Arguments over religious tolerance haven’t progressed in 400 years

November 16, 2016 - 06:20

You might think that the heated debate over niqabs, burkinis and other expressions of religious beliefs are a sign of the times. But you would be wrong. As early as the 1600s, major European thinkers disagreed over the meaning of free speech and religious tolerance.

Today Europe relies on very different models to integrate foreigners. In France, everything that has to do with religion is private, which is why religious clothing such as the niqab and burqa are banned in public places. This legislation builds on the tradition of Rousseau and the French Revolution. (Photo: Cindy Yamanaka, AP / NTB Scanpix)

Burkinis may be the newest in a long line of religious expression, but one Norwegian historian says the larger debate over free speech essentially hasn’t changed since the 1600s.

This debate has its roots in religion, says Kjetil Jakobsen, a professor of history at Nord University. Jakobsen has just written a book called “Etter Charlie Hebdo – ytringsfrihetens krise i historisk lys” (“After Charlie Hebdo — the crisis over free speech from a historical perspective”.)

His goal has been to provide a historical background for the debate over freedom of expression. What was the foundation for the classic concept of free speech when it was defined as a human and civil right?

“It is interesting that the philosophers we know as heroes, those who fought for free speech, had very different justifications for the concept and very different limits,” he said.

Today, countries like France and Britain reflect these historical differences with respect to their different approaches to integrating foreigners.

France has the most stringent regulations governing the wearing of clothing associated with Muslim traditions. Wearing a burqa in a public place in France is illegal. The UK, however, does not have these kinds of prohibitions.

These differences were already evident in the 1600s and 1700s, in the ideas and writings of John Locke, Baruch Spinoza and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Locke would not have prohibited the niqab

John Locke (1632-1704) was a Briton who was strongly committed to free speech. He believed that everyone should be allowed to say what they wanted, unless there was a compelling reason that this speech be limited.

Locke was also very committed to the principle of equal treatment. That meant if limits were to be placed on religious freedom, the limitations would have to be the same for all religions.

“Based on Locke's principles, it would be very problematic to impose a ban on religious symbols such as the hijab and niqab, if the ban only affects one religion,” said Jakobsen.

Religion must be controlled

Across the English Channel in Europe, Baruch Spinoza and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were two of the most important thinkers with respect to free speech.

Spinoza differed greatly from Locke. He argued that democracy should take precedence over religion, says Jakobsen.

“Spinoza believed that the individual must be allowed to think and believe what he or she wants. Nevertheless, he believed that religious movements must still submit to democratic norms,” Jakobsen said.

Spinoza was both more and less tolerant than Locke. The Englishman said no to government interference in religious controversies, but his tolerance applied in practice only to different varieties of Protestant Christianity. Spinoza was a Dutch Jew and keen to set the stage for a society where all religions could live together; Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants.

“But Spinoza said this was only acceptable if democracy took precedence,” Jakobsen said. “He argued that religion appeals to emotions, not reason. Because of that, he believed if religion was not controlled, it would come to destroy democracy.”

For the French philosopher Rousseau, freedom of speech was not primarily about religion, but about how society should be governed. His argument was that we need freedom of speech for democracy to work.

Different ways to integrate foreigners

These two different philosophical directions, apparent already in the 1600s, still apply, says Jakobsen.

France is based on the republican tradition of Rousseau and the French Revolution that started in 1789.

“Anything that has to do with religion in France belongs to your private life. You as a citizen are neither Christian nor Muslim, man nor woman. You are a citizen,” Jakobsen said.

This means that there is a great emphasis on keeping the public sphere secular. 
This is why the niqab and burqa are banned in public places in France. The exception is if you are in a private car or participating in a religious ceremony.

“This type of legislation is quite natural in the tradition of Rousseau,” says Jakobsen.

In contrast, England, along with the United States, maintains a multicultural tradition. In these countries, people can continue with their cultural and religious traditions in "communities". In England there is actually a law giving religious and ethnic groups a right to be heard and recognized by local governments.

Infinitely more complicated

The ability to express one’s opinions publicly has become a much more natural part of people's lives. The boundaries between private and public expression have become much more blurred in a world where the printed word plays a smaller and smaller role.

And the world overall become much smaller: What is said in an avant-garde performance in Norway one day may be discussed in a Koranic school in Pakistan the following day.

“This is what makes it so complicated. The media world has changed dramatically,” Jakobsen said. “Meanwhile, we have not made much progress in our discussion on freedom of expression since the philosophers of the 1600s and 1700s.”

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