My latest column for the International New York Times is on the debate about segregated public meetings and the meaning of religious freedom. It is published in the INYT under the headline ‘Religious Freedom, Secular Forum’.
Should gender segregation be allowed in Muslim public meetings? That question has created a surprising degree of political heat in Britain over recent weeks.
The controversy began after a number of hardline Muslim student groups insisted that men and women must sit separately at their public meetings and lectures. Universities UK, the official voice of British universities, deemed such segregation to be acceptable so long as women were not forced to sit at the back of the room. The guidance caused uproar, drawing the prime minister, David Cameron, into the debate, and leading an opposition spokesman, Chuka Umunna, to insist that ‘a future Labour government would not allow or tolerate segregation in our universities’. For some, the debate has been an expression of Islamophobia, of the singling-out of Muslim practices for criticism. For others, the attitude of Universities UK demonstrates how many in authority are willing to appease Islamist extremism, and to tolerate the intolerable so as not to offend minority groups.
It is true that many racists have seized on this particular controversy, as they have done with many other issues, to foment hostility toward Muslims. But that only makes it more necessary for progressives to claim issues such as this, to bend them to progressive, rather than racist, purposes. To challenge specifically Islamic practices is not necessarily to be ‘Islamophobic’.
The problems revealed by the controversy are not merely those of Islam: The storm over segregated meetings is merely the latest in a series of clashes. From questions of blasphemy to divisions over same-sex marriage, the fractiousness of such debates reflect growing tensions between some strands of religious thought and the changing demands of a secular society. They reflect also a deep-set confusion over what is meant by ‘religious freedom’.
Most Western societies have, for historical reasons, come to think of ‘religious freedom’ as a special kind of liberty. The modern debate about tolerance and rights developed in Europe from the 17th century onward primarily within a religious framework. Questions about what could be tolerated were, at heart, questions of how, and how far, the state and the established church should accommodate religious dissent.
Today, we live in different world. Religion is no longer the crucible in which political and intellectual disputes take place. Questions of freedom and tolerance are not about how the dominant religious establishment should respond to dissenting theological views, but about the degree to which society should tolerate, and the law permit, speech and activity that might be offensive or hateful, that might challenge the state or undermine national security. From today’s perspective, it is easier to see that religious freedom is not a special kind of liberty, but one expression of a broader set of freedoms of conscience, belief, assembly and action.
Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence. Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as, in so doing, one neither physically harms another individual nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. These should be the fundamental principles by which we judge the permissibility of any belief or act, religious or secular.
Many on both sides of the debate about religious freedom fail to grasp these principles.
Continue reading in the International New York Times.
The painting is ‘Freedom’ by Margareta Jungerth Boo.
I think you clarified the differences extremely well here – I completely agree. Religious freedom certainly means that segregation can be practised within the sphere of religion; just as a woman of course may wear a niqab outside, as long as her employment does not disallow it for pertinent reasons, health and safety for example. However, religious freedoms and the public sphere do not always overlap in such a manner that concerning the niqab. There is absolutely no situation, public meeting, lecture or otherwise, when it is allowable to segregate women. No situation whatsoever. It just is not tolerable – how on on earth can Universities UK have upheld such an obviously religious viewpoint in such a secular setting? It is evidently deplorable.
As an anthropologist trying to grapple, anthropologically, with various political ideologies, I have a question with regard to your essay above.
While I agree with your well-presented article–there seems to me to be a sticking point, of sorts:
You invoke the Harm Principle as the trump, within the relative tolerance and flexibility of a Liberal order, for determining what can ultimately prevail. (You write: “…so long as, in so doing, one neither physically harms another individual nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere”).
But the Harm Principle, as used above, seems to me to only be a sort of “intermediate trump”. It is not the “stopping point”of the argument because the argument can go further: What do you do if a Muslim of a certain persuasion–(also a citizen of the country, same as you)–were to claim that they were harmed by the Liberal principle that is being promoted as a counter-point–and that a lack of gender segregation in the seating arrangements–even in a public place–causes a transgression on “their rights” (as they see it) in the public sphere? In other words–how do you determine whose harm is more significant?–or which harm trumps the other? How do you apply the Harm Principle in the case of “clashing sentiments” (with a certain worry at that phraseology due to its closeness to the problematic “clash of civilizations” idea)?
It seems to me that the ultimate trump in this situation of “clashing sentiments” can only be the normative practice (legally and socially), along with the tradition (including its historical trajectory of developments), of the “native political culture” of the place in question–which in this case (the UK) is Liberalism. So–here I am suggesting that Liberalism be the final trump–and the final “limit” to the dispute. But by giving Liberalism a “limit”, do I compromise the relative tolerance and flexibility of Liberalism itself?
