Posts Tagged 'enlightenment'

Lawsuit over Islam comments tests boundaries between controversial language and free speech

soti_web

By Harry van Versendaal

A lawsuit filed against a Greek author and historian under Greece’s anti-racism legislation over claims she defamed Islam and incited violence via a comment in one of her articles is testing the boundaries between free speech and what could be considered offensive language.

Soti Triantafyllou is set to appear in court on July 21 on charges of using racist language in an article that included a quote, which she attributed to 13th-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo, that said, “The militant Muslim is the person who beheads the infidel, while the moderate Muslim holds the feet of the victim.”

The lawsuit, under Law 4285/2014, was brought by veteran human rights activist Panayote Dimitras, who heads the Greek Helsinki Monitor watchdog group and is in charge of the Racist Crimes Watch blog. In his suit, Dimitras claims that Triantafyllou could have confirmed, just by searching on the internet, that the quote is fake and was never uttered by Polo.

In addition to Triantafyllou’s article, Dimitras has allegedly reported more than 150 other texts or actions to the special prosecutor on racist crimes.

In comments made to Kathimerini English Edition, Triantafyllou described the lawsuit as “an indictment for blasphemy.” The plaintiff believes much more is at stake, but he will have a hard case to make.

Bataclan

Legal experts say that the author’s criticism of Islam needs to be read within the broader context of the article that led to her prosecution – and, more generally, her writings on the topic – and to be understood in light of the events that triggered her reaction.

The article, titled “Rock and Roll will Never Die,” was published in the free magazine Athens Voice in November 2015, the day after jihadi gunmen burst into the Bataclan music hall in Paris and killed 90 people during a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital.

In the same year, Triantafyllou published a book that criticized official multiculturalism for failing to successfully integrate Muslim minorities in Europe. In that book, the author attacks overzealous political correctness on the left of the ideological spectrum for smothering the debate on immigration and the threat of Islamic extremism. She has penned similar articles for several publications.

It is also important to note that the law on the basis of which Triantafyllou is being prosecuted establishes several preconditions that need to be met for its application. Specifically, it will have to be proven in court that the author acted with an intention to incite violence, hate or discrimination against Islam. Furthermore, it will have to be established that this was done in a way that endangered public order, or threatened human life and the physical integrity of individuals.

Dimitras, the man behind the lawsuit, feels Triantafyllou certainly crossed that line.

“According to international law, in the implementation of which Greece’s anti-racism law was introduced, she is not expressing an opinion but engaging in aggression threatening public order and committing incitement to hatred, which is also punishable under Greek law,” Dimitras told the newspaper.

“Freedom of expression exercised in an irresponsible manner through the use of racist speech is not protected by international law or by the Greek laws implementing the country’s international commitments,” he said.

Vassilis Tzevelekos, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool’s School of Law and Social Justice, is not convinced.

“I fail to see how Triantafyllou’s case could ever be seen as meeting these criteria. I honestly do not understand why the public prosecutor felt that she should be prosecuted,” said Tzevelekos, who specializes in international law and human rights protection.

“Hate speech laws are not designed to prosecute that type of speech,” he said.

The argument is that, regardless whether one agrees with the author on not, she targets a religion focusing on its political manifestations in the context of specific events. And these events – namely terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic militants – raise legitimate concerns as to the extent that they have cost human lives while impacting on public order, democracy and the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

Free speech

Another red flag, critics say, is that the lawsuit curtails free speech. An eventual conviction of the author, the argument goes, would amount to interference with her freedom of speech.

“The court will be expected to strike a balance between the aims pursued by Greece’s hate speech legislation and freedom of expression,” Tzevelekos said.

Critics of the law point out that the abstract wording of the Greek legislation offers no legal certainty, jeopardizes free speech and allows abuses.

“I see the prosecution against Triantafyllou as being abusive, in misalignment with the aims pursued by hate speech legislation and in conflict with her right to freely disseminate her ideas about a major political issue that concerns our democracy,” Tzevelekos said, speaking in reference to free speech and terrorism.

The prolific and outspoken Triantafyllou says that her enemies interpret the law in a way that constrains free speech which merely causes offense.

“I have time and again been disrespectful toward Islam. These days, you are not allowed to criticize Islam,” she said.

