This essay of mine was published by the Polish edition of the Russian Sputnik News not long after the recent terrorist attack in Paris. It presents a distinctly Eastern European view of the problem. Unlike in the United States, where the first amendment prohibits Congress from making laws to regulate speech, or France where a separation of Church and State exists, Russia and Poland have laws on the books (and in the case of Poland a constitutional mandate) protecting religion and religious sensibilities—much like the laws in many Muslim countries. This essay explores the political problem of religion and free speech from a traditionally European view, which is still visible in law and practice in the East, and no longer comprehensible to the West. –Peter Strzelecki Rieth
Dostoevsky taught that “beauty will save the world.” This could well mean that ugliness will destroy the world; that there are values far higher, perhaps more important even, than freedom. In light of the terrorist attack against the editorial board of a minor Paris tabloid, twenty-first century Russia has, not for the first time, demonstrated to Europe a wise political comportment in the face of a tragedy and a complicated dilemma. On the one hand, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Siergiej Lavrov, took part in the Republican March in Paris in the name of solidarity with the victims of the terrorist murders. On the other hand, within Russia, itself, Rozkomnadzor [the Russian Federation’s regulatory agency for media] banned the proliferation of the tabloid in question, judging that it was not so much a satire, but rather a pamphlet of no intellectual or aesthetic value, which merely propagated religious hatred.
To this day, no one has come forward who would attempt to justify the existence of this French tabloid in the public arena from the point of view of the common good. The tabloid’s defenders resort instead to arguing in favor of liberal ideals, according to which free speech is obligatory. Yet this liberalism, rooted in the thought of John Stuart Mill, clearly stipulates that free speech is not an end unto itself, but a means towards discovering the truth. Truth is the aim for which liberalism secured free speech in European history. What truth does this unfortunate French tabloid convey? If it carries some truth about religion, then its content certainly fails to rise to the level of a serious theological document. It does not attempt to convince readers using argumentation that can be judged better or worse. This tabloid merely conveys the rebellious stupidity of a juvenile mind which considers eroticism the stuff of controversy and believes that childish scribbling is art. Perhaps the law does indeed defend the right of ugly, embarrassing, pitiful idiocy to exist in the public sphere, but let us take a moment to reflect upon Western culture, which proclaims this ugly idiocy is the essence of European identity.
Modern liberal defenders of European values claim that free speech is in fact not a means of pursuing truth, but rather it is an absolute axiom deeply entrenched in European culture. Really? Socrates himself testified during his trial that every public speech must justify itself. Socrates did not claim that he had the right to say whatever he wanted to in public. Socrates merely claimed that what he was saying was true. When he was sentenced to death, he refused to escape and accepted his punishment because he argued that while the law is not always good, good citizens must follow the law. Dostoevsky knew a thing or two about this. We can posit various interpretations of the Athenian’s words and deeds, but the essence of the European heritage is the Socratic civic courage and conscience when considering the question of speech in the public arena.
Modern French lacïté, which compels citizens to adhere to the separation of religion from affairs of the State is a very specific method conceived to remedy a specific malady plaguing Europe from the time of Socrates. French lacïté forbids the interposition of religion in the public sphere, in political life. One wonders then, how this ugly, unfortunate tabloid was protected under French law and was allowed to exist given that its chief concern was the propagation of religious questions in political life? It matters little that this tabloid spewed equal bile against all major religions. Lacïté arose due to horrible inter-religious strife which often turned bloody. The aim of lacïté was to remove religious quarrels from the political realm, particularly to remove political propaganda that spewed religious hatred. The Paris tabloid in question, having made the propagation of the hatred of all religion its chief political aim, acted contrary to the spirit of French law which forbids the politicization of religion.
And yet, the French legal system, so quick to squash “hate speech” in daily life, never made any effort to silence the hate speech spewed by Charlie Hebdo. This is because the French legal system has long ago abandoned lacïté in favor of a modern liberal view of Europe that does not so much oppose religious traditions, but rather teaches a new religion: the religion of modern Europe: democratic, ugly, stupid, childish, and—in sum—terribly cruel. It is a religion void of content, for content risks moving the conscience, or, worst still, jogging the mind into activity. The new European religion concentrates only on form, and its form is increasingly vulgar and popular. One sees the shades of this new European religion in Western cinematography, in stupid books about vampires and witches which are ever more beloved by a society that is ostensibly rational but really stupid and provincial. This society has exchanged the God of their forefathers, the God of a healthy tension between reason and revelation, for the gods of a sick narcissism. This truth was laid bare by none other than André Marlaux, the minister of culture under de Gaulle and author of such excellent works as Tentation d’Occident and La Condition Humaine.
