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Idols & Insults: writing, religion, and freedom of expression

Tariq Ramadan Ayaan Hirsi Ali Hans Magnus Enzensberger Upamanyu Chatterjee Ian Buruma Juan Luis Cebrián Nilufer Gole
25 May 2006

The "Idols & Insults: Writing, Religion, and Freedom of Expression" event took place in April 2006 as part of the PEN New York World Voices festival. For more information see www.pen.org.

Listen to the full event (80.47mins)
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* * *

Ian Buruma: introduction

In principle we all agree that free speech is a good thing – the question is really what happens after the word “but”. What are the conditions that limit free speech? There are laws against hate and free speech, but apart from these laws there may be other conditions – respect, public order to mention a few.

Do we need a modern-day Voltaire? To what extent is there a difference between Voltaire (who was up against two of the most powerful institutions in 18th century France) and speaking out against a religion (Islam) that is held by an already vulnerable minority in Europe.

Listen to Ian Buruma’s introduction (5.20mins)
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These recordings are part a series of audio features from the PEN World Voices literary festival in New York

Also in the series on openDemocracy:

"Argumentative Indians: Amartya Sen and Salman Rushdie in conversation" (May, 2006)

"Freedom to write: Orhan Pamuk, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie" (April, 2006)

Juan Luis Cebrián, editor El Pais

"When we talk about freedom, one of the first considerations is freedom of thinking – freedom of disagreeing with others, and of disagreeing with god. Freedom of speech is a consequence of that and the root of many other civil rights."

Listen to Juan Luis Cebrián (5.34mins)
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Upamanyu Chatterjee, Indian novelist and civil servant

"My position on the subject is clear, almost banal. I'm all for idols or insults – I support writing, religion and freedom of expression. The maxim is clear – let a thousand flowers bloom as long as we don't hurt anybody …. We all know religion is a sensitive business, a matter of culture and belief. When one can't understand a particular religion, one should leave it alone till one can. In fact, one can best analyse and assault it when one has understood it fully. An extension of this idea simply is that the notion that if you have to criticise a religion or a culture you should start only with your own."

Listen to Upamanyu Chatterjee (3.59mins)
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Hans Magnus Enzensberger, German writer, poet, essayist

"Freedom of speech took a very long time. It is a thing which is very difficult to accept, it takes training. You hear instances of 'he lost his nerve and viciously attacked freedom of speech and said at one point that journalists should be shot. He did not spare his enemies.' What does this mean? He could not attack but he could not bear to be attacked. In the present cultural conflicts this plays a role. I don't know about America, but the British yellow press is up to destroy and humiliate people. Still we have learnt to bear with the freedom of expression. In the present culture of conflict you many people are becoming more and more sensitive and in transcultural terms there is complete lack of reciprocity."

Listen to Hans Magnus Enzensberger (6.13mins)
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Nilüfer Göle, Turkish academic

"Freedom of speech is a taboo breaking process … firstly in an ideological sense, but then taboos that are intrinsic to the society (social mores). It is sometimes difficult to have free speech in society. These norms that are bothering us are related to religion – it is not only related to state power but coming from society and community. But also, new norms are becoming new taboos…"

Listen to Nilüfer Göle (8.17mins)
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Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Dutch-Somali writer, former politician

"Can and should religion be open to criticism, satire? The central question is should it be open? Sometimes it's necessary, sometimes it's fun, sometimes it's urgent."

Listen to Ayaan Hirsi Ali (6.01mins)
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Tariq Ramadan, Swiss–Egyptian philosopher

"It's as if out of all this crisis we got authorisation of values : we have got our values and Islam cannot accept it and vice versa. To ridicule religion is part of a long history in the west – and you can see this in our daily life. Muslims are not so used to that. There is a tradition in Islamic history but it is not the same way of laughing. When you are a European Muslim or living in the west, as a Muslim you need to take a critical distance."

Listen to Tariq Ramadan (14.13mins)
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Ian Buruma's closing question: power politics

It might be useful to sharpen our thoughts on the question of power. Should it make a difference whether people are addressing those with power – or the powerless?

Ian Buruma's closing question: power politics (8.13mins)
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Audience Q & A

Question 1

What does respect mean – how can work still be meaningful without self-censoring?

Listen to question 1: what does respect mean? (6.21mins)
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Question 2

Should there be a distinction between how we define freedom of speech in the artistic and public domains?

Listen to question 2: freedom of speech in private and public spaces (12.49mins)
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