Freedom has many faces: the freedom to say what you think, but also to believe what you want. Freedom is worth discussing, worth defending – with the written word and with images. And that is what we have seen happening in recent days. However, the prevailing image of a confrontation between the West (as the standard bearer of freedom) and the Islamic world (as the champion of religion) is, in many respects, a distorted one. Due to globalisation we are seeing not a clash of civilisations, but rather a manifestation of the clash between the secular and non-secular worlds. If we look beyond the cartoon controversy for a moment, we can see that these days the secular tendency to ignore or even denigrate religion is leading to alienation instead of reconciliation.
In the first place, the West does not hold a monopoly on the concept of freedom. It was, after all, the birthplace of fascism and communism. Amidst all the verbal, visual and even physical violence of the present crisis, it pays to step back and listen to the wisdom of the past. In 1941, when the cause of freedom was under threat from all sides, Franklin Roosevelt used his State of the Union address to articulate humanity’s four basic freedoms: not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. After World War II all countries of the world embraced these four freedoms. Under the inspiring leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as chair of the drafting committee, they were included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today these freedoms have, to a greater or lesser degree, spread all over the world, as witness the winners of this year’s Four Freedom Awards, which will be presented this spring in the Dutch town of Middelburg. The honourees come from all over the world and from all walks of life: Mohammed ElBaradei, the Egyptian head of the IAEA; Mohammed Yunus, a Bengali pioneer in the field of microcredit; Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican writer; Taizé, a French religious community, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the famous Burmese opposition leader.
The exercise of one’s freedoms is not an end in itself. Attempts to frame the debate as a matter of principle only are counterproductive, leading to greater conflict and robbing the discussion of its pragmatic dimension. This is a pity, since there are good pragmatic arguments for promoting open societies, certainly in my own field of development cooperation. In our global economy open societies are at an advantage: the free access to information in those countries leads to more innovation and greater productivity, reduces the risks associated with financial transactions, stimulates investment and improves the efficiency of businesses. Statistics show that poor democracies, where freedom is generally respected, score better than poor autocracies on a wide range of development indicators: 50% fewer children die before the age of five; twice as many children go on to secondary education; average life expectancy is ten years longer; and of the 49 poor countries that suffered through civil wars in the 1990s, 41 were run by despotic regimes of varying degrees of repressiveness. UNDP’s Arab Human Development Reports, produced by an independent group of Arab intellectuals, have successfully and objectively spotlighted the need for greater freedom and better governance in the Arab world: ‘If the repressive situation in Arab countries today continues, intensified societal conflict is likely to follow.’ This is why the Netherlands is supporting a project in Yemen for training independent journalists. Last week I visited that country, with which the Netherlands has had a successful bilateral development relationship since the 1970s. It is a relationship based on mutual respect. For that reason I will not hesitate to bring up the subject of the four freedoms and the decision to close down a number of newspapers in the wake of the cartoon controversy with the Yemenis I will meet on my trip (including students at the University of San’a).
We are duty-bound valiantly to defend freedom of speech from every assault, especially in the form of bricks through embassy windows and death threats to cartoonists. But setting aside the immediate issue of the cartoons, freedom of expression does not relieve us of the responsibility to immerse ourselves in the various cultures and religions of our globalising world.
The problem is that many people who are making the most commotion about freedom of expression are not prepared for this responsibility. All too often, the façade of tolerance masks indifference or even hostility towards other cultures and religions. It is not always said aloud, but religion is sometimes seen as a relic of backward times and places, and inherently dangerous besides. This attitude of fundamentalist secularists is not only regrettable, it is itself inherently dangerous. It is a plain fact that cultures and religions are the principal unifying factors of our time: if the 20th century was an age of ideology, the 21st will be an age of identity. If we do not use those identity-forming factors for peace and prosperity, others will misuse them for war and personal gain. On my many trips to Africa, I have had a chance to see for myself how important religion is in the daily lives of the people there and how more than half of the schools and hospitals are run by religious organisations. We have to remain respectful of this fact – not to win converts but to save lives. Last year a group of religious leaders set an inspiring example at a regional conference in Sana’a by establishing an international network to fight HIV/AIDS. ‘The virus should not be seen as a sin but as a problem we must join forces to fight,’ said one participant from Sudan.
As the British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has observed, religion is like fire: it can burn people but also warm them. In his book The Dignity of Difference, he describes how representatives of all major world religions (including the Archbishop of Canterbury, an imam, a Hindu guru and a chief rabbi) came together in 2002 at the spot where the World Trade Center was destroyed. At Ground Zero, for many a metaphor for the clash of civilisations, these people were able to find common ground. It was a rare moment of solidarity in opposition to the awesome human powers of destruction. If we want to keep globalisation from dividing us, we need to mobilise that solidarity. The question of who is ‘right’ in the cartoon debate should not distract us from this Herculean task.