In her political writings, Triantafyllou styles herself as a champion of secular Enlightenment values which she sees as being under threat in Europe from intolerant outsiders and the cultural relativism of the multi-culti left. Her enemies denounce her ideas as thinly disguised racism.

“Muslims are presented as a humiliated and hapless minority. White knights who excel in finding victims defend them against so-called ‘racists,’” she said. “They are waging a war against freedom of speech and common sense.”

The Richter case

Triantafyllou is not the first high-profile target of the anti-racism law. Last year, a Greek court acquitted German historian Heinz Richter of charges that his 2013 book recounting the 1941 Battle of Crete denied Nazi war crimes and defamed the Cretan people.

The court ruled that the case not only lacked merit, but also that the article of the law that was cited was unconstitutional. In a rare move, the judge commented on his decision, saying that Article 2 of the anti-racism law was “incompatible with the Constitution and European law, and as such is ineffective and inapplicable.”

If the Greek court fails to protect Triantafyllou’s right to free speech, it looks like she will have a strong case against the Greek state. If she is convicted, Greek legislators and the judiciary interpreting the hate speech legislation could be found internationally liable for breaches of fundamental human rights law.

“The European Court of Human Rights has a rich case file on free speech that does not just cover information or ideas that are regarded as inoffensive, but also those that offend, shock and disturb,” Tzevelekos said.

As the case heads to court, both sides ironically claim to be fighting in defense of human rights.

Dimitras lashes out at his critics – the small but vociferous club of Greece’s liberal thinkers that have rallied in defense of the author – saying that they are simply favoring the free propagation of racist speech.

“It is they and not we who are obscurantists,” he said.

For her part, Triantafyllou responds that, in the name of stopping bigoted speech, her enemies are seeking to stop all constructive criticism.

“Race and religion are rolled into one. Blindness, social hatred, character assassination, abusive litigation culture: That’s what ‘political correctness’ ends up as,” she said. “But the disturbing truths won’t go away if we ignore them, embellish them or rename them using nice harmless euphemisms. They are here to stay until we face them.”

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The lives of others

Linocut illustration by Manos Symeonakis

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Asked recently why Germany does not have a xenophobic populist party, Helmut Schmidt, the 91-year-old former Social Democratic chancellor, responded, “Nazism and Auschwitz.”

Its dark past has so far helped to spare Germany the rebirth of any influential anti-immigrant party, the likes of which have established themselves in nations with strong democratic credentials such as Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, its defenders say, has been working hard to make sure things stay that way – but not without some controversy.

Speaking to a gathering of young members of her Christian Democratic party in Potsdam last month, Merkel said that the country’s attempt to build a multicultural society had “utterly failed.” Merkel, known for her deft diplomatic approach, said that the idea that Germans and foreign workers could “live happily side by side” was an illusion.

The chancellor’s remarks were widely interpreted as a shift to the right, bringing her more in tune with her party’s conservative wing, which has advocated a more hard-line approach on the Integrationsverweigerer, or integration-deniers.

But some analysts beg to differ.

“It seems to me that she is misunderstood in the English media,” Riem Spielhaus, an Islam expert at the Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin, told Athens Plus. “Actually in German you can interpret her statement as a shift from an exclusive to an inclusive approach, while she would still spice this up with some demands from immigrants,” she said.

The German model, however, can hardly be called multicultural. Germany invited millions of guest workers in the 1960s and 70s who were recruited almost exclusively in the country’s industrial sector. Most of them returned to their home countries but millions of others stayed. About 4 million Muslims live in Germany, a nation of 82 million. Most of them are of Turkish heritage.

“There was a lot of encouragement to go back until the late 1990s, but very little encouragement to integrate into German society in order to stay. And I think this is what Merkel was referring to with her statement,” Spielhaus said. “This has been the German model to ‘muddle through’ – if one can speak of one at all. That means there never has been a state policy accepting multicultural life,” she said.

At the same time, many immigrants have been reluctant to expose their offspring to the culture and values of the host country. Many refuse to even learn the language.

Merkel has from the beginning of her first term in government tried to change this by supporting the integration of immigrants and their offspring. Speaking ahead of a national integration summit this weekend, she said that more immigrants should work for the state in Germany.

Not everyone seems to share her cause. Last month, Horst Seehofer, state premier of Bavaria and a member of the Christian Social Union that is part of the coalition government, urged putting a halt to immigration from Turkey and the Arab countries. Seehofer underscored the need to defend the “dominant German culture” while warning that unless the country overhauled its immigration policy, it risked becoming “the world’s welfare office.”