It was in the latter book that Marlaux wrote of a Chinese communist and self-proclaimed atheist, who, in the process of a bloody political murder, discovers within himself the sensation of laying a sacrifice at the feet of some ancient demon. The human person, who is by a nature a spiritual and rational being, always becomes a monster when reason is belittled in favor of spirit, or spirit belittled in favor of reason—such is always the preface to human tragedy. This is why it is the East, including Russia, which has gone through what Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his Harvard address, called the “spiritual exercises of communism,” understands the important place of religion in political life. The respect shown by the Russian state towards Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity, the four official religions of the Russian heritage, does not make of the Russian state an enemy of reason. Quite the contrary; it is Russia which plays a principal part in the conquest of space while the West withers away, convinced all the while that it is enlightened although it remains unable to leave Earth’s orbit without Russian rockets. It is an Orthodox Icon of the Holy Mother of God which can be found in the Russian module of the International Space Station–a space station “enlightened” Europe cannot reach with its own means. Another example can be found in Dubai International Airport, where prayers to Allah can be heard from five in the morning while seventy million passengers are serviced. Religion is the poetry of an ethical order which reinforces enlightenment and science. Where healthy, reasonable religious order exists, there science prospers.
The terrorist murder in Paris was an obvious evil; however, to expect people to praise the stupid and the ugly in the process of defending the right to life is a symptom of the deep crisis of Western culture. True, there is always a risk that moral censorship may trample liberty, and the arts require a special degree of tolerance. The risk of misunderstanding will always exist (one need only recall the infamous protests of certain segments of Catholic Poland against “Christ with breasts” when a Christian theatre merely put on a play about St. Vilgifortis). Certainly, there can be no tolerance for violence. Yet, violence is merely another shade of cultural decay. Decay and violence have always gone hand in hand in a sort of dance macabre.
Bearing this in mind, one must acknowledge that the President of Turkey wisely remarked that the Muslim world ought not be blamed when a few French citizens murder other French citizens. Here, we finally arrive at the core of the problem: it is not Islam. The problem is the collapse of French culture because France decided that the questions of citizenship, assimilation, and moderation in immigration policy were irrelevant and would miraculously disappear under a multicultural utopia. The French failed to recognize that an entire alien nation had grown up within the borders of their state and that the Islamic sensitivities of that alien nation will demand a sensitivity to Islamic custom at the expense of French custom—as is their right. Russia, long experienced as a multinational federation, has had to face the specific political challenges presented by this situation for a long time now. This is the source of the just Russian prohibition of religious hatred under the pretext of free speech. Russia makes sure to honor all four of its component religious traditions. After all, the evil of Western multiculturalism does not rest in the acceptance of diverse cultures, but in the fact that it is one great lie. For the Western concept of multiculturalism hides a cultural homogeneity of commercialism, nihilism, apathy, and ugliness. The East, following the “spiritual exercises” of communism and world war will not make haste towards losing its identity in the ugly utopia of the modern West.
We can see this if we look to the example of Poland. In Poland, we still have our laws protecting religious sensibilities; we also have our domestic theatre which often seeks truth by skirting on the edges of convention and giving birth to controversy. Finally we have our religion which teaches us to turn the other cheek. It is not a coincidence that the necessary condition for the freedom of theatre and the arts to seek truth is the rule of the Christian religion in Poland and a closed society that refuses to embrace multiculturalism. Each nation faces this problem in its own manner. France pretends the problem does not exist, and when the problem rears its ugly head, the French attempt to fight the ugliness of terrorism with the ugliness of liberalism. We in the East can have no illusions: the West does not really care about freedom of speech. We do not find much concern amongst Westerners for the journalists and newspaper men killed in N.A.T.O. bombing raids over Serbia or Western attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. No marches of solidarity line the streets of Paris to honor them. Where was their freedom of speech?
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