5 November 2020
By Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Information and Analytical Centre, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize, in conversation with Maryana Torocheshnikova in the studio at Radio Liberty
Murders and attacks by religious fanatics – there is a new wave of terrorist attacks in Europe. How did it all start and what could have provoked radical Islamists?
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Aleksandr, what is going on in Europe now? Is this really a new wave of violence, provoked by the recent lesson on free speech [given by Samuel Paty, the history teacher who was later assassinated] in France, or is it something that has been developing for a long time?
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: First of all, this is a continuation of many earlier events. But there is also a qualitative difference here. Of course, it’s not about the teacher, since someone is showing such cartoons to someone all the time, yet no one rushes to commit a terrorist attack every time that happens. The present wave of terrorist attacks began as a sign of solidarity with the terrorists who committed that first terrorist attack, and as a protest against Macron’s statement that France would continue to stick to its values. Actually, he did not say anything that was offensive to anyone.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Meaning that France will remain a secular state…
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: …which maintains the existing guarantees of freedom of speech. France had such guarantees before, and no-one had committed terrorist attacks in this connection. In effect, we are talking about the fact that the wave of violence is an act of solidarity with the original terrorists, and that is a new and rather terrifying phenomenon.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: What consequences might this lead to? And might it cross the borders of Europe and come to Russia, perhaps?
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: Unfortunately, it might, since in this respect we are not fenced off in any way.
I don’t know whether there will be wider-scale consequences. Individual terrorists cannot carry out such attacks, they have to rely on larger organisations. Clearly, as soon as that happens, the debate will begin: do the guarantees of freedom of speech need to be changed so as not to provoke evil people?
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Does that mean that now the debate is over which is more important: freedom of speech or freedom of conscience and religion?
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: In my opinion, that is not the right question. The debate is not about freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience is the freedom to practise your religion, to preach it, to change it, to unite with your fellow believers…
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Or not to profess any religion…
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: …but this is in no way the freedom of people to prevent someone else from professing their religion if it differs from yours, or to criticise their religion. On the contrary, any religious teaching is based on an assertion that it is true – and that the others are false.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: That’s why Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are presently banned in Russia, have suffered.
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: Is there anyone who hasn’t suffered? It is naturally the case that non-believers who are indifferent about religion might sometimes say things that insult believers. Not to mention the endless potential that exists for believers to insult each other with their theological assertions. From time to time, the outcome is violence, and I fear that this will only continue. Never offending anyone is a sheer impossibility – what really matters is upholding public order.
In one sense, it is impossible to reach a consensus with everyone. Let’s say that there are people who claim that sermons of a particular type are utterly unacceptable – that makes life very difficult for the people preaching and listening to these sermons. It follows that society has to take a decision of some kind. For example, if most people wish to live in a society that prohibits sermons inciting pogroms, the society will criminalise this activity by including the relevant rules in its Criminal Code, as is the case in all European countries. The line has to be drawn somewhere. Yet the idea that holding views of any kind – even views distasteful to everyone – cannot be against the law is relatively widespread.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: There is nothing unlawful about distasteful views – until the point at which they escalate into action and people start smashing things up and killing people.
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: Yet all the same, laws exist everywhere prohibiting the incitement of hatred. They differ in crucial respects from the laws prohibiting blasphemy – the crime allegedly committed by the artist responsible for the caricatures – in that the “incitement of hatred” involves statements targeted against people who actually exist and are alive instead of against their shrines, ideas or ancestors.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Essentially, this is a problem of perception on the part of the audience for these caricatures. The most common positions that have been expressed in Europe’s society-wide debate on this matter fall into two extremes. Firstly, that no caricature whatsoever can serve as valid grounds and justification for torture, attacks, acts of terror and murders. If you don’t like the caricature, don’t buy the magazine and don’t look at it on the Internet – don’t go out of your way to be insulted. Secondly, that publishing these pictures in magazines and newspapers and showing them to school pupils during lessons is a provocation in itself, since they hurt believers’ feelings and flagrantly violate the spirit of tolerance that Europe advocates so volubly and that is an integral component of any fully fledged society.
