Should human rights outweigh religious rights?

We were invited to argue the case for the proposition on The Big Questions last Sunday.

By Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis of LSE SU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society

Should human rights outweigh religious rights? We were invited to argue the case for the proposition on The Big Questions last Sunday. As novices to television, we spent a week refining and rehearsing our arguments for the big day.

In the event, we needn’t have bothered, because the defining irony of secularism is that there is no better advertisement for it than the uninterrupted ramblings of a group of religious monomaniacs.

The Reverend Lynda Rose claimed that Britain was “very close to seeing active suppression of Christians which will lead to persecution …we’ve seen this happen before in Nazi Germany”.

Her proposed inoculation for the emergence of the Fourth Reich in Canterbury involved giving Christians the right to refuse gay couples entry to their B&B’s: it wasn’t born of homophobia, she assured us, but because her religion deplored cohabiting unmarried couples (in an entirely unrelated aside, the Reverend campaigned tirelessly against last year’s Marriage [Same Sex Couples] Bill).

So, the presenter Nicky Campbell asked her, would she support the right of Muslims and Jews to not sell alcohol and pork, as was demanded recently at Marks & Spencer? Alas. “If you are going to have those problems you should not work on the tills” , she responded.

Meanwhile, her co-religionist, the Reverend Betty King, whose heavy workload of exorcisms perhaps clouds her capacity for consistent reasoning, argued cheerfully for her right to manifest her religious beliefs but said she would “applaud” a ban on the niqab.

Now, there is a genuine progressive case against the niqab, but as the protagonists of the Jesus and Mo kerfuffle it was hardly our place to advocate dress codes; so, in a spirit of something approaching solidarity, we conveyed this sentiment to the panel’s two Islamist apologists (dressed in a hijab and a niqab) and enquired whether they would reciprocate by supporting our right to wear the t-shirts.

No! Why would you want to offend religious faith?”, they cried, concluding the episode’s advisory about the consequences of entrusting your freedoms to religious monomaniacs.

As slippery as these peddlers of exclusive rights are the fair-weather rights crusaders. David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, had movingly attacked the Rev. King’s homophobia, likening the B&B exclusion to the signs of ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ that greeted his immigrant father in the 1950s. Shortly after that, he entreated us to  “respect” those defending gender segregation at public universities in the UK.

When Mr. Lammy was pressed on whether the right to freedom of expression included the right to offend, there was a pregnant pause (during which he, presumably, recalculated his electoral majority) before he replied with “yes, but just because you have the right to offend doesn’t mean you should go on to offend”, his answer overstaying its welcome by precisely seventeen words.

We find that his attitude embodies the exasperating current fixation with according unearned ‘respect’ to people’s beliefs, in the pursuit of a mythical Eden of harmony that would appear if only we stopped offending each other. To us, this ‘respect’ seems to serve only to prop up unworthy ideas, and is intrinsically doomed, since those who claim it are not inclined to return the gesture.

Instead, we find that it often conceals our indifference to the imperilled rights of women from ethnic minorities, escalating from the right to choose where to sit to the right to choose whom to marry or even the right to their bodily integrity. We recognise their community’s title to them before we recognise their individuality, a notion we would never accept for ourselves.

Mr. Lammy cannot summon the will to defend unequivocally the rights of Muslim women like Lejla Kuric, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Sara Khan, Tehmina Kazi or Sheema Khan, who oppose segregation in principle and in practice, because he has already swallowed the narrative of homogeneity, as evidenced by his proud claim that he doesn’t even offer to shake hands with the women at local synagogues “out of respect”.

Worse still, this ‘respect’ is offered most generously to those who scorn most fervently the mores of our shared society.

Hence, Mr. Lammy’s comments deferred not to Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim who represents the finest synthesis of British Islam and does more for the rights and freedoms of Muslims than anyone else in that studio last Sunday, but to the berobed Islamists striving to be most visibly and vocally parochial, who would see Muslim women remain shackled to the yoke of the ‘community’, and who think their disdain for the rights of others entitles their beliefs to greater respect.

These religious apologists provided, unassisted, the episode’s most convincing illustration of why the primacy of religious belief over individual rights militates against everything essential to a civilised society. “I may not agree with what you have to say”, they said, “and I will defend to the death my right to stop you saying it.”