It often seems to me that many people think that Liberalism means that “anything goes”. But Liberalism, even with its relative degree of tolerance for various, even conflicting, orientations–does seem to me to have limits, because anything that is “all things” is “no thing”. But–I have not noticed anything in the political philosophical literature explicitly devoted to the subject of “Liberal limits”. I have seen critiques of Liberalism’s varied failures, (in the estimation of various writers)–but those sorts of “limits” are not what I have in mind here. What I ask is: how does one account for–and justify–the limits of Liberalism to be the ultimate trump in the situation described above without compromising Liberalism’s essential tolerance for differences?–or have I misconceived the whole matter?
Sure, one can define ‘harm’ to mean, in effect, ‘arrangements that I don’t like’. You raise the issue of a Muslim who might insist that not having sex segregation harms him or her. Equally you might have a non-Muslim claiming that he or she finds a woman wearing a burqa threatening and therefore causing them harm (I had a long debate on Twitter with someone making this very claim); or even that the very presence of Muslims in this country causes him harm and therefore should be prohibited. The notion of ‘harm’ has become vastly expanded in recent years, so much so as to become almost meaningless. That is why I specifically drew the line at ‘physical harm’. The question of rights, too, needs to be carefully defined. There is a right to equal treatment in the public sphere. There is no ‘right’ to discriminate. There is a right to free expression. There is no ‘right’ not to be offended.
As for the question of liberalism and its limits, this, as you know, is a vast and contested area that I cannot adequately cover in a short response, especially as one can be liberal in one sense without necessarily being liberal in another. I can, for instance, favour the liberal idea of individual rights, while being critical also of the liberal concept of the individual.
My aim in this essay was to argue for the freedom of the individual to believe as they wish, to express those beliefs and to live by them, except in tightly defined circumstances. My fundamental point is that those limiting circumstances should be the same when is religious or not. Expanding the notion harm as you suggest would vastly expand those limiting circumstances and hence constrict freedom.
You are right that no strand of liberalism means, or could mean, ‘anything goes’. But opposition to ‘anything goes’ can take more than one form. Consider, for instance, freedom of expression. I am opposed to restrictions on the free speech of racists and to the banning of hate speech. But that does not mean that I am for racism or hate speech. Indeed, I have long argued that it is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to robustly challenge bigotry; not to do so is, in my eyes, immoral. But these should be moral issues not legal ones. One can and should, in other words, oppose an ‘anything goes’ attitude to bigotry without insisting on greater state restrictions on speech.
Finally, this is not a matter of defending ‘native political culture’. On the one hand, British political culture is, in my view, deeply illiberal. On the other hand, those who argue for, say, their ‘right’ to segregated meetings are themselves drawing upon the rights discourse of liberalism.
This is essentially another attack on human rights – just like ‘chimp’ rights and the ‘rights’ of corporations.
Religions are basically corporations who answer to the supernatural instead of their shareholders.
Extending ‘rights’ to religions themselves instead of merely supporting the right to practice religion – which should be subject to the same limitations of other rights: (i.e. you have no right to dictate how others behave if they are causing no harm to others) – is an assault on the individual.
Thank you for taking the time for a multi-faceted response. I basically agree with you–I was just trying to tug and pull at the “logic” of (the philosophy of) Liberalism which, like most other things, has to deal with some unexpected surprises in the Age of Globalization. As for behavior-on-the-ground: yes, in my country (the US), as you know, there are illiberalisms as well–although our national ethos is that of a “liberal democracy.
What do you do if a Muslim of a certain persuasion–(also a citizen of the country, same as you)–were to claim that they were harmed by the Liberal principle that is being promoted as a counter-point–and that a lack of gender segregation in the seating arrangements–even in a public place–causes a transgression on “their rights” (as they see it) in the public sphere?
Personally, I’d tell him to fuck off. His ‘rights’ extend to the right to ask people would they segregate themselves voluntarily but he doesn’t have the ‘right’ to impose that segregation upon them.
The default position in the UK is that people should be treated equally. You have to have a damned good reason why someone should be denied a particular right – for instance you have to prove someone is guilty of a crime before you take away their liberty. You have to demonstrate that someone is a danger to themselves or others before you commit someone to a mental hospital. You have to demonstrate there’s an actual danger in someone covering their face before banning an item of clothing because it makes you uncomfortable.
You can’t just say ‘I am denying your rights because you are a woman/gay/black/whatever’ and my God says that’s sufficient.’
Ha ha! Well said!