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.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (12): The Scope of Criminal Law in Different Countries or Cultures, and Its Effect on Human Rights

Different countries and different cultures make different choices about the appropriate scope of criminal law. Some actions which are legal in one country are illegal in another.

The two tables below list a number of action types (certainly not all) and whether they are legal or illegal. This table can be used to classify countries or societies according to the degree of freedom that they grant their citizens. The legalization of some actions makes countries more free, the legalization of others less free. (And the same for the choice whether or not to criminalize certain actions). This table can therefore be used to distinguish between countries or societies that are more free or more “liberal” than others which are more authoritarian or more “illiberal”.

The distinction between countries can be made by attributing a certain score to each action and then making the sum. The scoring could be done like this: add a point when a country or society is best described by the right column, and subtract a point for the left column. Countries with high marks are then liberal, countries with low marks illiberal.

For example, if we would like to score the U.S., this country would be given one point for allowing gun ownership, making it a bit more “liberal” (I know this label doesn’t really fit U.S. politics, in which a favorable view of gun ownership is a rather more “conservative” than “liberal” position. But “liberal” here should be understood not in the context of U.S. politics but simply as meaning “more free”). However, the U.S. would lose a point because it has allowed torture. Done for every type of action, this scoring should then give an overall impression of the country, or of any other country.

I don’t intend to attach any moral significance to these terms, “liberal” and “illiberal”. One isn’t necessarily good or the other bad. More freedom isn’t always a good thing. The terms “liberal” and “illiberal” merely describe the degree of freedom in a country.

Now, the interesting thing from the point of view of human rights, is that liberal societies, in general (as can be seen from the tables) are more favorable to human rights than illiberal ones. So the table can be used to classify societies according to their respect for human rights (and then the distinction does take on a moral character). But this isn’t completely true, for two reasons:

  • Some human rights issues, such as health or poverty, aren’t included in the table, because they aren’t relevant from the point of view of criminal law. But they can and should change the score: a society that scores as “illiberal” from the point of view of criminal law, can improve its score as a “human rights respecting country” when it offers its citizens good health care and income (but of course this doesn’t excuse the human rights violations resulting from its criminal law). Or vice versa.
  • It’s debatable whether more freedom for certain actions results in more respect for human rights. One can think of pornography or abortion. So an extremely liberal society is perhaps not the best one from the point of view of human rights.

A correct distinction between more or less liberal countries should not only include the scope of criminal law, but also the severity of punishment when a crime is committed. Societies that have the same scope for criminal law as others, but use capital punishment, corporal punishment, mutilation, stoning or torture as methods of criminal punishment, should be classified as less liberal.