His comments were no match for the controversy caused by former central banker Thilo Sarrazin. In his book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (Germany does away with itself) published late in the summer, Sarrazin, a social democrat, said Muslim immigrants were dumbing down German society because they are less educated but have more children than ethnic Germans. Sarrazin was fired from the Bundesbank but his book is flying off the shelves in Germany.

Data show that more Turks returned to Turkey last year than came to live in Germany, while a recent report by the German chamber of industry and commerce mentioned that the country lacks about 400,000 skilled workers. Nevertheless, a recent survey found that one-third of Germans think the country is “overrun by foreigners.” The same survey found 55 percent of Germans consider Arabs to be “unpleasant people.”

Freedom fighters

Analysts agree that economic insecurity and an influx of foreign migrants, both exasperated by globalization, have fueled popular anger at established political elites across the continent. Xenophobic populist parties have sought to capitalize on the trend – only this time they are not using the argument of race, but rather hijacking Enlightenment talk about freedom.

The party of Geert Wilders in The Netherlands – which recently signed up to a minority center-right coalition in return for a government pledge to introduce a ban on the burqa and stricter immigration controls – claims to be defending Western values of freedom and democracy against Islam.

“There is only one value right-wing parties have not borrowed from the Enlightenment, so to speak, and that is universalism,” Sjoerd de Jong, editor at the NRC Handelsblad newspaper, told Athens Plus. “Sure, they promote Western culture, but many times it’s just a universalized form of particularism: our culture as we know it,” said De Jong, author of “Een wereld van verschil” (A World of Difference) an analysis of Holland’s well-tested multiculturalism.

Wilders is currently on trial for inciting hatred against Muslims after remarks in which he compared Islam to fascism. But the procedure has not exactly caused him harm. “Wilders’s prosecution for hate-speech has only increased his popularity, as an angry outsider attacking a corrupt and ‘politically correct’ establishment,” De Jong said.

Wilders, De Jong argues, is cashing in on a major breach in trust between the Dutch government and a sizable part of the electorate regarding major issues such as immigration and integration. Holland, he says, is experiencing a backlash against the technocratic way the left-liberal coalition ruled from 1994 to 2002 that gradually evolved into a reaction “against the ‘spirit of May 68’ and leftist ideas in general.”

Pim Fortuyn, the slain anti-immigrant party leader, was one of the first to address these issues in a populist way, but he still veered to the left on cultural issues. Wilders, who has always been closer to the conservative movement in the United States, has taken the culture war to the next level: an all-out attack on Leftism. “His approach is altogether more harshly ideological than Fortuyn’s was. And while Fortuyn always kept a sense of humor, Wilders is just angry,” De Jong said.

Government filter

Voter frustration over lackluster centrist parties has boosted right-wing parties in Austria where the xenophobic Freedom Party made a strong showing in recent provincial elections in Vienna, traditionally a center-left stronghold. In Sweden, a xenophobic anti-immigrant party that calls itself the Sweden Democrats has entered parliament for the first time, while in Denmark, the government depends on support from the nationalist Danish People’s Party.

Analysts are divided on whether letting populist parties join the government – provided they have enough votes – is the best way to moderate their message and influence. A decision to include the Freedom Party, then under Jorg Haider, in the government 10 years ago led to Austria’s diplomatic isolation by the European Union, but it was seen as key in sapping it of its power, as some within the party chose to water down their language to succeed in government.

Kasper Moller Hansen, a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen, believes the carrot has worked in Denmark as the country’s populist party has largely moved away from the extreme views of 15 years ago. “They want to be part of the government, so they try to moderate their claims. They still are a party that wants to limit the number of immigrants, but in order to be part of the government they have to be more pragmatic on these issues,” Hansen told Athens Plus.

But De Jong has doubts whether that would do the trick in Holland. “Wilders is much too smart a politician to fall into this trap,” he said. “He has built his organization – remember, it’s not a party, but a movement, without members or party structure – as an opposition movement. He will never want to join a government at this stage of its development, still building and hunting for resources and talent,” he said.

Europe’s existentialist debate is set to heat up as countries try to come to terms not so much with the influx of migrants, but more so with the growth in migrant-origin families as the second and third generations emerge.

