The January 15-16 Conference, “Religion, Democracy, and Law,” is hosted by the Centre for the Study of Religion, Conflict and Cooperation, London Metropolitan University.
The aim of the conference is to highlight and examine a number of important current controversies about the relationship between religion, democracy and the law, an issue of relevance in many countries and regions around the world. The purpose is both to look at topical issues, as well as to examine long-running controversies. The context is that, around the world, each region has its own controversies in relation to religion, democracy and law, and what follows offers a selection of relevant issues in order to give a flavour of what the conference will focus on.
In Western Europe, several current controversies center on the issue of freedom of expression versus ‘incitement to religious hatred’ and/or blasphemy. For example, in 2012, there was the Charlie Hebdomagazine cartoon controversy, which focused on publication of caricatures which ridiculed the prophet Muhammad and which outraged many Muslims around the world. At the same time, a now-notorious US film, the ‘Innocence of Muslims,’ stimulated serious demonstrations across much of the Muslim world.
Overall, the issues which the conference examines are not only reflective of current controversies but also fundamental in both existing and aspiring democracies to wider issues which collectively focus on religion, democracy, and law. The background is that Article 19 of the United Nations declaration of human rights, now over 60 years old, proclaims that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.’ Yet, in practice around the world there are numerous legal qualifications on this apparently universal ‘right’ balanced by the necessary tolerance and respect for the equal dignity of all human beings that necessarily constitute the foundations of all democratic, pluralistic societies. Consequently, it may be necessary ‘even’ in democratic societies to sanction or even prevent forms of expression which spread, incite or otherwise justify hatred based on (religious) intolerance. For example, France outlaws holocaust denial and ‘public insults’ based on religion, while various European countries, despite many being highly secular polities, have blasphemy laws which are sometimes enforced.