Friday, 10 July 2015

Should Human Rights Always Outweigh Religious Rights?

This is my second post discussing and commenting on a BBC Big Questions Debate video. The first post was about whether evidence undermined peoples beliefs in their religions. That particular debate covered issues such as evidence, or lack thereof, of god, evolution, the historicity of the bible and supernatural phenomena such as faith healing, resurrections and demons. I felt that that debate was was easy for me to comment on because, in my opinion, some of the things being said in it were so obviously silly that I had very little reluctance or qualm in typing my oppositions to them. This post is not as easy for me to write because the topic is less clear-cut. The previous post/debate was essentially about science vs. religion and in my view had very few grey areas. Basically, I was not particularly moved by any of the arguments against the positions I hold. The debate I will comment on now is a little different as it is about morality, ethics and laws. I usually shy away from commenting on such topics, not because I don't hold strong opinions on them but because it is more subjective and I'm constantly second guessing myself about my positions. Anyway, let's throw caution to the wind and discuss video titled: Should Human Rights Always Outweigh Religious Rights?

As with the first post, I will discuss and comment on what people say in the debate and not so much on the topic itself. I'll also go through the video chronologically with the time shown in brackets. Before I get into this video I just wanted to say that I find it encouraging that the video is hosted by, I assume, a channel created by a Muslim person. This in a way dispels the myth thrown by some people that Muslims aren't open to debate. Anyway, that is a topic for another video and blog post.

I want to begin by saying that I completely agree with the first speaker, Davis Mac-Iyalla, who says that (2:05) human rights should outweigh religious rights because all the good parts of religion e.g. love your neighbour, feed the poor etc. are universal and natural to all humans regardless of faith. I don't really want to comment too much on where morality comes from other than to say I believe it is a product of evolution and we humans with our fancy morals are just a continuation of a process that pre-dates us. You can read more about the origins and discussion of morality here and here. Davis continues then to say that discrimination against certain groups like homosexuals is largely rooted in religious ideas and teachings and that religious people want special rights with regards to such issues. It is no secret that the Bible (Genesis 19:1-13; Leviticus 18:22;20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9) and the Qur'an (7:80-847:8126:165-166; Hadith: Abu Dawud (4462); Abu Dawud (4448); Bukhari (72:774); al-Tirmidhi, Sunan (1:152)) have passages that say that homosexuality or homosexual behaviour is a sin with very severe punishments. Human rights, as Davis says, does not discriminate and is for everybody. The host then asks Davis about respecting other peoples beliefs and traditions. Davis, rightfully, says that any community that excludes/restricts another community from participating fully in society is not to be respected. Any such beliefs or traditions that discriminates is not universal and therefore lesser than human rights. Rev. Betty King (4:25) responds by saying that she and others also have the freedom to believe and practice their religion. She says that people like Davis shouldn't have the right to force her to accept his rights or views. I agree that people should be allowed to practice their religions but problems arise when some religions have elements within them that are discriminatory and thus are in conflict with human rights. In such conflicts it is my view that human rights should trump religious rights. Of course, each conflict between religious rights and human rights should be considered and judged individually. Betty says that homosexuals wanting to marry or have relationships is their choice but she shouldn't have to accept it as being ok. I agree with Betty but I don't think anyone is arguing, in a court anyway, that she should be forced to accept it or change her view that it is a sin. What she has no right to do is to discriminate people in the public sphere based on her religious beliefs.

The discussion moves (~10:25) to the specific cases of the Cornish B&B and the French Niqab ban. The B&B case involved a gay couple who were refused a double room because the owners, who are Christians, have a policy where unmarried couples cannot share a double room together. Initially, I was unfamiliar with the details of the case and felt that perhaps the gay couple were not discriminated upon based on their sexual orientation since the unmarried couple rule applies to all guests. However, after reading the summary of the Supreme Court Judgement I was convinced that it was discrimination, at least indirectly. The B&B owners have a Christian idea of marriage and even if the gay couple were in civil union the distinction is one solely based on sexual orientation and so the owners refusal to allow them a double room is indirect sexual discrimination. On the case of the French niqab and Burqa ban I am against the European Court on Human Right's (ECHR) ruling to uphold it. I am also against the niqab and burqa. I think it's an anathema to civil society. I think the two items of clothing are a result of patriarchal and sexist ideas and traditions. However, it is those sexist traditions that we should be against and not the women who freely choose to wear the niqab or burqa. Therefore, I am against the French ban or at least the way it has been applied. The ban, if any, should be very specific to certain places such as airports, classrooms, courts etc. I sympathise with the argument that the idea of 'living together' is very important and the French government has a role to play in furthering and protecting that idea. However, I agree with the dissenting opinions of Judges Angelika Nuβberger (Germany) and Judge Helena Jäderblom (Sweden) who say that people also have the right to be 'outsiders' in society and the French Government's aim of discouraging the wearing of full-face veils could have been accomplished by less restrictive measures, for example, through awareness-raising and education. They concluded that it is the very task of the Court to protect religious minorities against disproportionate interferences. My main reason for objecting to the ban is because I feel it will and most likely has excluded some women from participating fully in society. I don't believe these women should be afraid to go outside for the fear of being prosecuted. Anyway, I recommend you read the opinions of judges Nuβberger and Jäderblom as they're far more eloquent than my ramblings on the case. In the Big Questions debate, Sahar al-Faifi (11:13) is asked what impact a similar ban in Britain will have on her life. I completely sympathise with her that such a ban would prevent her from being the active member of society that she is now. It is interesting to hear Betty King's opinion on the French ban(12:43) as it seems like a complete contradiction to what she said previously. Betty's argument that the French ban is justified on  terrorism and security reasons is total rubbish in my opinion.

