In this article, we will continue to discuss the limits of freedom of expression, philosophy of freedom, and impact of freedom on promoting or undermining inter-civilization dialogue, which was partly referred to in our discussion of the notion of a universal system of freedoms for all humanity.
Generally speaking, freedom cannot be absolute, or otherwise it would lead to chaos in every way. So, there is a need for what is called “public order”, which serves as (1) a tool to regulate freedoms, (2) a criterion for capacity of intervention by official authorities, and (3) a means of control by the regulatory body.
Public order varies depending on the culture, interests, and morality of each nation. Naturally, public order in Islam is quite different from that in the Western civilization.
To illustrate, let’s take an example: In 1996, UK authorities refused to grant distribution certificate in respect of a video work that was considered contemptuous of Christ, which would outrage the feelings of Christians and disturb public order. The producer of the video recording lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights, alleging a violation of his right to freedom of expression. On 25 November, 1996, the Court pronounced its judgment on the case (widely known as “Wingrove v. the United Kingdom”), upholding the restriction on the film because it was found blasphemous.
On the other hand, the Court upheld the ban by Turkish authorities of the Refah (Welfare) Party, stating in the preamble that the party adopted Islamic Shari`ah, which was incompatible with the European value system — or, let’s say, “the Western public order”.
Here, we have two cases: In one case, the Court respected the Western value system, in which Christ is regarded as sacred; so, restriction of freedom of expression was a legitimate measure against whatever abuses such sacredness, in view of the principle of public order. But in the other case, Islamic Shari`ah was not regarded as sacred under the same Western values; so, freedom of expression should be restricted for its advocates.
The same discrimination was stark in the response of many public figures in the West to the notorious cartoons mocking Prophet Muhammad.
That is the logic of Western public order. It is not our concern here to debate with Westerners or prove their paradoxical position resulting from intolerance and a sense of superiority. We take their position as consistent with their personal views and convictions. But they should respect others, and if they exercise their right to act upon their public order, they should at least recognize others’ right to exercise the same principle and ultimately recognize relativity in public order. Each nation has its own public order and value system.
As Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates restricting the freedoms set forth in the Declaration when in conflict with public order, which differs from one environment or culture to another, this can be considered an implicit recognition of the impact of cultural diversity on human rights.
There are differences in family laws, transactions, criminalization of certain acts etc., based on the differences in values.
Recognizing differences makes factions feel the significance and meaningfulness of dialogue and shows that it is not a matter of overpowering others by denying them their natural right to be different and requiring them to identify with you as a prerequisite for communication and interaction.
The key to successful communication is to accept one another as is, not as wished.
In the end of this discussion, I cite a Western philosopher who best depicted the relativity and environment-dependent nature of values. In his work Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead wrote, “The details of these moral codes are relative to the social circumstances of the immediate environment — life at a certain date on ‘the fertile fringe of the Arabian Desert, on the lower slopes of the Himalayan Mountains, on the plains of China, on the plains of India, or on the delta of some great river.
Again, the meaning of the critical terms is shifting and ambiguous — for example, the notions of ownership, family, marriage, murder, God. Conduct that in one environment and at one stage produces its measures of harmonious satisfaction, in other surroundings at another stage is destructively degrading. Each society has its own type of perfection, and puts up with certain blots, at that stage inevitable.
Thus, the notion that there are certain regulative notions, sufficiently precise to prescribe details of conduct, for all reasonable beings on Earth, in every planet, and in every star-system, is at once to be put aside. That is the notion of the one type of perfection at which the universe aims” (Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, translated by Anis Hassan Zaki, p. 439).