Populism and religious freedom share multiple connections. This blog post explores one particular aspect that might initially seem distantly related to the security of places of worship. Specifically, it examines the populists' seemingly unjustified preoccupation with the right to freedom of speech. While on the surface, this connection might appear tenuous, delving deeper reveals its significance in the broader context of religious freedom and societal harmony.
The Populist Paradox
The fight over freedom of speech plays a central role in the resulting rift of populism rising and clashing with established social and political institutions. A general critique herein is that populist movements advertise themselves as the propagation vessels of freedom of speech, whilst in reality only pursuing freedom of speech specifically for their clique.[i][ii] Contrastingly enough, when populist movements gain real political power, restricting the freedom of speech for others tends to be a priority under the vain of protecting a national culture or identity.[iii] Simultaneously, populist movements feverishly denounce critiques of their inflammatory views and statements of populist movements through claims that the elite establishment and media agencies working for them are seeking to silence their supposedly commonly held beliefs. These claims are argued to be legitimately expressed through an absolute right to freedom of speech. However, this represents a misunderstanding of freedom of speech, supposedly entailing the right to say or express oneself in whatever manner chosen, no matter how offensive or provocative. This misunderstanding of the right to freedom of speech by populist movements around the world is an intentional one with the sole objective of riling up individuals behind their political agenda.[iv] Freedom of speech, despite being a fundamental right, is not an absolute one nor has it ever been. This is not a controversial assertion; most fundamental rights come with some form of limitation. Simply put, a society without restrictions on freedom of speech would be a society without copyright or legal remedy against defamation.[v] Whilst ongoing debate on thought-matter or practices of any community – religious or otherwise - should be possible and is currently possible, this debate on the position of religion in a secular world should not temporarily suspend constitutional rights for other parts of society, in this case, religious communities. The populist claim over freedom of speech has created a rather interesting dynamic, one with real consequences for the accessibility and safety of places of worship.
Freedom of Speech and Places of Worship
Researchers of the EU-financed PARTES project ("Participatory approaches to protecting places of worship" - more information here) interviewed representatives and stakeholders from different religious communities and places of worship in Europe. In the interviews conducted with representatives of a wide array of different places of worship in the Netherlands, for instance, one answer was consistently given to the question of what constituted the main threat to the accessibility of places of worship: the apparent expansion of the interpretation of freedom of speech beyond its intended meaning. Although a debate on the defnition of acceptable behaviour in a society is in itself valuable and important (such as if throwing a pig head against a Mosque should be allowed or not), it nonetheless creates an insecure environment for religious communities. Due to the fact that any debate on the limits of freedom of speech is highly contentious in nature and violence against religious communities may not be severely widespread at a certain point in time, public authorities may appear indifferent or unwilling to clearly define red lines that cannot be crossed. It was also highlighted during the conducted interviews that the different religious communities in The Netherlands peacefully and respectfully coexist with one another. However, if one community started to actively provoke or harass members of another, there would be public outcry and a likely intervention by authorities. However, it may well be that when a political movement would act in the same manner, this would not be treated in the same way. On the contrary, it appears to have become accepted that this would be part of legitimate discourse in society. The chair of the Mosque in Amsterdam summarized his reflection on the matter as follows: “If we gathered to burn Bibles in front of Churches, it would immediately be stopped. But when someone from the far-right burns a Quran, the right to freedom of speech is invoked. They will be invited as guests on a talk show.” This is indicative of a growing sense of weariness and injustice among members of religious communities regarding the alt-right’s overly liberal interpretation of the right to freedom of speech.