We just got the popcorn and watched.

18 Responses to “Should human rights outweigh religious rights?”

  1. swatnan

    Good article which exposes the duplicity of David Lammy, trying to play it both ways. You don’t make progress or advance the cause of Equality by playing it both ways. So I get annoyed when visiting dignitaries feel it right to cover their heads when visiting a Mosque or Synegogue or Temple or Church. Its just pampering them, and only encourages them to stay as they are and not Reform. Western TV Reporters in the Middle East tend to do this; its no example to set to Islamic women struggling to break free of oppression. Better they go head uncovered.

  2. Stuartm

    If you are visiting a private religious space you should abide by their requests or not enter. If they ask you to cover your head you have the choice to do so or not enter. But it’s no more pandering than agreeing to a request to take off your shoes when entering a neighbors house – what you choose to do in your own house is irrelevant.

  3. Howard Fuller

    Human rights ALWAYS come before religious superstious nonsense

  4. swatnan

    Good point. Most people would take their shoes off so as not to dirty the carpets, but actually covering my head with a skull cap, or scarf, probably not. When I visit the Swaminaryan Temple in Neasden I take off my shoes, but I don’t have to cover my head. And thats the way it should be.

  5. uglyfatbloke

    Great article. David Lammy should hang his head in shame and I’m sure he would if a focus group told him to.
    There should be no such thing as ‘religious rights’, only religious observance and practice in suitable locations. We could start by getting rid of bishops from the house of lords. It’s totally indefensible that they can influence legislation in England where the Cof E is the established church, and that much worse that they can influence legislation for Scotland where they are no more than yet another non-conformist fringe group. like 7th Day Adventists or hare Krishnas..

  6. Ophelia Benson

    Brilliantly said.

    I did love that moment when the tented pair next to you said “No!” I believe I remember a certain amount of laughter in the audience.

  7. GO

    “When Mr. Lammy was pressed on whether the right to freedom of expression included the right to offend, there was a pregnant pause… before he replied with “yes, but just because you have the right to offend doesn’t mean you should go on to offend”, his answer overstaying its welcome by precisely seventeen words.

  8. GO

    Sorry, hit “submit” by mistake!
    I’m going to have to defend those seventeen words. Defending people’s right to say and do offensive things – e.g. wearing golliwog costumes or telling rape jokes – does not mean giving them a free pass to say and do those things without facing any criticism. The right to protest about the behaviour of (say) people who wear golliwog costumes or companies that sell them, and to put pressure on them to change that behaviour, is equally fundamental.
    Your dismissal of those seventeen words is a rather neat, though possibly unintentional, statement of the position that my right to free expression entails your duty not to criticise anything I say or do. This misconception is everywhere, as evidenced by the fact that any time you raise your voice against expressions of racist/sexist/homophobic points of view, you are sure to be met with a response along the lines of: ‘I can say what I like. Stop trying to censor me!’

  9. GO

    I’d draw the line in a different place. Being asked to wear a head covering inside a temple wouldn’t bother me any more than being asked to wear a tie at work, or dark clothes at a funeral; this is just the stuff of cultural traditions about ‘appropriate’ dress. However, I wouldn’t do anything that was a direct expression of religious belief or of respect for those beliefs – e.g. kneeling in prayer or bowing before a holy book – because I’d consider that hypocritical.
    Put it this way: when a religious person visits my house, I consider it appropriate to ask him to remove his shoes, but not to ask him to hold aloft a copy of ‘The God Delusion’ and make a ‘thumbs up’ gesture.

  10. GordonHide

    I think, if you feel inclined to criticise Islam, then you should do so. In this case it’s very important you exercise this freedom as so many people self censor because of threats of violence. If you don’t exercise this freedom when inclined don’t be surprised to lose it altogether.

  11. Greg Tingey

    Why is it, though – and this is especially pertinent in your journal/blog …
    That the political “left” seem especially keen to get down & grovel to the peddlers of Dark-Ages camelherders’ myths?
    These people are, literally, 622 years behind the christians, & boy, doesn’t it show!
    Come to that, are they prepeared to satnd up for the rights of, say Ahmmahdia (sp?) muslims, bitterly persecuted in Pakistan & elsewhere? SOmehow, I think not – it’s a oine-way street.

