The limits of freedom of expression in Germany

23.09.2012 - Interview

For Foreign Minister Westerwelle, those attacking western embassies represent a small minority within Islam. Regarding the insulting anti-Islam video, he believes the limits of freedom of expression have been reached.

Welt am Sonntag: Mr Westerwelle, during the past two weeks, the world has been anxiously witnessing the unrest ignited by the insulting depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. In Pakistan, people have been killed and injured in these riots. Is this something the UN Security Council should address?

Guido Westerwelle: That depends on whether or not the situation further deteriorates. It is important for the western world to understand that those causing the violence do not represent the vast majority of people in the Arab world. And for the Islamic world to understand that the vast majority of people in the west not only respect their religion, but also reject denigrations and insults.

Welt am Sonntag: Who are the actual demonstrators? Is this about religious feelings having been hurt, or are anti-western political forces behind these actions?

Westerwelle: It varies. Concerning what occurred in Libya, a terrorist attack cannot be ruled out. In the Sudan, there was clearly also orchestration by some political fundamentalists. The Tunisian government was genuinely shocked by the violence directed at the US embassy. I am certain that the millions of people who took to the streets in the past months to demonstrate for freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and to take a stand against oppression, do not want this violence. Key religious leaders and many heads of state and government in the region have also rejected violence and called for peaceful protests against the denigration of their religion.

Welt am Sonntag: Do you believe that this rejection, which is directed at the international public, is credible? In addressing their own publics they often strike a different chord.

Westerwelle: I believe it represents the majority opinion. Those who welcome the murder of the US ambassador to Libya are an extremist minority.

Welt am Sonntag: Was the initial hope not naïve that democracy would take root after the toppling of the dictators?

Westerwelle: The Federal Government took a very differentiated country-specific stance when it came to observing and supporting upheavals in the Arab world. I therefore no longer speak of the Arab Spring, but of Arab Seasons. The situations are completely different depending on if you are looking at post-revolutionary Libya, at evolutionary Morocco, at Tunisia, where great progress has been made, or at Egypt, where the government is still taking shape. And then there is Syria, where people must fear for their lives because they are rising up against the regime.

Welt am Sonntag: In all these countries there are, to various extents, Islamist movements. What is Germany doing via its foreign policy to stop the spread of this radical ideology?

Westerwelle: With our concept of the Transformation Partnership, we help strengthen civil societies and economic development. Both these things build up the democratic immune system. And I want to warn against making the mistake of equating Islam with violence, and political Islam with fundamentalist Islam. There was no reason for us to expect the Arab revolutions to give birth to western-style Christian democratic, liberal or social democratic parties. Political landscapes in these revolutionary and evolutionary countries are very different. And it is true, there are also fundamentalists who are willing to resort to violence and want to see the freedom revolutions fail. We want the opposite.

Welt am Sonntag: Not all western governments trust the assertions that their facilities will be protected. The United States and France have closed their embassies and schools in some Islamic countries. Is Germany planning to do the same?

Westerwelle: I cannot rule out that this may occur in some cases, for security reasons. Security is our top priority. But I do want to avoid this. Especially in times like these, it is important to maintain an exchange between our countries and cultures. I need not hide the fact that I am concerned. The Federal Foreign Office’s crisis unit has stepped up security measures at German institutions in the respective countries; in some places, security personnel have been reinforced. The governments of our host countries are absolutely obligated to protect foreign missions. When that does not happen, we strongly criticize the lack of protection. If no follow up action is taken, there will be consequences.

Welt am Sonntag: The right to freedom of opinion is guaranteed in the International Bill of Human Rights. Yet Muslim countries, including Turkey, say that insults to their faith are prohibited. Is this a contradiction?

Westerwelle: Denigrating and insulting a faith is not allowed here, either, if it disturbs the public peace. I am referring to Article 5 of the Basic Law, the first paragraph of which guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Paragraph two states that rights shall find their limits in the provisions of general laws, in provisions for the protection of young persons and in the right to personal honour. The problem lies elsewhere: in the past, when some self-appointed director produced an absurd video, no one noticed. Today, everyone sees its effects, all around the world. The Internet, after all, is not just a blessing like we witnessed during the Arab revolutions, but also a curse. For even the most feeble-minded individual can disseminate a video that can have global repercussions.

Welt am Sonntag: So what can be done?

Westerwelle: It will take time. I myself saw some excerpts of this video. I thought they were absurd and vulgar. Others feel deeply insulted. And there are those who seek to harness the outrage such content has caused, because they want to drive democracy out of their countries, and prefer a fundamentalist regime.

Welt am Sonntag: In Germany, too, there is intense debate about where to draw the line separating freedom of expression from freedom of religion. Should the insulting anti-Islam video be shown here in public?

Westerwelle: You are bringing up the much talked-about specific-case decision. It must be taken not by the Foreign Minister, but by the judicial authorities. Here, right-wing radical hate mongers in the west want to trigger riots and violence through a public screening. At least they are willingly taking this risk, with the ultimate aim of instrumentalizing such events to promote their ideology. That said, the authorities should examine the possibility of banning such screenings.

Welt am Sonntag: What do you think about the publishing of Mohammed cartoons in French and German satire magazines?

