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Freedom is to be used responsibly

24.09.2012 - Interview

Common article by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Rafik Ben Abdessalem, Foreign Minister of Tunisia. Publish in the Frankfurter Rundschau, 24.09.2012.

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The images that have been relayed around the world in the past few days have alarmed us and unsettled us. They inspire both sadness and anger. We have seen, on the one hand, a hurtful portrayal of Islam’s holy Prophet, most likely disseminated with the intention of provoking. And on the other side we have seen enraged crowds gathering outside Western embassies, crowds that have not shrunk from violence or murder. We have been forced to witness what religiously-motivated extremism and fanaticism are capable of.

These images distort the true picture. In the Western world, as in the Islamic states of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, it is only a minority that adopts the language of confrontation and provocation, that seeks to sow hatred and incite violence.

The reality is not what these images suggest. The vast majority of people both here and there want democracy, plurality, freedom and genuine opportunities in life – just as we do. The people are – like us – filled with revulsion by a video that vilifies people of a different faith and offends them with its appalling prejudices. Like us, they object to the hateful wave of violence it has triggered.

We are responding in concert, sending a joint message of understanding and tolerance. We speak on behalf of the overwhelming majority. We are most decidedly opposed to the extremists in our countries whose sole goal is to drive a deep wedge between our societies rooted in their Islamic and Christian traditions.

We can understand the outrage felt by many Muslims around the world. We can understand the many people who have protested peacefully against the vilification of their religion. But we also agree that there is no justification for the outbreaks of violence we have seen over the past few days. Violence is not the right response.

We must use our freedom responsibly. Freedom of opinion is one of the greatest goods in any democracy. And precisely because it is so important, it must not be hijacked to spread hatred and fanaticism.

The Arab spring swept away authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and elsewhere. There is now a chance, one that may never come again, to build a new democratic and pluralistic society on the ruins of the old autocratic system. And that is why the new freedom, which was so hard won, must not be misused or considered an invitation to attack people who hold different beliefs.

The revolution began in Tunisia, and it was from Tunis that it spread like wildfire to other Arab countries. If the radical changes set in motion by the Jasmine Revolution are successfully completed, we will have a historic opportunity to transform and improve relations between the civilizations on both sides of the Mediterranean.

We stand together before major challenges and tasks. These include finding a peaceful solution to the conflicts in the Middle East, above all the awful civil war in Syria. They also include creating opportunities and livelihoods for the people. And continuing the ongoing work on a culture of tolerance, exchange and respect for other cultures and for others within our own societies.

We must not permit radical forces to squander the opportunities inherent in cooperation between us.

Guido Westerwelle is the German Foreign Minister; Rafik Ben Abdessalem is the Foreign Minister of Tunisia

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