Rev. Lynda Rose claims (21:40) that there exists B&Bs owned by gay people that also discriminates against heterosexual people by being 'gay only'. If there are such places and someone does decide to bring a case against them then those gay only B&Bs would most certainly lose. She then goes on to say that she feels Christians are close to being persecuted because, as she puts it, Christians are being prevented from speaking about traditional Christians faiths. I think she is clearly confused between the right to hold and speak about faith and the right to persecute others based on that faith and Charlie Klendjian rightly points that out to her (22:51). I think Lynda Rose is nostalgic about the 'good old days' when Christianity was a greater part of British society and had greater influence and privilege.

The host moves the debate on to the topic of apostasy (33:25) and the right of anyone to leave their religion. This is another case where human rights should override religious rights or rulings. This is a particular problem in Islam as there are verses in the Qu'ran and the Hadith that are clearly anti-apostasy and seem to call for the death penalty in some cases. There are many countries in the world where the death penalty exists for apostasy. There are debates amongst Muslim scholars on this issue and some do not think that the death penalty is right for apostasy and some, in the minority, view that it shouldn't even be a crime. I simply cannot see why people can't just take the simpler and better position that everyone has the right to religion as well as the right to leave their religion without being persecuted, instead of all these debates over 1400 year old texts. However, regardless of how silly I view these debates to be I still believe these debates amongst Muslims are a good thing and should continue. I just feel that people are trying to converge towards the Universal Declaration on Human Rights but are shackled and slowed down by certain religious ideas. Also, it is not just an issue for certain Muslim majority countries, as Dr. Stephem Law points out (34:45), there are surveys of British Muslims where a large minority (36%) hold the position that apostasy should be punishable by death.

At 34:22 the issue of circumcision is raised. I agree with Stephen Law (34:49) when he says that we as a society would not accept other forms of physical alternations to a child e.g. tattoos or other markings, based on the parent's religious or cultural beliefs and so there is no good reason why we should accept that circumcision is allowed. Just because a lot of people do it doesn't mean it is right. The child has no choice and there are medical and safety issues with this. Rabbi Neil Janes disagrees with this position (37:10). He says that children have no choice on a lot of things and so it must be OK that they also do not have a choice whether part of their body is cut off. I find this kind of reasoning and argument style particularly abhorrent and I see this line of thinking from a lot of religious people. They try to link something that is clearly bad to other things that are not bad in an attempt to make the bad thing seem OK. He then gives a lot of platitudes about the difficulty of being a parent in the 21st century. Is he really making the case that: parenting is difficult therefore cutting baby's penis is OK? He then goes on to say that parents don't do it with the intention of harming their child and that unlike some parts of the world, in the UK people who perform circumcision are medically trained and it is safe. The first part about the intentions of parents is another diversion tactic. The point isn't whether the intention is bad or good. The point is that these children do not have a choice and it is a body modification that may harm them. Also, it doesn't matter if the UK has medically trained people doing them and so the risk of harm is less than other parts of the world. There is no good reason for it and therefore even a small risk is not justified. The rabbi seems to be performing mental gymnastics in order not to see the cutting of a child's genitals as anything other than mutilation. A member of the audience (41:20) ask whether the parents right to bring up their children as part of their community is being denied. It seems as though the point that one person does not have the right, whether that is religious or cultural, to infringe on someone else's right, has not sunk into the minds of some people in the audience. Charlie Klendjian has to point out (42:35) that the right to manifest your religion or cultural identity has to stop at someone else's body.

