What kind of a future awaits us? On which basis are we moving forward? How shall we together rise up to the fundamental challenges? Europe -- faced with the economic crisis -- is currently going through an existential phase in its integration. On the other hand, the tragic event in Norway and the emergence of racist terrorism in Germany in violation of all European values, represent a new threat to our future, against which we must stand together. The course that the “Arab Awakening” takes, which is engulfing the entire Middle East, will impact decisively on the international system. In short, we are both concerned and hopeful at the same time. At such complicated and trying times, I believe that it is only the essential universal values in which we can seek comfort and self assurance. In his article titled “Euryopa: le regard au loin,” emphasizing the inherent meaning of Europe, the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy draws attention to Europe’s sense of foresight and its ability to see ever beyond itself. In her book “L’irrévérence,” another French philosopher, Ms. Chantal Delsol, in referring to Thomas Mann’s “A warning to Europe,” writes, “If Europeans lose their critical mind, if they bend in the name of respect, they will have surrendered their identity.”
Respect for fundamental rights and freedom
In fact, the meaning of self-confidence that we will find in core values is evident. The universality of human rights and the respect for fundamental rights and freedoms continue to guide us all. The bar should be kept high for all countries. In this vein, European institutions should always be in a position to embrace a new passion and fresh beginnings.
In the context of globalization and current challenges, one of the paramount values of fundamental rights and freedoms, which we must cherish, is the freedom of expression. For freedom of expression is indispensible for social, economic, cultural and political development of individuals, and it is an imperative for a true democracy, the rule of law and for nurturing pluralistic societies. Freedom of expression and information is also one of the main factors that nurture understanding among societies; facilitate the co-existence of individuals with a different background, different cultures and religions and ensure enrichment through cross-cultural interaction. It will become unavoidable for a Europe where critical thinking, the fruit of freedom of expression, is blunted, where free debate is replaced by prejudices and taboos, to begin losing its foresight.
In an age when new media tools like the Internet and social media are accessible even in the remotest and most isolated places in the world, the protection and enhancement of the freedom of expression has become a major multi-faceted and complex matter. The rule that should be kept in mind in seeking an answer to this question is the fact that the state’s responsibility is no longer limited to ensuring non-involvement in the free expression of ideas but also includes laying out the legal framework that will ensure equal exercise of this freedom by all sections of society and enforcing it. This state responsibility encompasses all individuals, regardless of their language, religion, belief, political view or thought.
Even when it comes to the limits of freedom of expression, states again have serious responsibilities. The restriction on expressing views that do not threaten the integrity of the state, seriously jeopardize public order or undermine national safety will be liable to prevent the discussion of important political issues and undermine the development of democratic life. On the contrary, the state should have to act against the creation of dogmas and the ossification of ideas. In the Europe of the 21st century, expression of ideas that do not incite violence should not be criminalized simply because they are not liked. Restriction by penal legislation of the freedom of expression on terms with serious political, legal and humanitarian content, such as by labeling certain historical events, the validity of which has never been established, as “genocide,” will also lead to unforeseeable problems, resulting in varied, discriminatory and degrading treatment of societies that experienced similar tragedies. The law cannot pass judgment on the veracity of an “event” by virtue of the provisions it introduces. The law can only regulate future acts and conduct. It cannot regulate the way in which past events should be discussed and particularly it cannot criminalize such discussions.
Keeping alive the memory of past tragic events does not necessitate their qualification in certain legal terms. On the contrary, such an approach obstructs the discussion of the true nature of these events and puts in deep-freeze historical research of all aggrieved societies. Freedom of expression does not obliterate the memories of the past but allows the establishment of historical truth.
As France prepares to relegate history to a one-sided narrative
Why do I feel the urge to express these views now? I am doing so because by adopting a bill in the coming days, the French National Assembly will take action to condemn history to a one-sided narrative and to criminalize freedom of expression.
In the event that the French National Assembly opts to adopt the bill, my logic will simply not accept that when I come to Paris and express my views about the history of my country, I, as the minister of foreign affairs, will be in a position to violate the laws of a country which has so far been the cradle of freedom of expression. Or, when thousands of members of the Turkish community living in France run to the streets to chant the slogan “There was no genocide” in protest of the attempt to stigmatize the forehead of their nation to which they are deeply attached, are the French authorities considering stopping and punishing those thousands of people? The fact that this bill will be discussed in the National Assembly on Dec. 22, the same day on which Turkish diplomat Yılmaz Çolpan was assassinated in Paris by the Armenian terrorist organization ASALA in 1979, inevitably raises the question of whether this day was specifically chosen to satisfy the terrorist mindset that led to the murder of our diplomat.
This legislative initiative is flawed from the outset. A state that dictates to its own society what it should not say through laws and dogmas also dictates to the society what it ought to say, and this is where the real danger lies.
Even if I do not agree with them, I understand the reasons involving French domestic politics that led to the submission of this bill in this way. We all know that politics is most of the time based on the desire to remain in power. Indeed, in such circumstances, political interests and the perception of power prove far more important than the reality and pursuit of justice. However, this problematic approach raises a number of questions:
Can history be reduced to calculations and personal judgments based on simple political interests and perception of power?
Who should decide the relationship between history and law and how should it do so?
Is it a function of parliament to judge history and prevailing politics over history?
If you maintain that a historical event remains as a fact or a reality but not an opinion or a judgment, then why do you feel the urge to silence those who object to your version of reality -- that is, views on history and just memory -- by law?
Why do you prevent historians and scientists from considering, researching and analyzing historical events? Why would you wish to destroy an environment of open discussion and above all why are you doing it now?
Is it a function of the state to mete out dogmas to society and to impose the way people should think?
The honest responses to be given to these questions will demonstrate the kind of mentality and understanding that underpin the initiative that will be undertaken in a few days in the French National Assembly. Consider once again what the answer of the French political class and the National Assembly will be, and put it in the frame.
I would still like to appeal to the French public and the National Assembly: Instead of silencing history, let historical truths be discussed. You know very well that whatever the laws dictated by domestic politics the truth cannot be silenced, and ultimately only the voice of truth will be the loudest and resonate more.
*Ahmet Davutoğlu is Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs.