Religion and Human Rights (21): The Attractiveness of Religious Liberty to Those Who Hate it

Religious extremism

This post examines the relationship between religious liberty and religious extremism. The expression, “religious extremism”, does not only or even mainly refer to terrorism, jihad or sectarianism. Those are only the more flagrant instances of religiously inspired human rights violations.  All religiously inspired human rights violations are covered here by the concept of religious extremism.

Two other remarks may help to avoid misunderstandings. First, this post by no means focuses exclusively on Islam. Although most news stories about religious extremism nowadays tend to highlight rights abuses in Islamic countries or Islamic terrorism, history shows that none of this is the monopoly of any religion.

Second, the existence of religiously inspired human rights violations does not prove that religion as such is necessarily incompatible with human rights. This post does not make that claim. We should be well aware that rights abuses can be inspired by many different ideologies, religious and secular. Moreover, there is ample evidence that the historic evolution of human rights was and still is underpinned by religious motivation. The incompatibility of religion and human rights is the exception. It is limited to some interpretations of some practices of religions. Religion is above all a matter of conviction and belief, and only then a matter of practice. And conviction and belief can never harm human rights, which is why they benefit from absolute protection by human rights.

Religious liberty

Regarding the concept of religious liberty: what is it and why is it so important? Religious liberty is a human right among other human rights. It contains the freedom of belief, the freedom to practice and promote a freely chosen belief, both in private and in public. It is also the freedom to change belief and the freedom to have no belief at all (the freedom to be non-religious, or the freedom from religion).

Here’s the way it’s formulated in the Universal Declaration, article 18:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Religious liberty is in general words the right to be protected against religious coercion and persecution. Of course, one can and does discuss this definition. There is a lot of literature about the precise meaning of religious liberty. I just assume that we can use the definition given here as a working definition for the purpose of this post.

By protecting people against religious coercion, the right to religious liberty promotes a diverse and plural society, even beyond the field of religion. If there can be diversity and debate in something as important as religion, why not in other fields? So religious liberty functions as an example and a benchmark. It promotes diversity and debate in general, and hence it promotes other human rights – such as freedom of speech – which can occupy the free public space created by religious freedom. Religious liberty, in the same manner, promotes tolerance. If people can be tolerant – or, better, can be forced to be tolerant – in religious matters, it will be easier to enforce tolerance in other fields.

As a consequence, religious liberty is of importance to everyone, including non-religious persons, and not only because it protects them against the imposition of a religion. It also allows them, and everyone else, to live in a world of diversity, tolerance and human rights. Religious liberty is therefore an integral part of the system of human rights and of crucial importance to a plural world. It is a prerequisite for the whole system of human rights, but also vice versa. Freedoms of speech, of assembly and of association are religious freedoms as well and are prerequisites for religious liberty strictu sensu.

The attitude of religious extremists towards religious liberty

The relationship between religious liberty and religious extremism is ambivalent. On the one hand, we see that religious extremists, especially those living in democracies, use or better abuse religious liberty to justify certain religious practices and norms which violate human rights. On the other hand, and more generally, religious extremists do not like religious liberty. They are universalists. They want to impose their norms on others and do not want others to enjoy religious liberty. Unbelievers do not deserve freedom because they oppose the laws of God, the only God and the God of all human beings. Man does not have the freedom to violate the laws of God.

Religious universalists naturally try to take over the machinery of the state, because then they can use the law, the police, the judiciary, state education, etc, to bring back the “lost sheep”, against their will if necessary.

[R]eligiously wrong – a motive of legislation which can never be too earnestly protested against.  Deorum injuriae Diis curae.  Injustices to the gods are the concern of the gods.  It remains to be proved that society or any of its officers holds a commission from on high to avenge any supposed offense to Omnipotence which is not also a wrong to our fellow creatures.

The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and, if admitted, would fully justify them.  […] a determination not to tolerate others in doing what is permitted by their religion, because it is not permitted by the persecutor’s religion.  It is a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not hold us guiltless if we leave him unmolested. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty

Universalism is of course inherent in most major religions (perhaps not in Judaism). However, religious extremists go beyond the normal religious tendency of promoting universality by persuasion and voluntary conversion. They try to achieve universality by taking away the religious liberty and other human rights of their opponents. They use force and violence, sometimes even terror and war. Even the members of their own groups often suffer rights abuse because of the objective of universality (for example, punishment for apostasy).

(By the way, universalism is not an exclusively religious phenomenon. We can also find it in many non-religious worldviews such as capitalism and communism. We can observe that these other worldviews also tend to violate human rights if they take their universalism too seriously. One could even claim that the ideology of human rights is a kind of universalism. Fortunately, this ideology cannot permit itself to violate human rights for the sake of its universalism, because that would be self-destructive).

