The Muslim Debate

Report Launch Ceremony of Online Debate Freedom of Expression Gives One the Right to Insult : UK Chapter

Location: London, UK

Report Launch Ceremony of Online Debate Freedom of Expression Gives One the Right to Insult : UK Chapter

Report launch ceremony of online debate with the motion being “Freedom of Expression Gives One the Right to Insult” was organized by MUSLIM Institute – UK Chapter at King’s College, Strand, London on Thursday, July 30, 2015. Representatives of different institutes, scholars, university students and professors, lawyers, journalists and analysts were present on the occasion. Research Associate of MUSLIM Institute Mr. Ali Asghar moderated the proceedings of ceremony. Brief report of ceremony is given below.

Opening Remarks (via video link)

Sahibzada Sultan Ahmad Ali
Chairman, MUSLIM Institute

I am thankful to all of you for sparing time and joining us on the invitation of MUSLIM Institute. The recent debate on “freedom of expression gives one the right to insult” has provoked a myriad of interesting ideas and workable material for researchers as well as for policy makers. By this debate and arguments of participant scholars, the results indicate that majority of voters are of the view that freedom of expression should not grant one the right to insult. Thus it is not only demand of Eastern traditions and values, instead many intellectuals of West also do not include right to insult in freedom of expression in order to maintain peace and harmony in the society. However many intellectuals and researchers are of the view that insulting one person or a small minority cannot be the yardstick by which freedom of expression is measured. It is also discussed by Ms. Hilary Stauffer, “no where in the world ‘freedom of expression’ is an unrestricted right”. Article 18, 19 and 20, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Right, grant the right of freedom of expression but at the same time these also describe certain exception zones.

On the occasion of report launch ceremony of online debate held in Islamabad last month, it was suggested by majority speakers that international consensus should be made on the issue of freedom of expression and right to insult to make policies acceptable for all. The beliefs and norms of societies and cultures that have been cherished and celebrated for centuries and even millennia, when that face insult or humility, hate among societies starts giving rise to social unrest. Therefore mutual understanding and tolerance of others’ ideas and views is necessary to move forward.

Introductory Presentation

Mr. M. Ali Iftikhar
Program Manager, The Muslim Debate

Online project of MUSLIM Institute, ‘The Muslim Debate’ organizes debates, on different issues, based on Oxford Debate style formula. It is positioned on the ideology of independent reasoning and rational thinking. Previously, the forum has organized debates on the issues “Islamic Finance is ready to drive a State's economic system” and “The present day turmoil in the Middle East & North Africa has it's roots in the European Colonial era” last year. The purpose of recent debate on freedom of expression & right to insult was to find out the answers of questions present all around the world on the issue e.g. how far the right extends and when it starts to insult? Should the right to freedom of expression constantly outweigh the religious or personal rights of others? Whether any limitations or their implementation would be detrimental to the development of individuals and society? Is it just over reaction from the certain communities and lack of tolerance to accept certain human rights? etc.

People from more than 70 countries participated in the debate through their votes and comments and 81% voted against the motion with only 19% defending it. Ms. Hilary Stauffer while accepting that the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo were insulting on a personal and visceral level, said the solution is not to buy its hardcopies and not visiting its website. Whereas Dr. Jameson W. Doig said that these cartoons can be categorized as hate speech and therefore can be categorized illegal according to Brandenburg (American) and Brian Dickson (Canadian) standards.

Guest Speech

Ms. Hilary Stauffer
Visiting Fellow at Centre for Study of Human Rights, London School of Economics – UK

At the outset I have a confession that I am very surprised to be here as I lost the debate, therefore, I am grateful to be invited. Even though losing doesn’t always feel good, but I’m very proud of the stance I took and I will continue to defend it. As a human rights lawyer, I see cases where freedom of expression has been unjustly infringed upon by religious or political authorities.

Certainly part of my views on this issue comes from my upbringing in USA where freedom of expression, including the right to say offensive things, is robustly defended every day. I am not arguing that USA’s approach on this very controversial topic is the best approach, but my personal views are shaped by my nationality and my culture. Nobody likes to be insulted; I don’t want to get insulted as well. I have spent my career in suing my own government on its counter terrorism policy and also making efforts for the vulnerable children in support they need. This is very dangerous and slippery road that the people who are in charge, want to stay in charge and want to curtail the voice of society by curbing the freedom of expression and to promote their own agenda. Today if we support them in restricting this basic human right, then tomorrow they will stop us from the things they don’t like. I am not prepared to give up this right, which the previous generations have fought for.

