Forum: Freedom of religion and of expression can coexist

Ambassador Tommy Koh's Opinion piece on Islam and Europe (Freedom of speech: An appeal to Europe, Nov 28) calls for a few clarifications. We do not wish to reignite a debate which, while worth having, has made many victims in the past few weeks.

However, some specific misgivings that have been cultivated by individuals and groups which are not as well-intentioned as Professor Koh deserve a reply.

There are dozens of millions of faithful and millions of Muslims in Europe. Our laws guarantee their freedom to practise their religion. Our nations have a long history of bringing together people from different faiths. Although this history has not always been peaceful, the ideas of enlightenment and the construction of our polities have taught us to not only coexist but also live together in peace and tolerance. We are deeply mindful of the importance of religion for many of our fellow citizens and profoundly respect their faith, however large or small their congregation.

In this context, it is a misrepresentation to say that our countries have insulted Islam or its Prophet.

We value freedom of expression as a cornerstone of our democracies. This does not mean that the use being made of this freedom is a reflection of official policies. Governments, too, are subjected to caricatures and criticism. We expect differences of opinion to arise and to spark debates. None of this can justify the killing of cartoonists, teachers or anyone else. Tolerance also implies that differences can be settled in a peaceful manner, including by agreeing to disagree.

This being said, there are some limits to freedom of expression in our countries, too. Our governments have taken steps to fight racism and hate speech, either through laws or public policies.

Incitement to hostility and violence is not acceptable. This is true of attacks against Muslims as against any citizen or group of citizens. Our history has taught us the price of racism. While we shall not forget that, protecting people and communities does not equate to shielding their beliefs. The comparison between the Holocaust (a historical fact) and a religious creed is clearly not valid in this regard.

We are committed to freedom of religion and belief as well as freedom of expression. We are convinced that they can coexist and enrich each other, just as believers of different faiths as well as non-believers can. We also think that each of our countries, with its history and political system, is balancing them in its own, democratic way.

Marc Abensour

Ambassador of France to Singapore

Sandra Jensen Landi

Ambassador of Denmark to Singapore

Raffaele Langella

Ambassador of Italy to Singapore

Margriet Vonno

Ambassador of the Netherlands to Singapore

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