Gender segregation is debated at 44:00. The two Muslim women argue that segregation, I assume they are talking about it in regards to UK, is voluntary and that it is their right to practice their Islamic beliefs and traditions. Furthermore, they only claim that right in some Islamic venues and not in public places. As with the niqab, I feel the segregation of men and women is the result of patriarchal ideas and traditions and that we should remember that when we hear some women claim that it is their choice to be segregated. Human beings do not always do things that are good for them. However, I am not sure if I am for a blanket ban on segregation in all places. If a certain private venue chooses to reserve a certain area/portion of seats to women only whilst also having a section where both sexes can sit together then I don't have too many issues with that. Again, my fear is that if we completely ban segregation then some women will feel that they cannot take part and so we are isolating those women and preventing them from participating fully in society. I also, however, understand that by providing segregated areas you inadvertently legitimise it and may even propagate the idea further in peoples minds and society in general. Education is the way forward. It is a longer road but we should teach people that there is no good reason to feel that you should be segregated based on sex.

At 51:25 two gentlemen in the front row decide to show everyone their t-shirts depicting cartoons of Jesus and the prophet Muhammad. I think this nicely brings us onto the topic of freedom of speech and religious rights. One of the men wearing the t-shirt asks (52:10) the two Muslim women about his right to wear what he wants whilst acknowledging that he accepts their right to wear the niqab etc. Sahar responds (52:30), quite predictably, by refusing to answer the question and then saying people are picking on the Muslims. She claims that the segregation issues was promoted in the media by a group she calls far-right and Islamophobic. This is a tactic used by some Muslims to stifle debate by throwing around the word 'Islamophobia'. As if the issues regarding the covering of women, the segregation of women etc. do not exist and are not part of Islamic communities. Doesn't matter if the issue of segregation was raised by a far right group or not. Is the issue itself is something that needs further light and discussion on, is the real question. Far too often I see criticism of Islam or Muslims being labelled Islamophobic to scare or guilt people into not speaking out. There are genuine problems of hate attacks against Muslims and other minorities but people should listen to what is being said and consider the issues carefully before using the term 'Islamophobia'. The second Muslim lady on the front row was at least honest enough to say (53:28) that these two men do not have the right to wear that particular t-shirt. Both Muslim women claim that it offends them. One of the men replies and asks them if some members of society takes offence to the niqab should those people also be justified in wanting to take away the Muslim women's right to wear it? Some people, Muslims in the case of depictions of their prophet, seem not to understand that they do not have the right not to be offended. Doesn't matter if the cartoons, or whatever is causing the offence, is crass or not. One of the Muslim women asked why those two men choose to do so. Firstly, it is their right in a liberal, civilised society and secondly and precisely because of the reaction, in some cases violent reaction, from parts of the Muslim community. I think it is a problem that Muslims feel they are somehow privileged and so can demand the rights of others to free speech be curtailed. Not only that but in some cases actually call for the death and murder of people who insult their prophet and their religion. As long as there are these violent reactions against free speech, then people will continue to fight against those views by exercising their right to offend. Remember, people choose to be offended by something. I could choose to be offended by many things but I don't and even if I am offended I don't have the right to tell someone that they don't have the right to offend. Also, it is not Islamophobic to say that it is largely a Muslim issue and not a Christian, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist issue. You do not see the same kinds of violent reactions e.g. violent street protests, burning of embassies, issuing of fatwas, murder of cartoonists etc. or calls that people shouldn't have the right to offend coming from other religions. At least not to the same extent.  People have the right to say that they are offended and be upset by other people mocking their religion but nobody has the right to take away the right to criticism that may or may not cause offence. Once these kinds of reactions from a significant part of the Muslim community are no longer prevalent then many people will not go out of their way to offend Muslims. The reaction of the people claiming to be offended should be an important factor in any discussion. The girl who comments at 53:25 equates offence with threat against her and other Muslims. She claims that particular cartoon threatens her religion and her right. I'm not sure what right she is referring to. Those cartoons and similar things are only a threat to people who believe that their religion should be immune from mockery. Maajid Nawaz  (53:50) seems to to be the only sane Muslim to speak about this so far. He says that neither he nor his god are offended or threatened by a silly little cartoon. David Lamy (54:12) agrees that people have the right to offend but says that a measure of a civilised society is how it treats minorities. True, of course but I hope he is not saying that it is more OK to criticise or mock a group if they are the majority. That minority religions, no matter the contents of those religions, should be protected more than a majority religion from offence? His comment that we should hear from Muslims who are offended is a platitude. Muslims, like everyone else, have the right to say they are offended and nobody is trying to take that right away from them. It is true that just because you have the right to offend doesn't necessarily mean that you should offend. However, when people see the kinds of reactions from some Muslims to cartoons and then some of these people choose to wear t-shirts with a cartoon mocking the Islamic faith then they have every justification to do so. It seems like madness to have to tell some people, in the 21st century, that they do not have the right to take away other people's right to free speech because it may offend. Just ask yourself this question: out of two people; one wearing a t-shirt mocking religion and one saying that the other has no right to wear that t-shirt -- who is more dangerous to the long-term health of a liberal society? 


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