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: Tolerance of some kind is a feature of every society, even an extremely aggressive one. It is impossible to imagine a wholly intolerant society. That is why we have norms of polite behaviour; if you are travelling by tram, it is not acceptable to launch incessant verbal attacks at your fellow travellers, and anyone who does will probably find themselves at the wrong end of these fellow travellers’ fists. Society must find an answer to the following question; what exactly can we do with those responsible for verbal attacks on trams? We could stick a knife in them – if a society is governed by laws of this kind, there is no space for a magazine like Charlie Hebdo. But this is not the case in European societies. If someone attacks you verbally, you can do the same in return, but you can’t stick a knife in them.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: But all this leads to a discussion about values: there are European values, there are other kinds of values, and which are more important? Someday there will certainly be a person who says: ‘Why did you arrive here in large numbers and propagate your own set of rules – in a land where they are not observed?! If you don’t like it – leave Europe, don’t look at any images – and nothing will offend you.’ And this only further radicalizes the relationships.
Alexander Verkhovsky: People with very different values always coexist in society, and what one person may find offensive may not bother the next person in the least. But the whole point of coexistence in at least a relatively modern society is that very different people live in it and they have to somehow get used to it.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Another question. What is the government doing to address this? Here in Russia they have been so determined to fight any form of insult to religious sentiments or extremism, so much so that one can receive a jail sentence for reposting or a fine for a ‘like,’ or face a lawsuit for a careless statement.
I will read to you an excerpt from a declaration adopted in 2008 by representatives of key international organizations dealing with the issues of freedom of opinion and expression. In particular, it states that ‘restrictions on freedom of expression should never be used to protect certain institutions or abstract ideas, concepts or beliefs, including religious ones. Freedom of expression may only be restricted in order to prevent propaganda relating to nationalism, racism or religious hatred. Such propaganda constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.’
Isn’t this what happens when religious fanatics try to lynch people whose images or statements they don’t like, when parents complain that someone has revealed that another individual is undergoing a gender transition and so on?
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: Parents and other citizens are free to write statements anywhere, the question is how the authorities react to it. And they react in different ways. Most of the statements, of course, are thrown out, but in some instances, lawsuits are filed, and these cases are the most astonishing. But it must be said that only in some cases (say, according to the article of the Criminal Code that concerns the feelings of believers) is it about blasphemy in the exact sense of the word, that is, blasphemy against a deity or criticism of a religious association. It is the feelings of believers that are usually protected. In fact, this is sort of analogous to the ‘Insult’ article, which was previously in the Criminal Code, but then moved to the administrative one. At the same time, the ‘feelings of believers’ as a specific object to be protected appeared, in contrast, in the Criminal Code, although previously they were in the Administrative Code. This is a very strange strategic move, and it is not clear why these feelings in particular are more deserving of protection.
On this score, there were different views. One of them, by the way, is specifically related to the protection of security: it is that the believers will get so upset that some of them will go and stab someone. When this norm was introduced in the Criminal Code, it was part of a public discussion. Of course, this is the argument of a weak state that simply cannot keep track of people in possession of knives (in the full sense, this is impossible, but you have to try). And the second argument was that these are very specific feelings that are more in need of protection than any others.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: But at the same time, they keep forgetting about unbelievers, though theoretically this article should protect them too.
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: In Uzbekistan, atheists are also protected by a similar article: In this instance it is a model of democracy. But why only religious feelings? There are feelings associated with one’s attitude towards literature, towards cinema, towards political views – anything you can think of! In general, you can criminalize almost any speech in this way, and this is completely wrong.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: And it’s very frightening.
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: Such cases have reached the European Court of Human Rights quite a few times. In Europe – with a fairly long tradition of legislation against blasphemy and heresy – there are a lot of these types of norms in many different places. And the ECtHR, as a rule, left the question at the discretion of the state: if the state deems it necessary to prosecute, let it prosecute (the defenders of this norm are very fond of referring to this).
