Cultural freedom and religious values – M. Kosk

How to accommodate the need for cultural freedom with religious values?

Introduction held by Mikael Kosk at the meeting of European Cultural
Parliament in Turku September 16th 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen, the heading of this discussion is Religion and cultural
freedom. The heading seems to suppose that religion and cultural freedom are in
contrast to each other. Religion is conceived as a closed system of values and
articles of faith that are incompatible with freedom in the sense that
individuals and groups themselves choose their values and the guiding rules of
their lives. Religion is supposed to require obedience whereas cultural freedom
in a pluralistic an secular society is supposed to give the right and power of
decision on where one belongs to the individuals and the groups themselves.
There is no obligation of commitment to any faith.

First I want to
examine the concept of freedom a bit closer. Freedom is a kind of ideological
slogan that does not say much about what the conditions and the import of
freedom are. In a political and cultural context there are many different senses
of freedom that have to be separated from each other.

Freedom and
democracy are often confused. Democracy is a specific form of freedom where a
voter in political elections independently decides what person or party he wants
to see as his deputive in political institutions.

Religious liberty
concerns the matter of that the individual is able to choose the religion and
the religious community he wants to commit himself to, or to choose a
renouncement of any commitment to religious faith. If he chooses to commit
himself to a religious community he has in a state of freedom accepted a
limitation of his freedom. Any religious community is based on some kind of
limitations of individual freedom and on obedience of a collective authority. In
general a child is baptized into a religious community in which he is supposed
to stay, and it may later on be difficult to make a personal choice at this
point because of social pressure.

Freedom of the market is an other sense
of the concept of freedom and is often confused with freedom of people. Freedom
of the market is a model for economical efficiency and revenues and is as such
perhaps more a freedom of a system than a freedom of human will and conscience.
The paradox of freedom of the global market is that it seems to stereotypize
human life more than diversifying it.

And then we have the very general, contradictory and difficult concept of
cultural freedom. The concept of culture is only an overwriting of a variance of
phenomenons in human life: social order, religion, way of life, values,
nationality, locality, ethnicity, family, environment, arts, science and so on.
The question of what cultural freedom means gets different answers according to
the sense and meaning that is given to the concept of culture.

No one,
for example, can choose his own ethnicity. The freedom of choice lies in the
import and impact one is giving ones own ethnicity. Then it is a much more
difficult task to choose the import and impact that other people are giving ones
own ethnicity. This is in turn a reason to that cultural freedom is transformed
into cultural conflicts in a lack of freedom. The difficulty of choosing or even
having an influence on what ones own ethnicity means in the eye of the other may
make a genuine choice of who one is or wants to be impossible.

On an
other level there may be a similar conflict between different religions. The way
in which one religion is seen in the eyes of an other religion may not at all
correspond to the self-esteem of the faithful themselves. The conflict gets
stuck in a deadlock or stalemate when one religion wants to conceive itself as
superior in relation to an other religion, and when it wants see the believers
of this other religion as lost and inferior and in need of conversion to the
right faith. The faithfullness of ones own religion is not compatible with the
faithfullness of the others religion.

Nethertheless is every religion
upholding values which bear an insight into what the conditions of human life
are and what the consequences of a violation of them are. In this space between
the eyes or the gaze of the other, and the collective the individual belongs to,
there is a place for individual freedom, if the individual freedom exists. The
individual freedom may be narrower than one wishes to believe in the
individualistic and secular society; the coercion may be more of an invisible
than a pronounced kind. Yet the individual freedom has a profound and essential
meaning. It concerns the possibility of choosing ones outlook on life and to
choose or not to choose a religious commitment. It also concerns the right of
questioning political, ideological, religious and cultural ideas and practises
without badgering or persecution.

Here is freedom of speech at stake. The
so called caricature war started after the newspaper Jyllands-Posten had
published some disdainful drawings representing the Prophet Muhammed. But what
was this war about, was it a kind of religious war where the secular society
with its own sacrosanct principles of freedom of speech came to blows with a
theocratic social order that forbids any reproduction of the Prophet and any
insult to what is conceived as holy. Was this sharpened and politically
constructed conflict on some level about a tension between freedom and

There is a distinction between the freedom or the right to do
something and the content and signification of what has been done. Freedom of
speech is not the same thing as the content of what is being said and to an even
lesser extent the same as the responsibility for it. When one is saying
something about religious faith the question is even more complicated because
faith is not an argument. Faith cannot be an issue of debate in the same way as
it is possible to argue on whether the invasion of Iraq was right or wrong, or
to dicuss some other hot-spiced political issue that certainly divides opinions.
A faith has a startingpoint that cannot be questioned without abandoning the
faith in itself at the same. It is not possible to be a Christian or a Muslim
without believing in God or Allah, otherwise there should no longer be any
conception of what is meant by being a Christian or a Muslim.