  12. Charles Baily

    Two other participants caught my attention – the niqab-ed geneticist (sounds like an oxymoron – I can’t see how it works) whose attitudes seemed to be much more tolerant and liberal than those of the Muslim woman next to her; and the rabbi gung-ho in pursuit of infant genital mutilation. I agree so much with your assessment of Maajid Nawaz – the minute traction and huge hostility he attracts says more about the intractability of vocal Islam in Britain than about him.

  13. johndowdle

    In answer to the question, human rights can guarantee freedom of belief – however irrational it may be – whereas religious rights do not guarantee human rights; just ask the legions of children abused by clerics if they ever felt their human rights were being kept?
    As far as the TV programme is concerned, I long ago stopped watching it as I find the assortment of nut cases being paraded before us anything but amusing.
    Most of them are ideologically ludicrous and any reasonable person can see this – as the writers of this article clearly illuminated for us all.
    Perhaps one day there will be a genuine programme on TV that will reflect what we as humanists and secularists actually subscribe to but I suggest no one holds their breath waiting for this to happen; it could be really injurious to attempt such a course of action.

    The cowardice of politicians is really hard to understand but this is what happens when you get excessive concern for marginal voters, I am afraid. Their principles simply go out of the window until after the time next general election has been held.
    As much as I find the actions of people like Lammy distasteful, I find the actions of people like Gove & Co. far more troubling, determined – as they are – to inflict nonsensical religious belief on children. The only problem is: are the alternatives any better?

    There seems little indication that they are. I am appalled by the extent to which politicians try to curry favour with any religious lobby in a squalid attempt to gain votes.

  14. trekker2002

    I was delighted to see Nicky making the two berobed ladies answer the question. Their answer was of course entirely predictable but it is always entertaining to see someone publicly impaled on the horns of a dilemma of their own making and there is always the faint hope that being forced to acknowledge it may open a chink in their mindset. It is either a universal right to dress as one pleases or it is not, it cannot simultaneously be both and the mind that tries to hold both opinions at once will have a hard time doing so.

  15. Jim

    You have the right to say I think you are wrong or that is inappropriate in a polite manner. What you do not have the right to do is to use threats or intimidation to backup your disapproval. For example, I dislike the BNP but I equally detest the NUS tactics of physically preventing them or anyone else whose views they dislike from speaking. That, to me, smacks of the brown shirts in the 1930s. In essense, people you criticise have a right to ignore your protest and carry on saying or doing whatever if they are not beaking the law.

  16. Jim

    Is it the wrong place? Human rights are superior to ‘religious’ rights.This in itself should be self-evident given that human rights are universal whereas ‘religious’ rights only apply to a subset of people and frequently curtail the rights of others outside that ‘religion’. In this context, the OIC attempt in the Cairo declaration to make the UNDHR subservient to sharia law in the 57 Islamic countries in the OIC is pertinent.

  17. Charles Baily

    Two contributors not mentioned, who deserve notice, were the niqab-ed lady geneticist (how does that work? Beats me!) who was noticeably more liberal than the merely hijab-ed woman on her right, and the rabbi gung-ho for infant genital mutilation, who, I suspect, if I presented my new-born girl for labiaectomy in the name of scientology, would join a chorus of righteous indignation.
    The usual sound good sense from Maajid Nawaz, who is now subjected, in addition to the routine death threats, to a campaign of political attack through (bizarrely) Lib-Dem channels.

  18. Charles Baily

    Me, Jim, not Greg! I tried to move my comment to the right place but was told, primly, ‘You’ve already posted that comment! Silly boy!’ At which point I gave up. See in main threads. I agree with you. Nick Cohen very pertinent in today’s Observer – a shining example to left-wing (which I am) appeasers (which I’m not!). There’s a disturbing trend among UK Muslims to behave as though UK law does not apply to them – see the case of a family sent down for beating up and trying to abduct the same-sex partner of another sister, and the vigilante gay-bashing gangs in ‘Muslim areas’. Mini-caliphates?

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