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Religion and Society

Freedom of Expression but to a Certain Point

I would like to reflect upon the concept of freedom as a value that shapes human action in relation to multiculturality. I do not conceive - as many often do - multiculturality as a ghettoisation but as interculturality, as a frame within which an exchange and a continuous encounter between people with different backgrounds occur. Unfortunately we notice from this point a limit to Western culture—despite the latter's great achievements—that is the incapability of going beyond its own categories and a kind of autoreferentiality.

 

Given this premise let me point out that some Archbishops from majority -muslim countries inform us that in the Western world Muslim sensibilities are continuously hurt. Not only are there such occurrences, but as expressions of freedom they are deliberate and intentional.

 

This raises a question: What is freedom? And freedom of expression? Especially when is freedom unrestrained?

 

In the present situation of global and fast communication it is more and more necessary to make a distinction between freedom of opinion and freedom of expression. I think that we can consider freedom of opinion as something that has no limits. If I believe that the earth is square, no one can deny me the right to say so. However, if I start to say that the whole world is stupid because it does not accept that the world is square then I start to offend others. The point is: such kind of freedom, the freedom of expression, cannot be unrestrained. In my opinion every right has self-imposed limits. Even the sacrosanct right to life is limited by the right to self-defence. Thus the idea that there are legitimate grounds for limits is something very important. Yet when we talk especially about freedom of expression the question of limits is absent.

 

This is a crucial matter of the current western debate. Take the Salman Rushdie affair: as much as one may respect him, and I am not in a position to judge the quality of his writing, he became a hero because someone got so fed up that they sentenced him to death. My question then is whether we have the right to hurt someone else's religious feelings. I can critique Islam, Christianity and Buddhism or any other religion. But I don't believe I have the right to insult someone else's religion.

 

This is a very serious problem in the process of mixing of peoples and cultures currently underway and it demands to reflect critically about what freedom of expression is and where it begins and where it ends. It is a precondition to any dialogue and human encounter. It is the conviction that the essence of freedom does not lies in the lack of constrains.

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