“These new generations are well-acquainted with the European political and social system, which enables them to participate, express themselves, criticize, rebel and sustain a more visible presence than their relatively quietist parents,” said Justin Gest, a political scientist at Harvard, author of the recently published “Apart: Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West.”

The process will sometimes be painful, but it is unavoidable. “The face of Europe is changing,” Gest said. “And anytime there is change, there will be resistance.”

Fortune cookies

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Google “democracy” and “China” and you get Google. Following a series of highly sophisticated, government-guided attacks on its network, the world’s largest search engine has indicated that it might pull out of the world’s fastest-growing market. The Chinese may not quite have succeeded in nailing jello to a wall, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, but a shutdown of Google.cn would nevertheless be a setback for cyber-optimists who think that digital technology can increase the power of individuals fighting against authoritative regimes.

Google entered the Chinese market in 2006 on the condition it would accept official censorship. Google, of course, is a corporation; and corporations do not behave philanthropically. Nevertheless, the company’s decision was seen as being, at least partially, driven by its “don’t be evil” motto – an overriding belief in the liberalizing effect of information. Some evil, its owners suggested at the time, was unavoidable – or at least necessary if Google were to become the west’s Trojan horse behind China’s so-called Great Fire Wall.

The assumption was typical enlightenment optimism fanned by a faith in universal human progress powered by science and reason. More sober observers have denounced such dreamy optimism as an illusion – what British philosopher John Gray calls “the Prozac of the thinking classes.” Modernity has made us more effective, but it has not made us better humans.

The fact is technology is neutral. History is full of applications that have been used for benign as well as evil purposes – nuclear power, biotechnology, drugs and, now, the Web. The Internet carries in it neither despotism nor freedom. The unprecedented expressive capability and subversive potential of self-documenting bloggers and free-rights activists has come hand-in-hand with unprecedented state power to document, filter and identify dissidents as they leave their digital fingerprints throughout cyberspace.

But even pessimists should agree that although the experience of Iran, Burma and China has exposed the weaknesses of twitter revolutionaries in the face of a ruthless regime, the mere crushing of these cyber-driven protests and enhanced reporting across the globe has exposed the cracks in official depictions of reality. Iran’s mullahs are feeling the heat.

Google’s purportedly ethical concerns in the China standoff have prompted praise as well as skepticism. “Google’s motives may be mixed, but it has, at last, done the right thing,” an editorial in UK’s Guardian noted, while John Gapper, a business writer for the Financial Times, said that “it takes some guts to walk away from the world’s largest potential market.”

With only some 17 percent of search queries and 33 percent of revenue, Google’s share was dwarfed by that of home-grown rival Baidu. Doing business in China, some analysts insist, was simply not worth it.

Like Sarah Lacy, a columnist for TechCrunch, a Silicon Valley site. “I’ll give Google this much: They’re taking a bad situation and making something good out of it, both from a human and business point of view. I’m not saying human rights didn’t play into the decision, but this was as much about business,” she said. For Bill Thompson of the BBC, Google’s decision is inconsequential. “Threatening to pull out of China is like threatening to spit on a whale,” he said.

What many commentators seem to miss is that, in a capitalist world, economic and moral arguments often coincide. Even if Google is not interested in democratization per se, it still has a stake in the free flow of information. Google’s objective – providing easy and fast access to comprehensive and unbiased information – is best served in an open, uncensored environment. “Openness for China is a means to an end – prosperity and development – but not a value,” wrote Roger Cohen in The New York Times. It’s pretty much the same for Google.

Another point lost in the haze of China-bashing is that, again much like China, Google is itself a greedy, monopolistic behemoth, an egregious privacy-violator. For every term or phrase fired into its search box, the company will keep track of time, date, cookie ID, Internet IP address, and search terms (hence the rise of so-called “interest-based advertising”). Benevolent as the current owners of Google are, or claim to be, no one can be certain what the future holds – and not just for the simple reason that the company, like any company, may change hands. Technology is by nature unpredictable. The Industrial Revolution destroyed Britain’s social fabric but also provided the tools of Empire.

The unprecedented level of interaction makes the Internet the most powerful of media. Gloomy futurists have often warned against an Orwellian-type digital dystopia. What they, and Orwell, probably never imagined is that we would one day voluntarily feed Big Brother with our private information. As one of the Party slogans flashing on the walls of 1984’s Ministry of Truth noted, “Ignorance is strength.”


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