Widespread protests have resulted from an amateur, anti-Islamic video, initially posted on a video-sharing website, and among the many responses and condemnations of the film and the following violence have been those made by the Council of Europe and the EU.
Acknowledging that the video was prejudiced and offensive, the Council of Europe issued a strong and unequivocal condemnation of what it described as well-orchestrated violence, and exhorted political and religious leaders to do their utmost to prevent further incidents. Given its position as the ‘guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights’, the Secretary General’s statement focused on freedom of expression, and highlighted:
- The need to do more to explain the scope and importance of the freedom of expression;
- Ensuring that the freedom of expression is implemented without any double standards, regardless of the context and specific cultural aspect;
- An increased need to fight intolerance, hate-speech and prejudice, including anti-Islamism in our societies.
By contrast, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, together with the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Secretary General of the Arab League and the Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union in issued the following Joint Statement:
- We share a profound respect for all religions. We are united in our belief in the fundamental importance of religious freedom and tolerance. We condemn any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility and violence. While fully recognizing freedom of expression, we believe in the importance of respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to.
- The anguish of Muslims at the production of the film insulting Islam, posting of its trailer on the internet and other similar acts, is shared by all individuals and communities who refuse to allow religion to be used to fuel provocation, confrontation and extremism.
- We condemn any message of hatred and intolerance.
- We know that the behaviour of small groups of people does not speak for the larger communities from which they hail; but the damage they can inflict can be considerable. We must ensure that the recent events do not undermine the relationships of trust and respect we have built up over so many years among our peoples, communities and states. The international community cannot be held hostage to the acts of extremists on either side.
- We condemn the recent attacks on diplomatic missions resulting in tragic loss of lives. Violence can have no place in our societies and offensive speech cannot be met with violent acts as it will only create a spiral of brutality from which we will all suffer. Reason rather than rage must prevail. So today we call for an end to violence wherever it has appeared. We call for peace and restraint.
- We reiterate our strong commitment to take further measures and to work for an international consensus on tolerance and full respect of religion, including on the basis of UN Human Rights Council resolution 16/18. We further call on all leaders, whether they be political, secular or religious, to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. And we will continue our efforts to show that what joins us together across regions and religions is far greater than what separates us.
- The only answer to the darkness of intolerance and ignorance is the light of mutual respect, tolerance and dialogue.
In comparison to the Council of Europe statement, which some might criticize for its Eurocentricity, the quadripartite Joint Statement is necessarily more inclusive; but in being so it has had to be careful in its choice of words in order to avoid further offence. This is particularly evident in the phrase ‘the importance of respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to’ since, as some commentators have noted, agreement on the respect of deities or divinities, (rather than prophets), would have been problematic to some of the signatories.
Whilst the term ‘profound respect for all religions’ appears open-ended, within the Church of England an existing policy document provides some guidance on the recommended level of engagement for a wide range of religions and related bodies. Drawn up in June 2009, The Church of England in relation to New Religious Movements and Alternative Spiritualties distinguishes between ‘historic World Religions’, ‘New Religious Movements’ and ‘Alternative Spiritualities’, for which it ‘encourages openness, welcome and hospitality towards people of other faiths and none’.
In a move prompted by the video as well as by Pussy Riot’s brief performance in Moscow, Russia Today reports that Russian Lower House has initiated a proposal to ‘outlaw insults to religions’. The Pussy Riot performance was followed by ‘the desecration of icons, Nazi and Satanist graffiti painted on churches and synagogues and the assassination of two Muslim clerics in Russia’s internal republics of Tatarstan and Dagestan’. The article notes that at least two churches were destroyed in the Russian Federation in 2012, and particularly worrying was the campaign of cross-cutting with ‘bounty lists published on the internet for various acts of sacrilege.’
A special address ‘On protection of the religious feelings of the citizens of Russia’, submitted jointly by all four parliamentary parties, was approved by the State Duma, the Deputy Chair stating that this was necessary to institute specific punishments for insulting believers on the internet, especially on blogs and social networks. Russian legislation currently includes criminal offences relating to: vandalism; the defiling of graves; and inflicting damage to cultural objects to be criminal offences, and the proposed administrative offences for insulting believers’ feelings would introduce fines of 100,000 to 200,000 roubles [€2,481 to €4,962].
However, such a move is not universally welcomed in Russia and some have suggested it emphasizes the closeness of the Orthodox Church to the State – an issue highlighted by Pussy Riot.