Guest Speech

Dr. Peter Dennis
Fellow, Department of Philosophy, Logic & Scientific Method, London School of Economics – UK

Let me start by saying that I am pleased to be here and I enjoyed reading the online debate. One of the points that emerge from this debate is to find politically impartial way to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable speech and clearly it wouldn’t be possible to create impartial view, without looking at the content of the speech. But to draw a clear distinction between acceptable and unacceptable speech, we have to look at the formal or structural properties of the content. Everyone believes in right to speech, but what actual rights it gives you, is debatable. Therefore, the right to speech isn’t just right to say certain things, but it’s right to do certain things with them e.g. calling for change, expressing opinions, making promises or warnings or rejecting certain ways of treatment etc. Philosophers call these things ‘speech acts’, the things that you do with your words.

We need to make distinction between genuine speech acts and the things, which are just, knock on effect. Right of free speech doesn’t give you right to insult; however it does give you a right to speech act. If a speaker is making genuine speech act, then it doesn’t matter whom that offends. If a racist remark is chanted from a football stand, that is not genuine speech act; it is not calling for change or any warning. All it wants to do is to do maximum emotional damage. Therefor it is offence or insult. Right of speech doesn’t give you a right to do that, because insulting is not a speech act. Thus before asking who will be insulted, we shall ask; is it a genuine speech act? Often there is no genuine speech act. What it tells you about Charlie Hebdo? My own view is that it was a mere provocation and provocation is not a speech act.

Video Link Address

Dr. Brian Klug
Senior Research Fellow & Tutor in Philosophy, Oxford University, UK

It’s a pleasure and privilege to address you in today’s ceremony. All of participants of online debate were given complete freedom to express their point of views and none of us insulted other during the debate. The discussion was conducted in a spirit of good will and mutual respect, which is result of careful planning, by the organizers of debate.

This is a time when many people are confused by the complexities of the issue. We need to talk about such issues freely and listen to one another attentively. Right to free speech along with other fundamental rights is affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by UN in 1948 after end of Second World War by intentions to assert common humanity. It is the background. In the foreground is the ethical vision that affirms in the inherent dignity of all members of human family. Article one of UDHR says “all human beings should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. Humanity is a family and first and foremost thing is respect for one another. Ultimately this is respect that puts ‘R’ in UDHR. Every human right including the right of free speech should be read in this light.

Mutual respect is needed today more than ever because the world is shrinking and people from different faiths need to make room for others. Battering away each other’s core identities and insulting one another is not the way for human family to cohabit on the planet earth.

Guest of Honour Speech

Dr. Khalid Al Mubarik
Media Counselor, Sudan Embassy in London

I am very pleased to be present in this report launch ceremony. It is very important for the Muslims, specially the moderate Muslims to speak their minds. Islam is the religion of peace and it teaches its followers to be patient and not to be aggressive or repulsive towards others. Freedom of expression is in-built and everybody has the full right to express himself. Let me give an example from my own country Sudan. Since the independence in 1956, we have a law in place, which forbids any racist or religious incitement, because it leaves society in conflict. We have seen a long civil war in Sudan, which was a result of friction between two groups and insulting each other started it.

Human rights declaration fully endorses the freedom of expression, but the sub article also defines some parameters, which one has to abide. Right to free speech is part of society but not above the society. Human dignity and honor should be top priority and morals of the society should be upheld.

Presidential Address

Mr. Akram Zaki
Member Board of Intellectuals MUSLIM Institute & Former Secy. Gen. for Foreign Affairs, Pakistan

In ancient times, difference of opinions used to be settled by clash of arms but now we are in the age when researches and debates are more civilized substitute. I believe that every right has corresponding obligation and rights and obligations are interlinked. The will of individual has gradually been replaced by rule of law. In rule of law, when we created rights, we determined also the limits in which those rights are exercised. In the UN Declaration of Human Rights, where the article 19 gave freedom of speech, article 1 placed limitation on that. Therefore within that instrument, freedom of speech is restricted to respect all individuals and treating them as brothers.

Freedom of expression in a civilized society is to explain one’s point of view and not to challenge security of state or security and dignity of individual. All societies placed limitation on the speeches that give rise to violence. Unfortunately our civilizations came in contact initially in conflict and Muslims and Christians have centuries of crusades. Then there are two centuries of imperialism over Muslims. Now there are two concepts either we want to continue conflicts or we want to create a harmonious society. We are talking of global civilization and best approach for human civilization is to create harmony, trust and respect. Even those who believe that there is right to insult, should follow moral self-restraints.

Vote of Thanks

Mr. Abdullah Shahnawaz
Senior Research Associate, MUSLIM Institute

I would like to thank all distinguished guests and speakers for participating in today’s ceremony. We are quite hopeful that the report of online debate and speeches made today would be helpful for ripple effect towards solution. This has helped bringing people from different walks of life and from different parts of world together and resolving the issue with dialogue that how we can use this fundamental right the ‘freedom of expression’ and define its limitations and responsibilities. Thank you all once again.