Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Mansion House Speech : Antidote to Blasphemy v. Free Speech Arguments is Respect and Civility

Tuesday 7th February 2006

This speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury, at a dinner given by the Lord Mayor of London for the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England at the Mansion House, followed the press coverage of Muslim protests about cartoons that had been published in a Danish newspaper.

Antidote to Blasphemy v. Free Speech Arguments is Respect and Civility

It is impossible to speak about these things just at present without mentioning the events of the past week. The controversies over free speech versus blasphemy and offence have cast quite a shadow over the prospects of increased trust between different cultures and faiths and I don't want to take your time with detailed comment of analysis. But there are a few things that it might be worth saying in this particular context.

The Western World likes to think that it is inviting other cultures into a peaceful and enlightened atmosphere of civility. But the 'strangers' invited in may well be dismayed to discover that this peacefulness and enlightenment seems to include licence to express some very unpeaceful and unenlightened attitudes to minorities of various kinds. Just what kind of 'civility is this? the newcomer could ask.

Enlightened attitudes are - understandably - seen by minorities as a refusal to believe that others take their convictions seriously. And, as the Independent on Sunday observed in an insightful editorial comment, 'Can't you take a joke?' is the immemorial alibi of bullies - anti-Semites, racists, misogynists.

Much depends on perception. Seeing things through someone else's eyes is hard work. An enlightened Westerner may perceive Islam globally as powerful and threatening and not begin to feel what it is like to belong to what is locally a minority, economically challenged, culturally marginal and the object of fear and prejudice. An Islamist agitator of a certain kind sees a huge Western conspiracy aimed at destroying Islam and doesn't see that a Western liberal often only wants to be left alone, not to destroy anything.

Bullying can reinforce the self image of being a victim, and of being righteous because of being a victim. And this in turn can lead to the reaction 'I want to be the one doing the bullying.' Hence the random and hysterical violence - destructive and self-destructive - that can be bred when there is no good way of dealing with bullying. One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is that God meets exclusion and brutality with a powerful, resourceful love that can change the terms of the relationship. And that is a truth that not only Christians can accept.

So many of our moral standoffs are a confrontation of mirror images. Foolish and offensive attitudes among opponents or strangers ought to show us something of ourselves. If Western and Islamic societies face each other in a furious, smouldering stalemate, everyone ought to be asking questions about how the marginalised and the minorities are treated. We ourselves have to face what Islamophobia means; some Muslim societies have to face their issues with minorities or their collusion with anti-Semitism - as many, many Muslims fully recognise.

I used the word 'civility' earlier on and it is a good word to use in this place. Civic and civil life develops because cities develop, plural communities in which commercial, cultural and intellectual exchange creates mutual bonds and shared patterns of political life. Cities means citizens. Civility is the condition of patient co-operation between strangers. It is not the wholly-owned subsidiary of Western enlightenment - there is a huge literature on Muslim cities of the Indian sub-continent, or of our own Middle Ages - but a project we - all of us - need to work on together; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, secularists. The bully and the victim, the vicious circle of violence, scorn and resentment and revenge are the opposite of civic life.

The citizen, giving and receiving respect, is what the life of this city and any city takes as its ideal. We can honour that and work for it to be the ideal for all of our societies.

© Rowan Williams 2006

Back · Back to top