“Freedom of opinion is not without its bounds”

18.09.2012 - Interview

Foreign Minister Westerwelle talks about the debate surrounding the abusive anti-Islam video and the meeting of the Future of Europe Group of European Foreign Ministers.Broadcast on Deutschlandfunk on 18 September 2012.


The wave of protests in the Arab world continues unabated.Just this morning, there was news of a suicide attack in Kabul which was related to the film that sparked off these protests – a controversial, amateur video that portrays the Prophet Mohammed as a crook, rapist and child molester.A debate has meanwhile begun in Germany on whether this Mohammed film may be shown publicly and whether we need new laws to protect the faithful from blasphemous attacks.– On the telephone with us today is the German Foreign Minister.A very good morning to you, Guido Westerwelle.

Good morning!

Mr Westerwelle, why should Germany cave in to the Islamic fanatics?

Germany must never cave in to fanatics, or to violence of course, neither abroad nor at home. Just as these fundamentalists and violent hooligans in the Arab world are not representative of most people there, the right-wing extremists in Germany are not representative of our people.

So why the calls to ban this film from being shown?

I think it is right that the security agencies are checking whether a criminal offence has been committed under our legal order, for section 166 of the Penal Code naturally prohibits defaming the religion of others in a manner that is capable of disturbing the public peace. I can’t decide on this matter on behalf of the lawyers, nor do I want to anticipate their decision. But it is right that our legal authorities have instigated such a review.

But there are lots of other cases where the German judicial authorities take a far more liberal view of such matters.

You’ve got to realize that freedom of opinion is one of the greatest goods here in Germany, but even freedom of opinion is not without its bounds. Slander, for example, and defamation are criminal offences here, and are not trumped by freedom of opinion. And it’s important that we are a tolerant country, that we remain a tolerant country, in both ways – a country which fully respects and tolerates people who have different views, and also a country that makes it clear that religious diversity and respect for other religions go without saying, and this is the signal we want to send to the world.

But couldn’t this be just the beginning?Couldn’t other religious groups come and say that they feel insulted, too?Just think of “The Life of Brian”, a film that lots of people have surely seen and have said that it insults them as Christians, that we should ban it, or at least make it illegal to show it.

I think that for this very reason you always have to examine each case very carefully – what are the issues, what is the work in question. I have already made it absolutely clear not just here in Germany, but also internationally, that even this truly despicable video, which has injured the feelings of millions of people, does not justify violence. The violence against targets such as the German Embassy in Khartoum which we have had to witness is absolutely unjustifiable. And that is why I am pleased at the very clear response from the entire Islamic world, that everyone from civil society to heads of state and government has distanced themselves from the violence. This is of great significance and of great importance. And that is why I can only urge us all to look at these things carefully, to see the distinctions that exist. For in truth we are no longer talking about a single Arab spring, but about “Arab seasons”, and if some people want to act out their radical impulses, to incite others to violence, that has nothing to do with the millions of people who only recently took to the streets to peacefully call for democracy and change. The people of the Arab world who are witnessing this violence in their own countries, they abhor this violence, they favour peaceful protest, and I think we should therefore not abandon the people who campaign for democracy and freedom, instead we should support them.

If we look at these protests in the Arab countries, are they really spontaneous, or have they been orchestrated?

It varies. Some have no doubt been orchestrated. We shouldn’t be under any illusions. Some radical forces are at work, possibly also with terrorist links – just look at the attack in Libya, in which the US Ambassador and three members of his staff were murdered. It’s something to be looked at carefully, on a country-to-country basis. But one thing is surely true. This video has hurt many people, and I would like to emphasize again that this point has nothing to do with Islam. It would be just the same if it were the Jewish faith or even the Christian faith that were involved. Here in Germany it is forbidden under existing law to insult any religion in a manner also capable of disturbing the public peace. And the judicial authorities are completely right to be reviewing whether the current situation is such a case.

But could you imagine the same thing happening if it were the Christian faith, if it were Jesus that was insulted?