First-level protection against rights violations by religious extremists

I’ve mentioned above that there is a two-way causation, unity and interdependence in the system of human rights (by the way, this is a recurrent feature in the system, even in parts of it unconnected to religious liberty). This unity can help to solve the problem of the violation of religious liberty by religious extremists and the violation of other human rights justified by religious liberty. Religious extremists can violate human rights in two ways:

  • either internally in their own groups, again in two ways:
    • for example, certain religious practices such as gender discrimination, forced circumcision, etc). These practices are often justified as falling under the protection of religious liberty;
    • or by prohibiting exit-attempts (apostasy) – which often occur as a consequence of the previous type of violation – and taking away the freedom of religion in the sense of the freedom to change one’s religion;
  • or externally, in their practices directed at outsiders (for example, forced conversion, terrorism, holy war, etc). These practices can violate only the freedom of religion of outsiders, or also their other human rights.

Now, all these practices cannot and should not benefit from the protection offered by religious liberty. No single human right, including the freedom of religion, can justify human rights violations. Human rights have to be balanced against each other and must be limited when they produce human rights violations. Limiting rights for the sake of other rights or the rights of others is a normal practice in the system of human rights. This system is not a harmonious whole. Rights can be contradictory. Take the right of privacy of a public figure trumping the right of freedom of expression of a journalist. Or the right to life of people in a crowd trumping the freedom of speech of one of them wanting to yell “FIRE!” without good reason.

In the case of religious liberty: one could argue that the right to equal treatment and non-discrimination of women, the right to life of apostates and the religious freedom of adherents of other religions trump the right to some religious practices which would normally enjoy protection under the religious liberty articles.

Second-level protection against rights violations by religious extremists

This first-level protection implies, of course, the enforcement, often by force, of human rights against the will of religious extremists. A better protection would be based not on external force but on internal motivation. The central thesis of this post is the following: notwithstanding the hostility shown by extremists with regard to religious liberty and other human rights, they can be persuaded that they have tactical reasons to accept religious liberty and human rights in general, even if their religious views tell them otherwise. This thesis is based on the force of self-interest as a universal human motivation. It therefore excludes the ultra-extremists who blow themselves up for their religion. They have forsaken self-interest and cannot be convinced to take a course of action based on self-interest. However, they are a minority even among extremists (some of them probably have not forsaken self-interest but are forced to do what they do). So let us concentrate on the other extremists.

There is reason to believe that societies are becoming more and more diverse, culturally and religiously. As a consequence of migration and globalization, states are becoming collections of religious sub-communities. This increased diversity of societies means that religious sub-communities need the protection of religious liberty and other human rights. Even the extremists among them, those who want to coerce, can one day, when the demography has changed, be coerced by the opposing extremists. Therefore, they can be tempted to adopt religious liberty and human rights for their own long-term protection even if these contradict their religious beliefs and practices and their universalist claims. At first sight, a universalist religious extremist may not consider religious liberty and the freedom and equality of all religions as being in his self-interest, or even in the self-interest of the adherents of the other religions. On the contrary, it is in his interest that a maximum number of people convert to his religion. From the point of view of salvation, this is also in the unconscious interest of the people to be converted. He may claim that the latter not only should lose their religious liberty, but also their other rights, and perhaps even their life.

But rejecting the religious liberty and other rights of others means destroying the state mechanisms which he may one day need to defend himself against other extremists who immigrate or become stronger through other means. After all, globalization means that everyone can become a minority everywhere.

It makes sense for a strong majority with universalist claims to reject the rights of minorities, but only in the short-term. In the long term, it’s much more rational to keep the human rights protection mechanisms intact, if not out of conviction, then tactically in order not to cut off the branch one may need to sit on in the future.

Even the protection of human rights internally in a group makes tactical sense. Here it’s not a question of counting on reciprocal respect, if necessary enforced by your own reluctant example or by enforcement mechanisms kept intact by your own groups’ respect for them. Respect for the rights of the members of your own group also helps to maintain a rights enforcing state which can help protect you against other groups.

Of course, this reasoning requires rationality and objective analysis of self-interest on the part of religious extremists, which is perhaps utopian.

Inclusive and exclusive norms

We can put all this in another way by making the distinction between inclusive and exclusive norms. Inclusive norms are norms such as tolerance, freedom of speech, etc. They try to protect plurality and hold different people with different convictions together.

Exclusive norms try to win a competitive struggle with other norms and try to exclude difference. For example, homosexuality is a sin. Religious norms are often exclusive norms, but not always (think of charity for instance) and many exclusive norms are not religious at all (racism for example).

Someone who is attached to an exclusive norm will try to change people, to persuade, convert, perhaps even impose or force. (To stay with my example on homosexuality: there are “clubs”, if you can call them that, in the US where people help homosexuals to “convert” to heterosexuality). So, exclusive norms may lead to rights violations or violations of inclusive norms.  In that case, inclusive norms should, in my view, take precedence. However, for religious people, the commands of God clearly trump human rights. It’s easier to protect inclusive norms against exclusive norms if religious communities have internalized inclusive norms and only promote, rather than impose, their exclusive norms. In doing so they guarantee that the inclusive norms are alive and well when the exclusive norms of other sub-communities start to manifest themselves. Even extremists may be convinced that this is a rational approach.

