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Edinburgh: A Glasgow based human rights organisation, Global Minorities Alliance (GMA) was invited to participate in a discussion panel during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015. The programme addressed the question “Are there limits when it comes to religion and free speech?” and was hosted by the Edinburgh Interfaith Association which promotes respect and understanding among all faiths in Edinburgh and across the world.
The event was organised as a response to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in France earlier this year, to discuss and debate the global issues of religious freedom and free expression.
The panel consisted of Shahid Khan, a journalist from Pakistan, Fadel Soliman, an Imam from Egypt, and Thiago Alves Pinto, a legal expert from Brazil, who shared their thoughts about religion and freedom expression in the contemporary world.
The programme was convened by Lesley Orr, an academic from Edinburgh University.
Iain Stewart, General Secretary of Edinburgh Inter-Faith Association, welcomed the audience and expressed his own views on the issues surrounding freedom of expression:
“My concern is more that people recognise that there is no such thing as absolute freedom; everyone should be free to practice and follow their own beliefs, but freedom comes with responsibility. Everyone deserves to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity. It is important that people are free to practice their own beliefs but no one religious or secular should be have the power to force their own beliefs on another”
He further maintained: “As an Interfaith organisation we are there to promote respect between people of all beliefs, religious and non-religious. We also want people to recognise that a whole group of people or a faith cannot be held responsible for the actions of a few. It is important that people of all beliefs stand up for human rights such as free speech and equality. Only by co-operating and working together can we make a fairer world”
The panellist Thiago Alves Pinto, a PhD candidate from Oxford University whose research paper is on blasphemy said:
“Some people say that the best way to avoid violent reactions to expressions deemed offensive to religious beliefs is by censoring such expressions. This, however, is far from an effective tool. On the opposite, it perpetuates a climate of fear and stifles criticism. The best way for states to promote a safe environment where different beliefs can flourish is by respecting international human rights treaties”
He explained: “The right to freedom of religion or belief and the right to freedom of expression are at the core of such treaties, therefore any limitation to restrict these rights must always be exceptional. Laws that prohibit offence to religious belief (such as blasphemy laws) are not compatible with human rights treaties, and they have directly or indirectly affected members of secular and religious minorities. Aasia Bibi, Raif Badawi, Farkhunda Malikzada, Niloy Neel, are only some of the victims of these laws, which protect religions instead of real persons. How many more will be arrested or killed for merely voicing their opinion?”
Shahid Khan, Vice-Chairperson of Global Minorities Alliance defended the freedom of speech and religion and stressed that it should only be restricted if that freedom is used to abuse, demonise, target and persecute the ‘other’.
He further said that limits to religion and freedom have fractured interfaith harmony and peace and widened the gap between people of different faiths, and that there is a need to educate people to promote a culture of tolerance, understanding and peaceful coexistence through education.
He maintained his position to defend right to freedom of religion and expression by saying:
“Limits to freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion can make you an ‘invisible citizen’ of your state, where your existence as a minority member is denied both in schools, streets and society, constitutionally as well as religiously. You have no right to live, no thought to express, no conscience to choose, and no freedom to express and are not taken as a citizen but a useless existence”.