debate, "Freedom of expression, its limits and where does it end?"
the Lebanese-Norwegian Cultural Week, under the auspices of the Lebanese
Ministry of Culture, Nahnoo, and the Norwegian Embassy, delivered on its raison
d'etre. Freedom of expression, as a human right, embodies the space between
theory and practice as states are the ultimate guarantors of enforcement,
therefore highlighting the need for discussing the fluid boundaries of freedom
of expression. The debate, on April 5, 2012, demonstrated not only the need for
the right to freely express one's self, but how this is situated within the
essential balancing act between something universal in concept and confronting
plurality in practice.
The title was seemingly a misnomer of sorts when the moderator introduced the
two speakers, Dr. Ali Fayyad, a Member of Parliament from Hezbollah, and Professor
Gunnar Skirbekk, a preeminent Norwegian philosopher, and characterized the
ensuing debate to be about dialogue between Islam and the West. The use of such
categorically monolithic terms, either as a more harmful or more helpful point
of departure, highlighted whether these speakers were representational of such
monoliths. As the debate progressed it became clear advocacy in action; the
exchange between the speakers delineated the need for freedom of expression.
The approaches conveyed for the justification and limitations of freedom of expression
evinced the varied backgrounds of Dr. Fayyad and Dr. Skirbekk.
Dr. Fayyad's approach focused more on freedom of belief, in relation to freedom
of expression, stemming from his personal convictions and referencing the
Qur'an. His statements, "Power comes from God or Allah, there is not
authority or power of a human being over another human being", and,
"the Qur'an says if God or Allah had wanted he would have made the people
all the same", indicate an understanding of respect for differences.
Dr. Skirbekk's response mirrored Dr. Fayyad's sentiments from a different frame
of reference, "freedom of expression is not only a value but a pre-condition
for rationality among human beings because we are all fallible.[we] have to
learn from each other and listen to each other and the only way we can do that
is to have freedom of expression". Their stances on freedom of expression
drew attention to questions of the source(s) of authority and to the role of
laws in modern society.
Both speakers agreed on the reasoning behind having laws, as clearly defined limitations
mandated from the state based on a need to have stability. However, they
seemingly talked past each other on the very source of laws. From the outset of
the debate Dr. Fayyad mentioned that from his perspective, and in the Qur'an,
there is no coercion in religion. He stated, "the condition for religion
is conviction and belief", and that this condition should be in harmony
with the system of laws that govern society.
Dr. Skirbekk's thoughts on the legitimization of laws rested on a fundamental
differentiation between the realms of religion, politics, and courts,
"that which should be laws for everybody must be stated in a language that
is understandable in principle for everybody". While both speakers
advocate for freedom of expression, they highlighted the critical issue if laws
should be more specific to society, or more universal, in their application.
The essence of the debate came to fruition with a question from a member of the
audience. He posed to Dr. Fayyad, " I cannot understand how the veil is imposed
on millions of people [women] in Iran, including Christians...how do you see
this?". Dr. Fayyad responded by citing France's prohibition of veiling for
Muslim women to participate in public functions or a public job as an
"imposition" and a "double-standard" that is a
"limitation of real true democracy". He stated further, "states
and governments need positions related to the social nature of their
country" echoing an earlier statement, "the implementation of the law
should be based on social agreement, it could be civil or religious or divine
but in order to apply the law on society.it should reflect the belief and social convictions
of how society appreciates its interests". The specific examples of the
contestation of the practice of veiling in Iran and in France highlighted the
reality of pluralism in different contexts. Dr. Skirbekk's remarks drew the
focus back to the universal aspect of freedom of expression by proposing to Dr.
Fayyad that the state should be neutral when it comes to religion.
The exchange between Dr. Skirbekk and Dr. Fayyad, as individuals, rather than
as representatives of "Islam" or the "West", exemplified
the source of freedom of expression. The communication of ideas mediated
through value pluralism is a necessary endeavor for seeing the universal aspect
of freedom of expression. The role of the state in enforcing freedom of
expression is directly related to the source of laws that must be generated