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.

What Are Human Rights? (21): Dimensions of Human Rights

It’s common to believe that human rights are rights that protect us against the state. Nothing wrong there, except that it’s a gross simplification. Human rights aren’t one-dimensional. For example, there’s a difference between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of human rights: the former one describing the way rights regulate our relationship with our state/government, and the latter one pointing to the fact that it isn’t necessarily the state that violates our rights: our fellow-citizens can do the same, as can citizens of other countries. If rights had only a vertical dimension, it would be difficult, for example, to explain the mayhem caused by so-called failed states in terms of human rights violations.

With a bit of imagination, we can add a diagonal dimension: rights claims aren’t addressed only at the state and fellow human beings; corporations, cultures, associations and other groups can also violate our rights (think of corporate social responsibility, apostasy etc.). Since these entities are somewhere on a level between the levels of persons and the state, we can call this dimension diagonal.

To make things complete, we have to add a final dimension. Human rights are not bilateral, such as the rights created by a marriage contract or a commercial contract. They are omni-lateral, meaning that they are claims directed at all entities within the previous dimensions: every other human being, every state and every intermediary entity can violate our rights. That is what we mean when we say that rights are rights erga omnes.

If we put these dimensions together, we can present it graphically: every human being is situated in the center of a sphere, and the radius, wherever on the surface of the sphere it points, indicates a human rights claim.

Religion and Human Rights (10): Apostasy

Apostasy (from the Greek word for defection) is the explicit and formal abandonment or renunciation of one’s religion. The word has a pejorative connotation and is mostly used by the adherents or dignitaries of the former religion of the apostate. It is used as a condemnation. Most if not all religions consider defection a sin, which is a normal position for any religion to take. Religions, like any other group for that matter, are communities that quite naturally regret the loss of a member and consider such a loss the concern of all remaining members. They try to minimize such losses and to recover the “lost sheep” and bring them back into the “umma”. The word “apostasy” as such may not be frequently used by all religions, but all religions and all groups know the concept.

However, most religions believe that persuasion is the only legitimate tool to keep members in the group and that the sin of apostasy will be punished by God in the afterlife. Only some, and a certain form of Islam is an example, believe that it is up to man on earth to punish apostates. They make apostasy a punishable offense and these punishments are human rights violations in two different ways. First of all, the punishments themselves often inflict harm on the victims thereby violating their rights to bodily integrity or even life. And secondly, they violate the right to freedom of religion.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to change one’s religion:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. (my emphasis)

Islam is often targeted for its treatment of apostates. However, within Islam there are those like Egypt’s grand mufti Ali Gooma, who take a more liberal stance and use the Koran to back up their position. There are three verses in the Koran that are important:

“There is no compulsion in religion”. “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion”. “Whosoever will, let him believe. Whosoever will, let him disbelieve”.

The punishments for apostasy are often not purely religious. Politics is implicated. When a state identifies with a religion and receives its authority and legitimacy from this identification, it naturally wants this religion to be the majority.

Belonging

Belonging to a group is an important human aspiration. People want to belong to something larger than themselves. Belonging gives them an identity. However, groups not only promote but sometimes also hinder the creation of an individual identity. They can, for example, impose ideological or dogmatic rules, practices or beliefs. While some people may desire enforced conformism, others will see it as contrary to their freedom. For the latter, belonging and identity should be a free and voluntary choice. It is important therefore that membership is free and that people are allowed to leave. Groups exist for the benefit of the members, not vice versa.

The fact that membership of a group is a free and non-final choice is not an expression of individualism. Communities are a very important part of an individual’s life, but not all kinds of communities. Individuals as members of a particular group must be able to decide when this group is no longer important or has become harmful. It is not up to the groups to decide that they are an important part of their members’ lives. Individuals decide which groups are important, which groups they wish to join or to leave.

If individuals, who wish to leave a group because this group violates their rights or forces them to conform, are forced to stay, then one uses the individuals as means for the survival of the group. The survival of a group is dependent on the presence of members. Using people as means dehumanizes them.

Self-defeating

If a religion forces someone to remain a member, it defeats its purpose. Someone who stays within a religion in order to avoid punishment is not guided by an understanding of the genuine value of the religion.

We can coerce someone into going to church but we will not make her life better that way. It will not work, even if the coerced person is mistaken in her belief that praying to God is a waste of time, because a valuable life has to be led from the inside. [Such a] policy is self-defeating. It may succeed in getting people to pursue valuable activities, but is does so under conditions in which the activities cease to have value for the individuals involved. If I do not see the point of an activity, then I will gain nothing from it. Hence paternalism creates the very sort of pointless activity that it was designed to prevent. We have to lead our life from the inside, in accordance with our beliefs about what gives value to life. Will Kymlicka