are sufficiently robust to react when it is intentionally misused. There can be exceptions, e.g. in Germany holocaust denial is not permitted, and in Rwanda there are restrictions on mentioning ethnicity, but in Denmark at present we should attempt to stay with open debate.  

Advaita Stoian, from Natha Yoga Center, shared his point of view based on 10 years of research focused on the impact of media and technology on human life. He reminded us that words have enormous power and they can do much harm. However, due to the fact that this phenomenon is not well enough known or recognized, we do not treat these cases in such a severe manner as we would if someone would poison our water, for example, even though the effect can be quite the same upon the physical body of a being. Stoian also concluded that nowadays we are in a situation where everybody has the right to express their opinion, but people are not aware of the consequences of their expressions—the sense of accountability and responsibility is still lacking. He underlined the role of education, both in relation with the power of words, as well as, in relation to handling emotions, as the lack of this skill often triggers verbal violence.

Jette Møller from SOS Against Racism presented recent legislative initiations that are designed to ban many cultural and religious practices of minority religions in Denmark. She was very concerned about the strong demand for assimilation—“they” need to become like “us”—in  order to be accepted. According to Møller, this is in complete opposition to the Danish tradition of tolerance and belief in the power of argument rather than of banning and forcing. She discussed, among other examples, in particular, the recent abolition of the blasphemy paragraph in Denmark, the banning of judges from wearing religious symbols—meant to prohibit wearing the head scarf—and  the passing of a law in the middle of the night, which banned ritual slaughter of animals without prior stunning. 

Anette Refstrup, the representative from the Church of Scientology, began by presenting the classical golden rule of ethics, actually known by almost all the existing spiritual traditions: treat other people as you wish them to treat you and she stated, “it is not a limitation of your freedom of speech to behave properly.” She discussed the common sense, communication, and good behavior of each and every person as a fruitful soil for mutual respect and tolerance despite cultural or religious background. Refstrup also emphasized that the media’s stigmatization of people and practices indeed has consequences and restrict the boundaries of people’s experiences, thoughts, and actions. She also emphasized that it is our duty as human beings to speak up if we see someone’s rights violated.

Bashy Quraishy, the representative of European Network Against Racism, shared, from his own experience, how difficult it is to recover from hurt and insult which affects the body, mind, and soul; and defined the limits between verbal violence and objective criticism that is always needed. Quraishy also called for freedom of expression together with responsibility. According to him, nowadays freedom of expression, as such, has developed as a fundamental ideology. His solution to such problems is early childhood education on the topic of diversity and other cultures and beliefs. Of course, parents play a big role and, therefore, guidance, rules and regulations that protect religious minorities from the majority must be in place. Quraishy also stated that minorities need laws to protect them and that "Freedom of expression must STOP where his human rights START.”

The audience raised the question of what the true core of religion is versus what is just dogma or habit. Also it was concluded in the end that we would need even more in depth discussion and research upon what is religion and what is its essence? This leads to the question of what a genuine spiritual community is and how it functions?

In their final conclusions, the speakers summarized the main suggestions for solutions as follows:

  • adopting a higher perspective upon the subject,
  • starting good behavior and communication from oneself in order to increase understanding and tolerance,
  • the flexible and wise use of laws and human rights,
  • a common process of definition of the phenomena that are discussed,
  • and giving up the mentality of forcing and banning fellow human beings in cases where no-one is hurt.

The idea of the synergy and ‘sisterhood’ of freedom of belief and freedom of expression welling from the same human need for self-expression was discussed. The means of reaching this goal and how the visions of the future in this domain look were also developed in the end. It was suggested that that we still need solid and quality legislation together with education, including learning through example.