April 12, 2010
Exactly one week ago, a lecture was organized at the Belgian University of Antwerp with the following title: “(long) live God, away with Allah”. A group of fanatic Muslims were not pleased about this title and they called their members to attend the lecture. When the speaker started his lecture, the followers from the Islamic group started to disturb it by screaming slogans and insulting the speaker. Subsequently, everybody was asked to leave the room and the lecture was cancelled. This incident caused a lot of heated discussions in the Belgian press and at the political level. The mayor of Antwerp for example declared that he will sue the responsible people into court arguing that the city can not accept the right to freedom of expression to be undermined, asking a damage of 25,000 euro’s each time this right would be violated. Moreover the “community of the moderate Muslims” were asked by i.a. the minister of integration to openly and explicitly distance themselves from this incident. A week and a lot of news articles later, the discussion is still going on, but the peace is more or less restored. This is the right moment to shortly address this issue from a human rights perspective, bearing in mind the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human rights.
In its famous judgment Handyside v. the UK the Court stated that the freedom of expression enshrined in article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights does not only cover “”information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also [to] those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no “democratic society”.”. Following this principle, the argument of freedom of expression was used to advocate for the freedom of the speaker. He has the right to use a provocative title for his lecture and he has the right in a democratic society to criticize a religion. However, in this debate one perspective was forgotten: what about the freedom of expression of the Islamic group? Was their intervention disturbing to certain people? Yes. Was it insulting for the speaker? Yes. Was it an expression of an opinion? Also. You can argue that it is not very polite to interrupt a lecture that way, but it is a way to express your opinion.
On the one hand, the assertion of one’s right to freedom of expression can not lead to the complete undermining of the freedom of expression of someone else. Here the duty lays with the public authorities who must intervene to guarantee this right. In this case the police should have removed the protesters from the room so that the lecture could go on instead of asking everybody to leave the room and cancel the lecture. On the other hand it is difficult to advocate that you want to protect the right to freedom of expression by taking away this right from someone else.
This discussion is a clear example of how human rights sometimes are applied in a very selective and inconsistent manner. In this case this issue should be addressed as a conflict between human rights and not as a conflict between human rights and Islam as this is the way in which the conflict was addressed in the press the previous days. Maybe one may not agree with the opinion of the speaker or the title of his lecture and that is his right. Another may not agree with the opinion of the Muslim organization or with the manner in which they protested and nothing is wrong with that. But assigning the right to freedom of expression to only one of the two parties is problematic.