I think it always depends on just how it is done. But I do remember various discussions in which huge numbers of Christians rightly expressed their outrage. Besides, I have to say that you cannot expect me, as Foreign Minister, to do the lawyers’ review for them here on Deutschlandfunk. All I’m saying now is that it’s important for us to send a message to the world together. A message that we do not support right-wing extremists who insult and attack other religions. And we must not forget that this is the kind of situation some radicals in the Islamic world depend on to spread intolerance; unfortunately it’s also the case that a few right-wing extremists in Germany likewise spread intolerance, and we as a civil society need to clearly and courageously distance ourselves from both groups.

Mr Westerwelle, over the past few months you and other Foreign Ministers in Europe have looked at the value of Europe.You have today published an interim report, which includes proposals for new EU institutions.Do you think that will go down well with the Germans?

Today we are presenting the final report of the Future of Europe Group of European Foreign Ministers, which I convened, and our aim is to draw lessons from the crisis. We are experiencing a debt crisis. This debt crisis has increasingly evolved into a crisis of confidence, and we have to ensure that we Europeans become better able to act, and act more efficiently, more democratically and transparently – these are the lessons we have to draw from the crisis. If we don’t use the opportunities presented by the crisis, if we don’t take the necessary decisions now, when the problems require us to, we will be making a serious mistake.

How do you want to make Europe more democratic and transparent?

I think that it would, for example, be good if one day the people could vote directly for European top candidates for the political groups in the European Parliament. I also think it is necessary for the role of the European Parliament to be enhanced. It is important for us to work more closely on foreign and security policy, too. You asked what more Europe means. Let me take a simple example. We are a group of 27 countries. We are dependent on each other for our security in our countries on the European continent. No single country can organize its security on its own. We should therefore – in the interests of our taxpayers and our security – cooperate more closely on security and defence policy in Europe.

But do you really think the people of Germany see the need for this?Yesterday a survey published by the Bertelsmann Foundation produced some interesting figures.According to it, only half of the Germans consider EU membership to be advantageous, and a whole two thirds think they would be better off if Germany were to reintroduce the Deutschmark.That doesn’t look like Europhilia to me.

To start off with, I don’t know how this poll was conducted and whether it’s really right. It doesn’t match my experience. I think that a huge number of people, above all young people, realize very well that Europe is not just the response to the many wars on our continent, Europe is above all our community, our common destiny in a changing world. Germany is relatively big in Europe, but relatively small in the world, and Germany will not remain strong and well in the long term if Europe itself becomes the sick man. And we will only forge genuine links with the new global powers and be able to stand up to them if we Europeans unite as a community with a common destiny and shared culture. In other words, I want more Europe. But I also want a better Europe, a Europe that has learned from the debt crisis – that has learned solidarity, of course, that has learned a policy of growth, of course, but above all that has learned the importance of reinstating sound budget management, i.e. budgetary discipline, as we in Germany started to do immediately after the last general elections. That is something that now has to become the rule throughout Europe.

You mean that Germany should again take a leading role in the Europe you envision?

I think we should play a leading role, for example when it comes to ending debt-making policies and encouraging states to focus more on their sovereign functions. Ten years ago Germany undermined the Maastricht criteria, as it definitely should not have done, and we are still feeling the effects of this today. We should never forget that the Maastricht criteria, the criteria designed to ensure budgetary discipline, were first abandoned by Germany and France, not by others. We set a bad example back then, in 2004 and 2005. And when I think back to the period up to 2009, so much money was spent over that period, so many debts racked up, and that’s why it was right for the new German Government to end the policy of borrowing, for in the end one thing is clear. We have to earn money before we can distribute it – that’s what people have to realize throughout Europe, but also here in Germany.

That was Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle talking to us live on Deutschlandfunk.Thank you for joining us today, Mr Westerwelle.

Thank you.

Questions put by Thomas Armbrüster. Reproduced by kind permission of Deutschlandfunk.

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