Encouraging violent behaviour
Another alarming problem: passively accepting hateful behaviour blurs and even silently shifts the line between controversial and downright hateful speech or action. Consequently the outliers in these categories then also tend to become more extreme. Xenophobic graffiti on a place of worship or burning a holy book at a protest, prviously would have been denounced as an act of hatred. Now there is increasingly public debate in some European countries on whether this may not be a legitimate exercise of freedom of speech. By normalizing this behaviour, someone looking to send a “strong message” may feel encouraged to take it further, including through acts of violence. This may sound abstract or theoretical, but the effect can be witnessed in real-world occurrences. In 2016, five men gathered to throw firebombs against a Mosque in Enschede; Netherlands, with the specific purpose of sending a convincing message to the municipality and Islamic community in the region that the 'Islamification of the country' had to be stopped.[vi] Representatives of the different religious communities all explicitly recognized that it is only one per cent of people that take things too far. Nevertheless, in the context of an already aggressive and xenophobic 'normal', these outliers can be expected to become more common and even more hateful and dangerous.
Besides posing a serious direct threat to the safety of the members of different religious communities, this growing threat obstructs one of the core functions of any place of worship: being open and accessible to all. All representatives of religious groups interviewed in the PARTES proejct expressed in unison their conviction that being open to anyone with an interest in their religion is their highest priority. Balancing this openness with safety measures is inherently conflicting – certain places have already started closing doors by default and opening them only when the good intention of the visitor is confirmed. This is not to say that they are locking the doors in fear of populist mobs showing up. But inflammatory rhetoric, in large parts encouraged or enabled by populist movements, has created a widely shared feeling of intolerance. The notion of 'live and let live' appears to be getting replaced with an intentionally incorrect understanding of what the right of freedom of speech is supposed to mean.
"Not everything that is legal is ethical"
Although these research findings were made in The Netherlands through dialogue with stakeholders in various religious communities, they represent an issue also relevant in Scandinavia, Central and Eastern Europe as well as Southern Europe. On an European level, the problem has at least been recognized: representatives of several European Union institutions have made respective statements on this topic following the Quran burnings in Sweden. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated: “We continue to stand up for freedom [...] of expression, abroad and at home; but not everything that is legal is ethical.”[vii]
It will ultimately be up to the Member States of the European Union to clearly define a balanced middle ground in their domestic legal systems which protect freedom of speech - but in a way that is not detrimental to the free and safe accessibility of places of worship.
Further recommended reading:
On the purpose of freedom of speech: read this Amnesty International article
On how populist movements make intentional misuse of freedom of speech: read this article published on the Dahrendorf Forum
Niels Verster is Research Analyst at the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) where he researches extremism in The Netherlands, inter alia for the PARTES Project. Niels has an academic background in International Relations as well as Law, with a general focus on European Policy, Nationalism, Dispute Resolution, and China. He has studied in The Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, and Hong Kong.
[i] Nils Napierala and Andrea Römmele, “The Populist Demand for Freedom of Speech is a Distraction—Nothing More,” Dahrendorf Forum, February 28, 2019. https://www.dahrendorf-forum.eu/the-populist-demand-for-freedom-of-speech-is-a-distraction-nothing-more/. [ii] Poorvi Bellur, “Free Speech and Populism,” Colombia Political Review, January 6, 2017. http://www.cpreview.org/blog/2017/1/free-speech-and-populism. [iii] Ibid. [iv] Nils Napierala and Andrea Römmele, “The Populist Demand for Freedom of Speech is a Distraction—Nothing More,” Dahrendorf Forum, February 28, 2019. https://www.dahrendorf-forum.eu/the-populist-demand-for-freedom-of-speech-is-a-distraction-nothing-more/. [v] Daniel Takash, “Copyright Cuts Both Ways for Free Speech,” August 18, 2020. https://www.niskanencenter.org/copyright-cuts-both-ways-for-free-speech/. [vi] Rechtbank Overijssel, “Terroristen bestraft voor brandbom op moskee Enschede,” Rechtspraak, October 27, 2016. https://uitspraken.rechtspraak.nl/#!/details?id=ECLI:NL:RBOVE:2016:4134. [vii] EEAS Press Team, “Sweden/Denmark: Statement by the High Representative Josep Borrell on the burning of Quran and respect for community symbols,” The European External Action Services, July 26, 2023. https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/swedendenmark-statement-high-representative-josep-borrell-burning-quran-and-respect-community_en.