The new civility: are religious freedom and freedom of speech intertwined?

At 18:30 GMT on Wednesday the 10th June 2015, Index on Censorship held a debate on the interrelation of religious and speech freedoms as part of Leeds’ 4th Big Bookend Festival. This debate took place at 93-97, Albion St. and those who were unable to attend on the evening may now listen to the recording listed on this page.

As well as a recording, this page also features information on the themes associated with the debate, its participants and organisers.

Organisers: If you are interested in the event’s organisers, then you can find more information on Index on Censorship, their latest editions, and the Big Bookend Festival below.

Debate description and bibliographies: To go directly to a description of the debate and bibliographical information on its participants click here.

Contextual background: If you wish to read more about the topics covered in this debate, then there are several related Eurozine articles listed at the bottom of this page and some basic context has been provided by Index on Censorship in the following text.


Freedom of speech and religious freedom:

Historically, people who have argued for greater religious freedom [the right to choose your religion freely and not be discriminated against for your choice] have often also fought for greater freedom of speech, yet this connection seems to have become largely forgotten nowadays.

In a British context, John Milton spoke out for freedom of religious choice in the seventeenth century, calling for the right to question and for “the liberty to know, to utter and to argue according to conscience above all liberties”. And, Milton and other writers, such as Defoe and Bunyan, also spoke up for dissenters [a term for those who didn’t conform to the state religion] and for the right to disagree and to debate. Indeed, they themselves were often considered dissenters and wrote some of their most famous works about freedom either in prison or in the face of considerable adversity.

Of course, both history and the present day have many examples of laws associated with religion and free speech being misused to protect established hierarchies and the status quo, as well as to quash freedom of speech. However, the challenge is there, not only to recognise and deal with these legal deficits, but also for those who embrace the freedom to choose a religion, to embrace others’ rights to choose a different religion or a set of beliefs that does not include religion.

Acceptance of religious freedom also means that there will be differences and disagreements, which will need to be recognised. Yet, those who use their version of a religion to justify violence appear to be unwilling to accept religious freedom when it comes with the right to challenge, satirise or dismiss other people’s views. And, in many places, religious sensitivities are now being used once more as a way of closing down debate or of stopping comedians and satirists addressing specific topics. In every corner of the world, there are now questions about religion and freedom and their relationship is therefore likely to remain a moot subject for the rest of this decade, if not for much of this century

All photographs courtesy of Steve Evans

About the debate:

It is in this contemporary environment that Index on Censorship brought together a mixed team of speakers (bibliographies below) to look at how religious freedom and freedom of speech relate to one another, asking questions such as: Does freedom of religion and freedom of speech come as a package or can you pick and choose? Do those people who suggest freedom of expression should be “civilised” and that we should be wary of causing offence to people’s religious sensibilities have a point? Or, are there too many people who are easily offended and our attempts to be polite actually significant obstructions to the discussion of important issues?


Anthony Clavane is the author of Promised Land, described as “glorious” by The Guardian and, in 2011, named both Football Book of the Year and Sports Book of the Year. His latest book, Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, about Jewish involvement in football, was shortlisted for the 2013 Football Book of the Year. He writes for the Sunday Mirror and contributes to Index on Censorship. His two plays, Promised Land and Playing The Joker, have both been performed in Leeds, with the latter also appearing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Chris Bond is the Yorkshire Post‘s assistant features editor. He has worked at the newspaper for the past 14 years and for the last decade has been a feature writer. He is also the author of Ashley Jackson’s biography An Artist’s Life, published in 2010, and has interviewed the likes of Alan Bennett, Michael Palin, Sean Bean and John Hurt.

Qari Muhammad Asim, MBE, is senior imam at Leeds Makkah Masjid. He is also a senior lawyer in the global law firm DLA Piper and a visiting fellow at Leeds Becketts University, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate. Qari has authored, or contributed to, a number of books, including Internet & Society, Our Children: Our Future, Islam & Health and What Islam Says About Terrorism, Identity and Citizenship.

Rachael Jolley
edits the Index on Censorship magazine. Having started as a news reporter at a local newspaper, she moved on to writing for magazines, newspapers and websites, including The Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian. She has written on politics, business, personal finance and money and has been an editorial director at the think tank British Future, a managing editor of the monthly magazine Business Traveller and an editor of Business Traveller Middle East.

The Big Bookend Festival and Index on Censorship:

This event took place within the framework of Leeds’ 4th Big Bookend Festival, which you can read more about here and whose programme for 2015 can be found here.

The debate itself was organised by Index on Censorship and stems from the spring edition of their magazine, which looks at how migrant stories are told and analyses the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. To read more about this edition click here, to find out more about Index per se, click here to visit their website.


In the build up to the debate, Index on Censorship also released their summer edition looking at the state of academic freedoms around the world and “no-platforming” and “trigger-warnings” for potentially offensive themes. This issue looks at how academic debates are falling foul of such legislation and at how, in some countries, education is increasingly becoming expected to toe the official political line. You can find out more about the contents of the new edition here, including details of an interview with Alexander Litvinenko’s widow and why the Polish Catholic Church is upset by Winnie the Pooh’s lack of gender.

For the already converted, Index on Censorship‘s subscription page can be reached here, where you can acquire six years of digital archive access and a year’s worth of print copies delivered to your house for just £32.


Related Eurozine articles:

French Republican values and free speech by Arthur Asseraf:

Free speech and “those” in power by Jens-Martin Eriksen, Frederik Stjernfelt:

Not religion’s enemy, but its protector by Ian McEwan

Republic and pseudo-jihad by Mohamed Amer Meziane (in French):

Against the grain by Brian Whitaker:

Eurozine also currently features a focal point on the politics of privacy, which features several articles related to the themes of this debate: