Resolving International Conflicts: Liber Amicorum Tibor Vaarady

By Peter Hay; Lajos Vékás et al. | Go to book overview

The Decline of Free Thinking

GUY HAARSCHER


1. The Left, Free Thinking, and Religion

On March 14, 2007, Caroline Fourest, a journalist on Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, gave a lecture on “the shock of prejudices.” Groups of activist students who were ready to fight tried to prevent her from speaking. With great courage—I moderated the debate and can bear witness to this—she eventually succeeded in being listened to. One would expect that such an indefatigable advocate of secularism and free thinking was the victim of hecklers in a bigot—or even a fundamentalist— audience. But, perhaps surprisingly, the conference was taking place at the Free University of Brussels (ULB), an institution created in 1834, committed to the promotion of secularism, and making free thinking the very principle of its teaching and research.

On February 15, 2008, the Muslim public intellectual Tariq Ramadan participated at the ULB in a debate on “Islam and Enlightenment”. The audience calmly listened to him, respecting his right to free speech, if not always agreeing with the content of his discourse. So the question which triggered my reflection in this article is the following: why should a genuine secularist be verbally assaulted today in the “temple of free thinking”, whereas a Muslim religious preacher generates in the same place (and from the same persons) interest, support and even a sort of fascination?

Of course, such a way of asking the question is not totally adequate: it deliberately omits two key contextual elements, which obviously contributed to the polarization of the audience. When Tariq Ramadan spoke at the ULB in 2008 (it was not the first time), everybody kept in mind the refusal by the academic authorities, one year before, to authorize him to give a lecture on campus. On the other hand, Caroline Fourest works for Charlie Hebdo, whose director Philippe Val was sued for republishing the Muhammad cartoons (out of solidarity with the Danish journalists on the

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