Religion and Human Rights (20): Should a Liberal Society Tolerate Illiberal Religious and Cultural Practices Within That Society?

By a “liberal society” I mean, of course, a society respecting the equal human rights of all its citizens. By “illiberal cultural practices” I mean practices that have a cultural origin and that violate the rights of some of the members of that particular culture. An example would be certain instances of gender discrimination in Muslim migrant communities living in a Western democracy.

Such cultural practices are a dilemma for a liberal society. On the one hand, the society’s commitment to equal rights drives it towards interference within subcultures that violate these rights. This isn’t only a moral imperative. There’s also a legal aspect to it. Equal rights are enshrined in the law of the society, and the equal application of the law is a separate imperative.

On the other hand, a liberal society wants to respect cultural diversity and doesn’t require that migrant or minority communities assimilate to a dominant culture. Freedom of religion, another liberal imperative, also forces a liberal society to accept and tolerate non-mainstream cultures. And, finally, human rights are seen as individual choices: people are allowed to freely abandon their rights if they so choose.

As a result of all of this, a liberal society usually reacts to illiberal cultural practices in the following way: as long as individual members of groups within that society have a right to exit (e.g. a right to apostasy) the state, the law and social forces have no right to interfere with the internal norms and practices of those groups, even when these norms and practices constitute (gross) violations of human rights. If people stay in the groups, then this is assumed to be an expression of their agreement with these norms and practices. Any rights violations that occur are then deemed to be voluntary and no one else’s business. For example, if a Christian church discriminates against its homosexual members, this is deemed to be no reason for intervention as long as homosexuals can freely enter or leave the church.

The problem with this is that there’s not always a free choice to stay within a group, or leave. Choice is often socially constructed. Certain elements within a culture use narratives and other means of pressure in order to encourage other members to “willingly” comply with norms and practices that oppress them. People’s beliefs and preferences are, continually and from a very young age onwards, influenced by the norms and practices of the group they belong to. Hence it’s often very difficult for members of a group to view oppressive cultural norms and practices as illegitimate, even if they are the ones suffering from them. So it’s even more difficult for these members to openly defy these norms, reject them and act to change them. And even when members do understand that the norms and practices of their group are oppressive, it’s often very difficult to leave the group. Leaving may cause an identity crisis. For example, is it realistic to expect an oppressed Muslim woman to negate Islam? Leaving may be too costly, even compared to the gains that result from the end of oppression.

So, the standard liberal solution – let minorities be internally oppressive as long as they allow their members an easy exit – isn’t a solution at all. Personally, I would recommend a stronger insistence on equal rights, even at the cost of intolerance of illiberal diversity.

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