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Free Speech and Religious Freedom after Charlie Hebdo and Section 18C

On April 7, I was invited to participate in a round table on ‘Free Speech and Religious Freedom after Charlie Hebdo and Section 18C’ at the University of Wollongong by Tanja Dreher and Michael Griffiths on the occasion of Anshuman Mondal‘s visit to the University. Here are the slides from my brief presentation which touched on recent events in France and made an attempt to connect them to issues arising from the theorisation of the postracial.

I also gave a response to Mondal’s lecture, ‘Freedom of Expression and Religious Freedom in Contemporary Multiculture’, the text of which I reproduce here.This paper provides a useful genealogy of the interrelated trajectories of freedom of speech and religious liberty that have become obscured through the elevation of freedom of expression as the originary right, a rewriting of history debunked by Professor Mondal.

The paper lays bare the fact that the definition of religiosity from a dominant secular-liberal perspective as ‘private belief’ leads to any public display of religiosity being seen as having flouted the ‘sacred’ public-private divide (I use the word ‘sacred’ advisedly, following French scholars such as Pierre Tévanien and Christine Delphy who demonstrate how in France laicité has been elevated to the status of a civic religion).

By speaking about a hierarchy of tolerability at play in western conceptions of multiculturalism and freedom of religion, Anhsuman Mondal shows how, although western societies formally problematise Christian forms that are seen as excessive to secular-liberalism (such as Evangelism), these groups within Christianity are in fact seen as much less of a concern than those, principally Islam, that are not seen properly to be of the West.

This recalls the arguments of scholars such as Gil Anidjar and Talal Asad on the continuity of secularism with Christianity, rather than secularism representing any kind of rupture.

When far right groups in Australia and elsewhere say that they oppose Islam because they object to Sharia law ‘taking over the country’, it is particularly interesting to remember this. For example we might want to think about the real power of lobbies from within Christianity to actually affect minority rights, particularly in the realms of gender, sexuality and reproduction.

Note the case of Purvi Patel jailed for 20 years in the US state of Indiana for ‘feticide’ having been found guilty of taking ‘illegal abortion drugs.’ It is no accident that laws such as this disproportionately affect poor and racialised women in the US and elsewhere as black feminists such as Patricia Hill Collins or Angela Davis have been pointing out for years.

We might also note the homophobic and transphobic ‘outrage’ over the Safe Schools programme here in Australia which again will disproportionately negatively affect young LGBTIQ people who are also racialised. So, this is the pointier edge of what Prof Mondal is talking about when he remarks that ‘nuns are permitted to teach in full habit’ but that Muslim women wearing the veil have been sanctioned in excess of the actual laws on headscarf wearing in various countries.

We might also recall the well-known fact that the Danish newspaper the Jyllands Posten that first published the cartoons of the Prophet Mohamad in 2004 had refused a year earlier to publish cartoons of Jesus for fear it would ‘provoke an outcry’.

But as Gavan Titley and I remarked in The Crises of Multiculturalism, following Peter Hervik, these cases are not simply evidence of hypocrisy. Rather they illustrate the belief of those such as Jyllands Posten editor Fleming Rose (and he is by no means alone) in a civilizational hierarchy: whose objections must we respect and whose should we reject? Not simply because they are minorities (Muslims opposed to the publication of the cartoons) but because their very presence, as Stuart Hall put it, ‘in but not of Europe’ is indicative of an affront to Europeanness.

In this conception, objections to the publication of the Mohammad cartoons or demands for Muslim women to be treated equally are construed as not properly belonging to European/Western/Australian public cultures – as intrinsically foreign demands, not properly belonging to ‘our’ public spheres which are construed – counter-historically – as historically white and secular/Christian. It is on this basis that they may be rejected while nuns in habits or anti-abortionists and the like are not only seen as deserving of an audience but can actually direct policy.

This leads me to Prof Mondal’s solution to the current impasse, a situation in which the publication of a study by Yin Paradies and Amanuel Elias into the economic effects of racial discrimination immediately leads the IPA to claim that it amounts to a curtailing of freedom of speech. In other words, a situation in which it is impossible to talk about the real effects of discrimination on the health and wellbeing individuals without it being seen as trumping the more important – because it is proposed to be foundational – value of freedom of speech. Translated this means my right to hurt someone trumps her right to be hurt (I am using the word ‘hurt’ instead of the usual ‘offended’ because it has been shown myriad times that racism leads to actual mental and physical ill health and even death).

Mondal solution recommends ‘accommodationism’ over toleration. This would serve to expose the originary relationship between religious liberty and free expression.

In this context, he argues that there would be more debate because freedom of speech would be seen not just as a legal right, but as a form of what he calls ‘ethical praxis’ which has the potential to bring people with different beliefs and from different traditions together.

I agree that this approach has the theoretical potential to place conflicting views on a level playing field with possibly productive ends. However, while I understand the genealogical difference between toleration and accommodation, the question of power is, to my mind, left open. Accommodation can only work in the sense that Mondal proposes if all parties have equal ability to accommodate the other’s perspective. But in a context in which white supremacy still underscores the terms of the debate I am more skeptical about how this would work in practice.

In particular, I wonder about what accommodationism as offering ‘idioms of welcome and hospitality’ would mean in a settler colony whose lands have never been ceded. Who precisely is doing the welcoming? It is one thing if we are all welcoming each other (e.g. welcoming to country) but if this remains purely symbolic (if there is no actual autonomy and attendant power behind it), it may fail to bring about the radical change that needs to happen to ensure that freedom does not only mean ‘free like me’ – free to be a white, ‘secular’, liberal.

These points have been made for years by theorists and activists around borders, most prominently in Australia, Angela Mitropoulos who wrote in 2006 that ‘The prevalent and ostensible counter-slogan of ‘Refugees are welcome here’ not only repeated the classificatory machinery of migration policy that obliges the other to beg, but positions the ‘we’ as the one who must be persuaded by such pleading, who has the authority to welcome, or not.’

So, in conclusion, it is abundantly clear that so-called ‘debates’ on freedom of speech cannot, or can no longer, be observed outside of their racialised meaning. They are racially indexed, to use a phrase by Dana Ain-Davis, so that they are already set up to invoke a confected crisis in which those portrayed as embattled, silenced white majorities are cowed in front of metaphoric or actual axe-wielding minorities ready to shame ‘us’ for our long gone – get over it – (and not that bad anyway) colonial past. And moreover because ‘freedom of speech’ is set up from the outset as race blind – because it claims to come from a position of opposition to racism which is itself construed from this perspective as a problem of individual bad attitudes – then it is unable to come to the accommodationist table.

To accommodate something fully not only must things be admitted but some things must also be ceded. Seen in light of the endless search for ‘moderate Muslims’ or respectable Aboriginals, where these representatives are constantly bending over backwards to be -paraphrasing Gary Younge – the minorities that the West wants them to be, I can only see one side doing the bending and the ceding. And here I am inspired by Muslism scholars such as Yassir Morsi and Randa Abdel-Fattach when they have pointed out the problematic nature of accommodation when it comes only from the side of those deemed as excessively/racially problematic.

And while I am 100% sure that this is not the situation that Anshuman Mondal envisages, I am worried by the potential for redirecting his meaning in different but similar directions, as we have seen in the past with antiracism versus multiculturalism, multiculturalism versus interculturalism and the intercultualism versus diversity and so on. I hope I will be proved wrong.

Alana Lentin