When a
dialogue between different religions or between a religious and a secular point
of view is being asked for there is a crucial question of what the subject of
that dialogue should be. Endless controverses on what the right faith is, or
whether God exists or not have been carried on along history, but this kind of
disputes do not give much help to increase the understanding of others
conviction, view of life, values and faith. Freedom of speech deliveres indeed
the right to critisize, question and deny whatever articles of faith, and both
the idea that God is almighty and the idea that faith in God is an expression
for an antiquated authoritarian system may go into the pocket of the same
society, that has the ability to handle mutually incompatible ideas and
conceptions. But in order to get a bit further there is most of all a need for a
proper understanding of who the other is, and indeed a proper

There is no short way to such a dialogue. First of
all some obstacles must be overcome. The first of them is the deeply rooted
division into sameness and otherness. When otherness furthermore in a primitive
way is identified with the evil there is a deadlock that makes all discussion
impossible. Prejudicies are deeply inscribed in the mental space that
constitutes the conception of otherness. Prejudicies are fictivising the other
in a way that makes a dialogue in terms of understanding impossible. The fiction
of the other must as a startingpoint be broken.

When prejudicies are
blended with hard conflicts of interest, big differences in material and
economical conditions, and political and territorial struggle of power they are
also used as arguments in these conflicts and are thus made even more explosive.
When cultural, religious, ethnic or national groups are hunting their symbolic
property the conflicts also transgress to a symbolic level that in a way cannot
be negotiable. There is a paradox in the fact that the most rancorous battles
are fought around the meaning and impact of human symbols. Rather abstract
things as symbols may arouse the most passionated emotions and insurmountable
dissension among people.

If the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed are
to be conceived as political satire or blasphemy of the holy is a question that
cannot be solved on the level of arguments. It concerns two different and
mutually incompatible symbolical interpretations of the same drawings, and those
who interpret them in some certain way have no other choice than being
responsible in a moralic sense for the content and signification they want to
give them, and that concerns drawers, writers, speechmakers and publishers who
want to initiate a debate, and indeed those who in a state of humiliation want
to take the right in their own hands.

Mere tolerance and respect are not
sufficent to confront the question of responsibility. It is the same thing with
tolerance and respect as with freedom of speech regarded only as a right one
has, that it is possible to say anything and to listen to anything without ever
confronting what is being said. In order to give respect, tolerance and freedom
of speech a sense one has to meet the other and regard that other person as
different and equal. Even at that point there may of course still remain
unsolvable differences in the points of view and in the very way in which these
differences of opinion are conceived. One problem with arguing is that there is
not always even a startingpoint where the issue on which there is a disagreement
should be conceived in the same terms.

People who do not have a strong
identity and are uncertain of where they are belonging may have difficulties
with confronting other people. A position of power and strenght is not either
the best startingpoint for a dialogue; the one who wants to execute power in
relationship to other people and advocate his own interests is not necessarily
regarding others as equal, regardless of how much use there is being maid of
ideological notions as democracy, freedom and justice.

The simplified
ideological guidelines are a pitfall there is reason to be cautious with. The
difficulty of talking about freedom lies in the fact that there is no common
conception of what freedom means. When such a common conception of what freedom
means is presupposed it is not possible to come forth to the stage of a
dialogue, it remains at the level of an ideological phrase. There is a row of
preconditions that must be fulfilled before a genuine dialogue is possible, and
one of the most important of these preconditions is to make oneself aware of
what presumptions and motives one is starting from when use of valuative and
ideologically loaded words is made. There is no common language to start from
and the valuative words are not always the best startingpoint. It is a slow and
toilsam task to work out a language in which a mutual understanding is possible.

The most obvious example of this is human rights. The United Nations
declaration of human rights has been a guideline for the global society for more
than half a century, but still there is a lot of work to do in order to go ahead
with a common understanding of what these rights are meaning and how they are to
be implemented.

A thin universalism may be the most that is realistic to
expect, an universalism that is just enough to uphold a language where a mutual
understanding of what is at stake is possible. And every genuine and
constructive dialogue presupposes an ability to live with ambiguity, uncertainty
and intractable conflicts. There is no neutral, objective and universal stance.

In order to come back to the question I started from, if there is a
contradicition between religion and cultural freedom, I want to say that there
is a deeper lack of freedom in the very way in which conflicts between religions
and cultures are exposed, and loaded up with political and economical struggle
of power, and in the worst case also fear, prejudicies and stereotypes.

The most important thing is that the will to a dialogue exists, and that
will is a precondition for freedom in a deeper and more essential sense. When
the will to a dialogue exists it is also possible to discuss what is meant by
freedom and what is meant by commitment.

The call for an intercultural
dialogue starts from an individual level, not as much from the level of
political, religious or cultural order. The right place for that dialogue is the
communities where people from different cultures are living together and not
always understanding each other. The dialogue is a task for the civic

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