Westerwelle: Life has taught me that freedom always brings with it responsibility. Sometimes the question is not whether something is permitted. Rather, it is whether one should do it.

Welt am Sonntag: In France, the government has banned all public protests against the Mohammed cartoons. Is such action needed in Germany as well?

Westerwelle: Under German law, it is a good thing that the Foreign Minister does not have the power to decide about police action in connection with the freedom of assembly.

Welt am Sonntag: Should a Free Democrat not unequivocally oppose any ban on the expression of opinions, no matter how stupid these may be?

Westerwelle: As a Free Democrat, I am particularly sensitive about any restriction of freedom. But stupid opinions are one thing, denigrations and insults are another. I can have the opinion that you are a really horrible person. But I would not have the right to insult you because of this, on account of the freedom of expression. It does not include the right to insult people of other faiths or convictions, and thereby to willingly disturb the public peace. Incidentally, this applies not only to the intolerable depiction of the Prophet as a child molester, but also to how one speaks of Yahweh or Jesus Christ.

Welt am Sonntag: During the course of the Enlightenment, Christians have become more tolerant. The willingness to resort to violence is primarily evident in Islam.

Westerwelle: We must not pretend like that has always been the case in Germany, looking at the last 100 years. When I was young, this issue was viewed differently. And we should note that, in Europe, there is a range of different interpretations concerning the separation of church and state. Just think of the debate over a reference to God in the preamble of the draft EU Constitution. So this is not a clash of civilizations, and it is not a confrontation between religions. It is a battle of rational individuals versus the fundamentalists, of the peace-loving versus the violent. We must not let ourselves be told anything different.

Welt am Sonntag: One video has sent thousands of Muslims into the streets in protest. Where are similar demonstrations when it comes to the slaughter of people in the Syrian civil war?

Westerwelle: The cruelties perpetrated under the Assad regime have caused, and are continuing to cause, great outrage in the Arab world. The clear stance of the Arab League, which together with the UN have appointed Brahimi as their Special Representative, testifies to this fact. Within Arab societies, there is a confrontation between the tolerant and the intolerant. This is not a clash of civilizations. It is a clash within civilizations.

Welt am Sonntag: So far, the Security Council has taken no action on Syria, it has been condemned to a passive role by the veto powers Russia and China. Will the German Presidency launch a new attempt?

Westerwelle: Yes, we will. Already on Monday, I will be meeting with UN Special Representative Brahimi in my capacity as President of the Security Council. Subsequently, the Council will meet in closed session to hear his proposals.

Welt am Sonntag: Do you believe there may be a new peace plan?

Westerwelle: In diplomacy, new opportunities can always arise. And we have an obligation to overcome the current powerlessness. I am still deeply troubled by my visit to a refugee camp in Jordan. Visiting that camp, you learn how this is not about distant events, death statistics, or keeping tabs on refugees. It is about the fate of actual people. A father who was much younger than I am showed me his baby. It was naked, sick and emaciated. That follows you for the rest of your life. As does the experience of being dumbstruck.

Welt am Sonntag: The current situation in Syria is not the only cause for concern in the Middle East. Israel is thinking aloud about a military strike on Iran. Is a new war imminent?

Westerwelle: We must do everything in our power to prevent that from happening. We want a political and diplomatic solution. That can still be achieved. We cannot accept a nuclear-armed Iran. There is more than Israel’s security at stake. That on its own would be enough cause to take action. We also must prevent an atomic arms race. If Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons, then it is only a question of time before other countries in the region would try to get these weapons as well. At the end of this decade, there could be several new nuclear powers in this volatile part of the world – which would gravely endanger us all.

Welt am Sonntag: Is the window of opportunity closing for negotiations with Iran?

Westerwelle: Not yet. A few days ago in Jerusalem, I myself told Prime Minister Netanjahu and Defence Minister Barak that, on the one hand, we understand Israel’s concern for its own security. But, on the other hand, I advised that they seek a solution in conjunction with the international community. Time for diplomacy has not run out. However, the talks that Iran has held so far have not been substantial. That is why William Hague, Laurent Fabius and I have written a letter to EU High Representative Cathy Ashton requesting that the next round of sanctions be prepared. It is now plain to see that the sanctions are having an effect.

Welt am Sonntag: Netanjahu sees the sanctions, but he is as candid as can be in calling for the drawing of a red line with respect to Iran.

Westerwelle: Everyone who has spent time in this small, vulnerable country, listening to calls by Ahmadinejad for its destruction, will understand Israel’s deep concern. Nevertheless, I am firmly convinced that the US, Israel and Europe must and will stand shoulder to shoulder.

Welt am Sonntag: Are you concerned about the growing distance between the governments in Washington and Jerusalem? It no longer appears impossible that Israel may launch a unilateral strike.

Westerwelle: The US and Israel are bound by such a strong friendship that I do not believe the two countries’ relationship is actually troubled.

Welt am Sonntag: Your colleague Minister de Maizière has referred to a possible military strike by Israel as legitimate, but not smart.

Westerwelle: I can assure you the entire Federal Government is doing everything within its power – and this includes personal efforts by the Federal Chancellor, the Minister of Defence and myself – with a view to arriving at a diplomatic solution.

Interviewers: Jochen Gaugele, Thorsten Jungholt and Claus Christian Malzahn. Published with kind permission of Welt am Sonntag.

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