Diversity, tolerance and extremism | Joanna Onions, Christian Colombo

We need the free exchange of ideas, using facts, rational argument, and speaking truth to the powerful, with the aim of a just and freedom-loving world order, recognising that we are all different but equal

Recent events, in Malta and elsewhere, have brought to the fore the issues of Freedom of Expression and Religion, and of racism, which are in our view interrelated and should be considered together.

Contrary to what many believe, human rights are not a law of nature; they have been agreed over time by international discussion. Among them is freedom of expression; a fundamental, but not unlimited, right. It does not imply that all expression is acceptable; it can, and should, be criticised or challenged by anyone with differing views. We need the free exchange of ideas, using facts, rational argument, and speaking truth to the powerful, with the aim of a just and freedom-loving world order, recognising that we are all different but equal.

While few would contest freedom of expression, there is no general consensus on what is acceptable or not. For example according to the Maltese Imam, religious vilification should be illegal. In line with what Maltese law now recognises, we believe that no-one has a right to be protected from ideas with which they disagree, such as by what they view as blasphemy.

Having our feelings hurt is surely a price worth paying for a free society. If we silence dissenting views, not only are we assuming that we are inevitably right, but also avoiding exposing those views to better ones; rather, we must engage with them. On the other hand, as Raphael Vassallo noted in a recent article in MaltaToday, hate speech (‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour... to stir up violence or racial or religious hatred... on the grounds of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, colour, language, ethnic origin, religion or belief or political or other opinion’) is a crime here – as it is in many other jurisdictions. And slander and libel remain actionable.

Which brings us to freedom of belief, which implies that all may, unhindered, follow their conscience in terms of what they do, and do not, believe. But that does not imply freedom to impose such beliefs on others nor, more importantly, to resort to violence or incitement to violence in support of or against any belief. Extremists such as Islamists exist in many contexts (including racism and politics); they aim to divide, not unite, communities, to enable one group to dominate others.

The distinction between religion and extremism is crucial – while we believe that the right to practise the former should be protected, the latter can never be justified as ‘freedom of belief’. We see an alarming level of Islamophobia in Malta and elsewhere, driven by the actions of a minority of Muslims worldwide.

We do not condemn the Muslim faith, nor the vast majority of Muslims who live peacefully alongside compatriots of other religions or none; we condemn terrorism and murder.

While we would always support anyone’s right to air their views – provided they do not incite violence –, irrational forms of prejudice such as racism, homophobia and Islamophobia, which stress an‘otherness’ of, and separation from, other human beings, and seek to justify discrimination against them as an easily identified common ‘enemy’, should nevertheless play no part in a democratic (and no longer wholly Roman Catholic) Maltese society. The recent government consultation document ‘Towards a National Action Plan Against Racism and Xenophobia’ acknowledged “that there are increasing manifestations of racism and hatred in our country… we are seeing manifestations of the extreme right, a dangerous ideology that is not acceptable in an equal society”.

This is particularly noticeable with regard to this country’s (and the EU’s as a whole), treatment of, and many attitudes towards migrants, whose humanity many seem to deny.

Discriminating between people because of the colour of their skin, economic circumstances (for which Europe, both in the past and now, bears much responsibility), or other cultural differences, has no basis in science, and no place in a modern, multicultural, diverse, enlightened Malta.

‘Racial’, or cultural, ‘purity’ doesn’t exist; just about every country has had immigration throughout its history – which Malta, of all countries, surely must know.

Joanna Onions, Christian Colombo are member and chairperson of the Malta Humanist Association, respectively