Maryana Torocheshnikova: That is, the question of proportionality?
Alexander Verkhovsky: Of course. But in the ECtHR they simply rely on the fact that different European countries have developed different traditions. In our country, according to all conventions, freedom of speech can be limited, in particular, in favour of public morality, and public morality is not something that is well-defined. For example, protecting religious feelings from insults may be fully or partially compatible with this public morality, or it may not be compatible at all. This is a matter of local tradition. The French say that they have such a tradition – to draw crude caricatures of everything in general, and in another place, perhaps there is no such tradition. This is a cultural difference, and the European Court respects this. Of course, in doing so, you still need to understand that there is a human right to freedom of speech, but there isn’t a right not to be offended. This is the concern of certain groups of people or individuals – they do not want to be offended. This concern can somehow be weighed, of course, with human rights, but in my opinion, fundamental rights are of greater importance than a person’s unwillingness to be offended.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: The right to live is perhaps of greater importance than all other rights.
On a video call with us is a lawyer for the Agora International Human Rights Association, Stanislav Seleznev, who has dealt with a lot with cases involving insults to feelings.
Stanislav, from your point of view, how harmoniously can the right to freedom of speech and the right to freedom of conscience coexist in Russia?
Stanislav Seleznev: The European Convention of Human Rights does not safeguard the right of citizens not to be offended by any statement. Forty four years ago, in the court’s decision in the case of Handyside v. United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights stated: “We are always weighing on the scales the freedom of expression against the freedom to hold any views.”
Thus, freedom of expression cannot be curbed, even if the opinion expressed is not only neutral, but actually offensive, shocking or disturbing to some part of the population. And that’s the key point. Statements that do not evoke a positive response, even in the majority of the population, also have the right to exist, and dozens (if not hundreds) of decisions of the ECtHR are based on this. And if we, as residents of the member countries of the Council of Europe, are to continue to exist in this reality, we need to stand up for the standpoint that a democratic society cannot exist without allowing the expression of opinions that may shock or even offend a certain part of the population.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: And if the expression of such an opinion provokes some of those abused to commit violence what can the state do to prevent it?
Stanislav Seleznev: If the statement contains a direct incitement to violence, then the task of the authorities in any modern developed country is to prevent such expression as much as possible. But here again we encounter the same dilemma: whether to prohibit ourselves from expressing unpopular opinions or to begin prosecuting all those who do not express popular opinions.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: And what is “direct incitement” in this case? Does the public showing of a picture which is not approved by the followers of some faith group, count as incitement? Or does “incitement” denote a direct appeal like: “Let’s go beat up these people and smash their faces in, because they’re the bad guys!”?
Stanislav Seleznev: That is a direct incitement. But the demonstration of this or that completely unpopular, terrible phenomenon might be one of the points for discussion, the result of which will be public censure, categorical rejection and a very obvious negative assessment of this position. But there should always remain, at least, the very possibility of expressing this unpopular point of view.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Aleksandr, how ready is Russian society, in your opinion, for a rational discussion of what we are talking about openly, or what we are not talking about and whether we allow the expression of something that we like or dislike, and are we ready to challenge people calling for violence?
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: The police must always tackle people who call for violence.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Specifically violence.
Aleksandr Verkhovsky: Teachers at school probably have to deal with this. Well, people take offence at all sorts of things! There will always be radical groups which will make a political game out of this. And we have to acknowledge that our society, in this sense, is not a very radical structure. We have a lot of people who are quite hostile to gay people, but we don’t see a lot of organized politicized violence against gays, although there are some such instances. It seems that nobody wants to go and do something about their distress in response to those caricatures. Well, some citizens (it would be nice to understand what kind of people they were) did go to the French embassy, but even then they did not storm it. There really isn’t so much radical activism, and that’s a good thing. But it is clear that such violence is not that difficult to instigate, if people deem it appropriate for political ends.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: It’s enough to throw a match.