Who is silenced by the freedom of speech?

2015-03-20 14:47

The dividing line between religion and secularism is receiving increasing attention. The discussion has intensified in the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the debate meeting in Copenhagen. But what feminist challenges does this bring? Gender researcher Lena Martinsson addressed the issue at the University of Gothenburg during a day of seminars in connection with 8 March.

What’s the position of religion in the Western world?

‘Rooted in old colonial views, there is a widespread notion of non-Christian religions as strange and fundamentalist. We portray them as odd, and this is also recreated in feminist contexts. I want to turn the problem around and also consider the creation of the worldwide secular ideology. In the discussion that has emerged following the terrorist attacks in recent years, it is freedom of speech that has been pointed out as being at risk. The events can be understood in many different ways, yet the freedom of speech discourse has clearly dominated the debate.’

Why the focus on freedom of speech?

‘I think it’s because freedom of speech is connected to the secular, free, individualistic and modern West. It has become the opposite of a stereotypical understanding of religion. But in the debate following Charlie Hebdo, I think a new type of fundamentalism has emerged since there is no willingness to reflect over this position and what it does to people.’

How does the debate on secularism affect how religion is understood?

‘Christian values have merged with the understanding of secularism. Nevertheless, the secular view – not least as it appeared in the discussions following Charlie Hebdo – gives an air of being free from religion, of having taken a step forward, almost of being free of ideology. Although many people think that Charlie Hebdo can be racist, homophobic and Islamophobic, everybody seems to think that people have the right to express themselves, that we need to defend freedom of speech. The positions are freedom of speech versus religious fanaticism, the free versus the fundamentalist, the independent versus the evil. But can the secular also become fundamentalist? This might be worth pondering over. If fundamentalism implies a strong conviction of holding the truth, of being unchangeable, of being right in relation to others, then the secular becomes a truth position that risks becoming fundamentalist and thereby also oppressive. I think we need to challenge this way of thinking also in order to open the understanding of whose freedom of speech we’re protecting.’

Whose freedom of speech?

‘I like to use the cartoon character Tintin as an example; a white, secular, rational journalist and adventurer who uses the world as a backdrop. There is a link to European satirists who should be free to say and do whatever they want and who don’t care if they silence somebody in the process. In Tintin, many groups were silenced by being portrayed as a bit dumb and narrow-minded stereotypes, like people who weren’t listened to and who needed to be trained. Freedom of speech is always relative, somebody is silenced in order for somebody else to speak. In this case it’s of course the religious voices. The construction of the secular also reduces and stereotypifies Islam. It’s much harder to be heard, believed and viewed as a voice if you’re from a country that has received this label.’

What feminist challenges does this imply?

‘I was in Pakistan in 2006 when the news about the Danish Mohammed caricatures reached the country. The whole thing was a strong blow to the feminist struggle. There’s a very conservative front that doesn’t want gender equality since it’s associated with the Western world and is not considered to be compatible with Pakistani culture, as women are supposed to have a different position there. When Westerners insult Islam, it adds fuel to the hatred against the Western world and plays directly into the hands of the conservatives. And the feminist are forced to even more than before argue that their struggle for rights is not a Western thing. As a teacher and creator of knowledge in gender studies, another challenge is to explore how notions of religion are recreated. Which students will find the universities interesting if they are dominated by an unlabelled and unproblematised secularism? Do we only want secularised students or do we also want to make room for other positions? Our creation of knowledge is too often very Eurocentric and secularised. It is important to take part of and be influenced by faith-based antiracist feminism also to become aware of a whole range of problematic assumptions that have become naturalised in secular feminism. Modernity is increasingly criticised, and the critique of secularism can be considered an extension of this.’

Author Cecilia Köljing
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