REPORT by Didier Vanhoutte
It is to be noted that, on the very day before the meeting took place, we received a message from Sophie in’t Veld’s office to inform us there were changes in the planned list of contributors. We had had no news on the subject for days, but there seemed to be problems, since important names disappeared, such as Caroline Fourest’s, a well-known French advocate of secularism, and that of a representative of UOIF, a prominent French conservative Muslim network…
The members of EPPSP Advisory Board had also received an invitation from one or two of its members to meet at London Tavern before the general meeting, place du Luxembourg, just in front of the main entrance to the Parliament building. I had of course agreed, and immediately invited Sylvie Kempgens to join us, which she readily accepted.
But why did we have to meet there? The alleged reason is that security procedures made it difficult for Sophie in’t Veld to organize our meeting inside the Parliament buildings, as it had always been a rule before.
Another thing which puzzled me – there is a bunch of them – is that I had kept on asking for a report for the November meeting (you certainly remember I could not go for health reasons) to Sophie in’t Veld’s office, repeating my request 3 times, and I never even got an answer. The same thing happened to Jeannine Chambon, who bitterly complained about that last Wednesday.
There were six of us at the London Tavern: Sylvie and myself, of course, plus Jeannine Chambon-Fontaine (Grande Loge Féminine de France), Keith Porteous Wood (British National Secular Society), Tony Van der haegen and Yvan Biefnot (Association Européenne de la Pensée Libre). Alan Frommer, who previously was AB Secretary, did not attend, and seems to have completely withdrawn for health reasons. Elizabeth O’Casey, whom I could see an hour later at the general meeting, can no longer represent anybody at the AB meetings since she is now working for another group. Pierre-Arnaud Perrouty, who was also present later, seems to have involved in other tasks. Elizabeth and Pierre-Arnaud are in their thirties, I think, and are both accredited to EP, and assume other professional commitments there.
In the course of our conversation, there were more questions than answers. Why, at bottom, was it not possible to meet inside the Parliament building? Why could we never get a report about the previous meeting? Above all, what part was the Advisory Board going to play in the future, and with whom? It is clear the reasons to attend EPPSP meetings in Brussels are twofold: attend AB meetings, and then be present at the lectures and debates organized by Sophie in’t Veld (chair), and Virginie Rozière (co-chair). But does sitting in a lecture-theatre for 2 hours or so, whatever the interest, or even asking “one” question, justify the travel and the expanse in the case Advisory Board turns into thin air? AB was supposed to 1) inspire the following lectures, 2) share some sort of involvement with MEPs having an interest for secularism. I could exchange a few informal words with Sophie before the lectures, and above all after. She then acknowledged there was a mutual independence, and it was our responsibility to get organized as we wished; we did not have to be influenced by MEPs, which implied MEPs did not have to be influenced by us… But she eventually promised to think about it and to attempt to organize things differently in the future.
What is also worrying is that unity within AB seems to be questioned. I heard that six years ago, when it was created, AB had 15 members. Many left (Elfriede, David Pollock…), or died (Hubert Tournès…), and EN-RE is apparently the only “religious” group to be still represented (there were three to start with). Besides, three countries, with different approaches, now have representatives: Belgium, the UK and France. It might happen not to be a problem. But it is to a degree. Free thinkers and “secularists” represent Belgium and the UK. Even if I do not represent a country but EN-RE, it would be an illusion not to acknowledge my approach of secularism/laïcité is influenced by my national origin: “laïcité” is not an ideology in anyway, but a simple legal situation (separation, freedom of conscience) made possible by the progress of secularization; it is then open to all beliefs and convictions. And it is true I then heard “oh, yes, laïcité à la française”… I suppose you can imagine I did not leave that remark without an answer, because, being “neutral”, laïcité has no nationality. I must add Jeannine Chambon supported my words.
So we left our informal meeting inconclusive. Since my exchange with Sophie was a bit similar, albeit different in tone – very friendly –, I could not tell what the future is going to be like. I am not desperate, though. We need a bit of wilfulness… Being involved in an action within the European Parliament is a possibility we cannot deliberately drop, and recent events show that the quest for political and social harmony in European societies makes it necessary to consider secularism/laïcité, even if our approaches sometimes differ.
For the first time since I have started going to EPPSP meetings in Brussels, Sophie in’t Veld was not the only MEP to attend. Virginie Rozière made the conclusion speech, and she clearly showed her great interest for the issue. We should certainly also keep in touch with her.
Lectures and debates
Sophie in’t Veld, MEP, Virginie Rozière, MEP
Pierre Galand, President European Humanist Federation
Scott Griffen, IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes
Jean-Pierre Leguay, freemason of the Grand Orient de France
Jacob Mchangama, Director of Copenhagen-based think tank Justitia
Fr. Patrick H. Daly, General Secretary of the COMECE
Jonathan Romain, British Reform rabbi
Two Muslim contributors were expected, Bilal Benyaich, research affiliate at the VUB Political Science Department, and Brahim Laytouss, Imam, director of the Islamic Development & Research, but they were absent, and no explanation was proposed. A great pity, because the exchanges lacked viewpoints of importance these days.
Eight people were then on the platform, and expected to talk, which they actually did. There were three interruptions for debates, in the course of which approximately 15 questions were asked, and answered. Since the meeting lasted about 110 minutes only, you can imagine how fast everybody talked, to deal with a variety of approaches. It was awfully difficult to take notes. Each lecturer speedily read personal notes, so I will ask Sophie’s office to collect those notes in order to dispatch them to AB members, at least. But I do not know if they will spoil their time for such an unrewarding task…
Impossible to propose an extensive report. I will then just select a few points protruding from the rest or summing up what appeared as generally admitted, with no particular reference to the speaker.
- Blasphemy appears when some think freedom of speech is not absolute.
- Plurality of opinion is a fundamental right in democracies.
- Slander against, or discrimination of persons or groups is not allowed by laws.
- Respect is owed to persons, not to ideas or convictions.
- Impertinence must not be taken for an insult.
- The first victims of Muslim fundamentalism are the Muslims themselves.
- Blasphemy exists within religions and can be a means of progress.
- Laws against blasphemy are gradually disappearing.
- Offending the divine is still against the law in some European countries.
- There may be a severe confrontation of religious fundamentalists with those who want to be free to believe or not to believe.
- It is necessary to accept what the others say even when it displeases me. Democracy depends on that. It leads to mutual tolerance.
- Governments sometimes get a little shy and accept to compromise about freedom of speech.
- Secularism is only a law. It allows free speech for everybody (Sophie in’t Veld).
There is definitely a lot to think about after those EPPSP meetingS. No easy conclusion is at hand, and the game is not over. But EN-RE will have to debate on all details, and to be proactive. I am convinced we are needed, and perhaps we will help solve present difficulties. We only have to remember the important parts played by Hubert Tournès, Elfriede Harth or Jon O’Brien…
1 March 2015