Freedom of Expression v. Respect for the Sacred

Lecture Theatre, JCU

In a time of globalization and the new social media, there are many challenges to the freedom of expression, including when and particularly when the sacred is involved. This conference, held at the John Carroll University in Cleveland, was designed to foster dialogue and create understanding on an important issue in today’s world.

CONFERENCE REPORT- John Carroll University, Cleveland, Ohio

April 13th, 2013

Freedom of Expression v. Respect for the Sacred

In a time of globalization and the new social media, there are many challenges to the freedom of expression, including when and particularly when the sacred is involved. This conference, held at the John Carroll University in Cleveland, was designed to foster dialogue and create understanding on an important issue in today’s world. It was sponsored by the Niagara Foundation and organized by the Nursi Chair in Islamic Studies within the University which is in the Jesuit tradition and named after the U.S.A.’s first Catholic bishop.

The Sacred, the Secular and Freedom of Expression: A Muslim Perspective

Dr Ihsan Yilmaz

In the opening address entitled The Sacred, the Secular and Freedom of Expression: A Muslim Perspective, Dr Ihsan Yilmaz of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Fatih University in Turkey, took his audience back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Mustafa Kemal. He and his followers constructed a crude secularism which, unfortunately, excluded non-Muslims – the population exchange in 1922 was unparalleled and caused by the secular nationalists whose attitude was that religion should not have a voice in public affairs. However, they were moderate in their secularism and Islamists were able to work within the system though any social transformation was to be state-centred.

Fethullah Gulen’s contemporary thinking is that there is no need for an Islamic state once Islamists can practise their religion. He had a distaste for the Iranian revolution in 1979 as not being in accord with authentic Islamic thinking because he believes the state ought find the language and social space to accommodate all religious rights. Professor Yilmaz then focused on several key issues, beginning with the headscarf issue. The headscarf was perceived as a symbol against secularism and it was unfortunate that the European Court of Human Rights supported the secularist position. His next example focussed on Saudi Arabia and its constitution and associated practices, including the ban against car driving by women. He asked, during the Prophet’s time, women rode camels, so why cannot they drive cars? A third example concerned Islamic criminal justice practice and the perhaps surprising allowance of conjugal visits. Wives were allowed to visit their men in prison for several days of private intimacy and prisoners were allowed every three or four months to visit their families.

Prof. Peter Hass

Do not be a talebearer among your people

In the second address, Peter Haas, Professor of Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, gave an exegesis of the text from the Book of Leviticus, “Do not be a talebearer among your people” (Lev. 19, 16). The traditional Rabbinic understanding emerged towards the end of the late Roman Empire, and in its exegetical tradition the ‘talebearer’ was best understood as ‘gossiper’. In the interpretation of religion, it is good to remember, “if you study one religion very well, then you understand one religion very well”. Judaism was always a minority religion though this changed in 1948 with Israeli independence and Israel as a secular state. There has always been a tension between Jewish studies and Israeli studies. Talking and communicating are about building a community, but they also have the potential to destroy community. While all religions have a sense of belonging to a transcendent and holy community, there can be an inherent contradiction in holding religious services which are occasions for social networking. In such networking, gossip can be very destructive as we tell about our own family activities and the activities of others. The Jewish tradition has troubled itself for centuries with this verse from Leviticus because there is much truth in gossip. But it has also come to emphasise the danger of “the gossip that causes blood”, for example, in character assassination. The Hasidic tradition which was an 18th century development in Central Europe has a saying that “words are like feathers”, that is, once spoken, words can never be taken back. Professor Hass also mentioned the danger of sms gossip on cellphones. He concluded, in the context of communal and intercommunal relationships, “talking about others is always a serious issue”.

Sacredness from an Islamic Theological Perspective

Associate Professor Zeki Saritoprak

Associate Professor Zeki Saritoprak, holder of the B.S. Nursi Chair in Islamic Studies at John Carroll University, asked, what is sacred? How does it become violated? In his reflection in “Sacredness from an Islamic Theological Perspective”, he noted there are at least three words for ‘sacred’ in the Arabic language, including ‘halal/haram’ though other words are preferred. One of these words places the emphasis on ‘a holy place’ (e.g. Moses taking off his sandals) whilst another has the connotation of ‘blessed’ as in ‘a blessed house’ or ‘a blessed shrine’. There is sacred space, sacred time, sacred person. Mecca is regarded as sacred, and the circumambulations around the Kaaba symbolize the holiness or sacredness of God as one feels the presence of God. War during the sacred month of Ramadan is seen as a great sin, and the artefacts of other religions are to be regarded as sacred. This respect for the sacred is embedded in the idea of the mosque as a sacred space, and the whole world is a mosque in the sense of being a holy space. Anything that God commands us to respect is sacred.

Defining the Sacred in a Secular Age

Associate Professor Scott Alexander

The next speaker was Associate Professor Scott Alexander, director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, who reflected on “Defining the Sacred in a Secular Age: An Exercise in Futility or a Contradiction in Terms?” There are different and contested ideas of ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. Eliade saw the sacred as ‘that which gives order’ and ‘a return to the origins of all things’. Charles Taylor has outlined three meanings of “secularity”:

  • (i) the absence of God in public spaces because the sacred and the secular have separate spaces
  • (ii) the falling off in religious practice and
  • (iii) the shift from belief in God as unchallenged to one where any belief is challenged.

