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Free speech vs hate speech: The journey towards coexistence requires dialogue

To get there, we must embrace cultural complexity, and aim for cohesion rather than exclusion
Lebanese protest outside the Mohammed al-Amin Mosque in Beirut on 27 January 2023 against the burning of a Quran in Stockholm. (AFP)

At a time when the world faces complex and ominous challenges, including conflict and climate change, we must reinforce the universal and inalienable right to human dignity for all. It is our collective duty to speak out against intolerance and hostility, advocating instead for harmony and cultural affinity.

In 2006, I had the privilege of launching the “Co-existence Expedition” with the Copenhagen-based think tank Monday Morning, alongside world leaders, experts and politicians, to identify and prioritise the main challenges threatening global efforts at coexistence. The five key challenges were empowering the powerless, ensuring freedom of religion, creating public spaces for coexistence, ensuring judicial independence, and overcoming the agenda of securitisation.

In essence, we must revive the concept of 'responsibility of expression'

Unfortunately, these challenges remain greater than ever. Instead of moving forward with our agenda of coexistence, the global rhetoric of “us” versus “them” has intensified, narrowing the already limited space of understanding that exists. 

The Council of Europe emphasises that criticism and expression of opinion must “not amount to incitement to religious hatred”, and that those who exercise their freedom of expression have a duty and responsibility “to avoid as far as possible expressions that are gratuitously offensive to others and which do not contribute to any form of public debate”. 

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In essence, we must revive the concept of “responsibility of expression”. Hateful acts towards religious groups are propagated by those who perceive a profound ignorance in the other, and are caught in cycles of mutual blame and finger-pointing. 

What is needed, then, is a people-centred approach based on “inclusive peer-to-peer learning on faith and human rights”, as underlined by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Instead of fearing the “Other”, we must become partners in humanity. 

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Let us return our focus to the potential of inter-religious dialogue and collaboration as a foreign policy tool for peace-building at the local, regional and international levels. If facilitated by a civilised and respectful framework for disagreement, intra- and inter-faith dialogue can be the catalyst for a new international humanitarian order. To achieve this, governments, religious leaders and civil society must harmonise and coordinate their policies.

The fixation with policies based on “anti” this and “anti” that takes us further away from safety and closer to suspicion, fear, and ultimately hatred towards the “Other”.

Paradoxically, this stands in direct opposition to the genuine security interests at the heart of every nation. We must, therefore, embrace cultural complexity, and aim for cohesion rather than exclusion. 

In solidarity, the expedition towards coexistence is within reach.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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