Western values under attack? Not just a European problem

Western values are much in the news at the moment, notable in the newly enhanced relationship between Europe and Turkey. Europe it appears is willing to make significant concessions towards Turkey in a bid to resolve their refugee crisis, particularly as uncontrolled migration has subjected Europeans to increasing fears over security, the unproven ability to integrate newcomers and the financial implications of housing and welfare provisions for upwards of one million people in Germany alone.

The decision to co-opt Turkey as the prime mover in halting people smuggler routes into Greece has always been a curious one, especially as it appears to handover border security for Europeans to a nation with fundamentally different understandings of freedom and notably a core freedom: freedom of speech.

Underlying the new European-Turkey partnership there are deep questions for all western societies. Is this another case of the western world with an obsessive desire to remain open and tolerant having negotiated away the very values which ensure that this is possible? Recent experience with Turkey suggests that Europeans not only made financial concessions, but more importantly “values” concessions including the freedom of expression.

The Turkish Government under President Erdogan has vigorously suppressed press freedoms in Turkey. As recently as 4 March 2016, Turkish Security Police have conducted raids on the Turkish newspaper Zamen, arresting editors and staff, confiscating journalist material and suppressing protests. Many journalists, activists, opposition academics and business people are now leaving Turkey afraid of arrest and prosecution under newly enhanced terrorism laws.

The off-handed treatment of European free speech practices can be witnessed most clearly in the diplomatic scuffle over a harmless two minute comedy sketch aired on the German public broadcaster Lampooning Erdogan. The Turkish reaction saw the German Ambassador summoned to explain and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel acceding to a Turkish request to prosecute the comedian.

If freedom of the press, freedom of expression and artistic freedoms are so feebly defended, can we any longer talk in a significant way of “Western values”.

Nevertheless, before we in Australia loudly protest that such things could not happen here, they already do and we ourselves do little about them. The Australian Catholics Bishops 16 page pastoral letter “Don’t Mess with Marriage” was widely distributed to parents of students in the nation’s Catholics schools in late 2015. The document speaks out strongly against discrimination towards those who are same sex attracted, yet reaffirms the legal definition contained in the Marriage Act 1961. Tasmania’s Gay and Lesbian Rights Group describes “Don’t Mess with Marriage” as denigration and demeaning and have brought Tasmania’s Archbishop Julian Porteous before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission. The Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group accuses the Tasmanian Archbishop of “child abuse” and “hate crimes”.

Whether it’s the President of Turkey or the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group, the practical reality is that they both seek to do the same thing: suppress free speech for ideas they disagree with and ensure an environment of fear where others will also not tread.

Western values under attack? Sure, but it’s not just a European problem.

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