Increasingly, the Grand Narratives regarding decency, human rights etc. are being challenged because of the sense of loss. Secular humanism was being strongly questioned because it had led to phenomena such as eugenics, phrenology and the Shoah. Secularists have human anxieties about death and about time itself as part of the death of self. In the USA public sphere, there
is a full and robust debate about the role of religion in public discourse. And it has become necessary to protect religion from government whilst at the same time bringing religious concerns into the public arena. ‘Shaping policy’ is different from ’being involved in politics’. And then there is the tension between the overreaching state versus the overreacting state. In the State of Illinois, Catholic pharmacists are being required to sell abortifacents, which essentially implies that the State is defining, what is Catholic and what is not Catholic? He concluded with the simple truth that today God is calling us to live in an authentic “we”, and we must integrate our interfaith dialogue with our dialogue with the world.

The Nazi March on Skokie

Emily Soloff, national associate director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee

Emily Soloff, national associate director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, spoke on “The Nazi March on Skokie” A Peculiarly American Response” as a case study of the placing limits or not placing limits on the freedom of expression. It also raised the issue of what is anti-Semitism and highlighted how hostility to Jews is linked to hostility to the immigrant. Skokie is a Chicago suburb where many Shoah survivors were residing. During the 1970s, the National Nazi Party of America wanted to hold a march in Skokie. There was much public discussion, and eventually the Supreme Court ruled that the march could go ahead. In fact, the march never took place, and the whole episode became a learning experience for all involved, and led to many positive outcomes, including the establishment of a Jewish museum. It also showed how the first amendment is not an absolute.

Political Islam, the Sacred and Freedom of Expression

Dr Kadir Yildirim

Dr Kadir Yildirim from the Department of Political Science at Furman University in South Carolina addressed the issue, “Political Islam, the Sacred and Freedom of Expression” with a focus on the current situation in Egypt. He began by saying that “Muslims often and easily take offence”, e.g. Salman Rushdie, Guantanmo Bay, the burning of the Qu’ran in Afghanistan etc.. There is this tension between political Islam vs. Islam in general. Through the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi wanted the Egyptian presidency and the secularists have been saying that he does not support freedom of expression. Essentially it is about interpretations of the scriptures. Unfortunately the Islamists, whether moderate or extreme, have an unclear notion of what they want, of what an Islamic state actually is and of what shar’ia law actually means.

Civility and Nihilism

David Forte, Professor of Law at Cleveland State University

David Forte, Professor of Law at Cleveland State University, spoke about “civility and nihilism”, especially focussing on decisions of the USA Supreme Court. “Thank God for the Jehovah’s Witnesses” because in eight years at one stage they were involved in 23 cases such as, in World War II, a case where their children refused to salute the American flag. He argued forcefully of the danger of the suppression of speech and bringing in hate speech laws. “The nihilist seeks purity so as he or she can become pure”. One is allowed to be offensive and politically incorrect though respect for the sacred is important and must come from the heart. The role of reason is also very important as is respect for the natural law.

To be religious is to be inter-religious

Des Cahill, Professor of Intercultural Studies at RMIT University

The final speaker was Des Cahill, Professor of Intercultural Studies at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia who spoke on “Social Cohesion, Religious Freedom and Freedom of Expression in 21st Century Australia”. Drawing on the example of the recent visit of the anti-Islamic, anti-multiculturalism Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, which had passed off relatively peacefully, and a case where an evangelical Christian group had been successfully taken to a state tribunal administering the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001for defamation of Islam and the Prophet, he spoke of how these tensions can be successfully overcome within the implementation of a multicultural social and economic policy, the struggle for social cohesion built upon a sense of belonging, social justice and equity, encouraging civic participation, especially through compulsory voting, acceptance of newcomers and minorities and forging a sense of worth, and a moderate relationship between religion and state that does not discriminate against religion as in France. Today, “to be religious is to be interreligious”.

John Carroll University

Campus of John Carroll University, in winter

Professor Desmond Cahill, OAM.

Prof. Des Cahill, OAM, Chair of Religions for Peace Australia has been an active participant in interfaith activities and has been the Chair of Religions for Peace for 11 years. He is also Professor at the School of Global Studies, RMIT University, Melbourne.

Educated in Australia and Italy, Des Cahill, Professor of Intercultural Studies at RMIT University, has been a world leading researcher and teacher in the areas of immigrant, cross-cultural and international studies for more than three decades.

Prof. Des Cahill

Since the events of September 11th 2001, he has played a major role in researching and bringing together the various faith communities in Australia and across the world through his research and community activities. He currently chairs the Australian chapter of Religions for Peace International, the world’s largest interfaith organization, and represents Australia on the executive committee of the Religions for Peace Asia – in October 2008, he was elected its Deputy Moderator by the Governing Board representing the 18 member nations including Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and the two Koreas. He is a member of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations (APRO) and of the Victoria Police Multifaith Advisory Council.

In 2006, he led Melbourne’s successful bid, in competition against Delhi and Singapore, to host the Parliament of the World’s Religions during 3rd – 9th December 2009, the world’s largest interfaith gathering. As a consequence, he has been made an Ambassador for Club Melbourne, a group of 100 leading scientists and academics, to promote the image of Melbourne around the world.

In the 2010 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, he was awarded the Order of the Medal of Australia for “services to Intercultural Education and to the Interfaith Movement”. Professor Cahill is Chair, Religions for Peace Australia.

Source: © Desmond P. Cahill