Free and Democratic
Freedom of speech is an important component of any free democratic society. For the most part you can say whatever you want, not necessarily without repercussions, but at least without being persecuted by the state. However, we limit free speech when it infringes on other peoples freedoms; you can possibly face legal consequences for hate speech or libelous statements in certain specific situations. Most people probably consider these limitations to be reasonable. A closely related issue is religious freedom.
Usually in contemporary, free democratic countries religion is separate from the state and individuals are free to practice whatever religion they choose. This however leads to some significant conflicts, particularly when a religion includes beliefs that are contrary to the principles that allow them to exist within free democratic societies. Many governments are currently struggling with the problems that have come with implementing policies that have facilitated the establishment of insular religious communities in their midst.
Striving to keep themselves on the correct side of history, many governments embraced not only freedom of religion but also the progressive idea of multiculturalism. France, Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom among others declared themselves to be multicultural societies. They put in place policies that promoted multiculturalism, and encouraged their immigrant populations to maintain their unique cultural practices. For some countries the concept of multiculturalism became an important component of their identity.
Multiculturalism is a really good idea. In the aftermath of Nazi Germany and the holocaust governments saw what evil could be wrought through intolerance and xenophobia. How could anyone object to policies that did away with prejudice and promoted tolerance for everyone? But, what these governments did not realize was that their promotion of multiculturalism had opened the door to religious extremists that use multiculturalism as a shield, when in reality everything they stand for runs counter to the concept of multiculturalism.
Religious tensions are on the rise throughout Europe. Not all, but most of these cases, are about issues surrounding the accommodation of Muslim beliefs. In France there have been riots and anti-semitic attacks on Jewish communities, as well as conflicts over headscarves and face coverings. In the UK there are Muslim patrols illegally enforcing sharia law on the streets of London. In Germany backlash from both Jewish communities and Muslim communities are influencing policies that intended to ban the practice of genital mutilation. There are countless examples of the difficulties Western governments are facing. In recent years Angela Merkel, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as other leaders and political figures, declared in varying degrees of severity that multiculturalism in Europe was an abject failure. They are wrong; it was not multiculturalism that failed, it was freedom of religion.
Fear and Intimidation
On November 02 2004, Theo Van Gogh was shot and stabbed to death by Mohammed Bouyeri while bicycling to work. Bouyeri was a Muslim fundamentalist. He killed Van Gogh for producing a film that was critical of Islam’s treatment of women. Bouyeri attached a note to Van Gogh’s body with a knife that also threatened Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim turned Atheist and Dutch politician, who had assisted Van Gogh with his film. Hirsi Ali went into hiding and eventually had to leave the country briefly. When she returned she was given secure housing, but was eventually forced to vacate because her neighbors were afraid she would attract terrorists.
A campaign was enacted to discredit Hirsi Ali and shed doubt on her citizenship. In many cases people were afraid to be associated with her. Some people, such as Christopher Hitchens, accused the Government of the Netherlands of cowardice, saying it was shameful that they appeased Muslims rather than defending freedom of speech in a country historically known as a safe haven from religious persecution. Hitchens characterized this as an example of “a supposedly liberal society collaborating in its own destruction.” Hirsi Ali has been forced out of the Netherlands is now a citizen of the United States.
The case of Van Gogh’s murder and Hirsi Ali’s subsequent intimidation at the hands of Bouyeri and his compatriots exemplifies the issues faced by Western governments when trying to deal with supposed extremists who will go to any lengths to kill anyone they deem an enemy of Islam. Hirsi Ali is an apostate; the penalty for that is death and she will live the rest of her life looking over her shoulder. We often hear about moderate Muslims and how we should not judge Muslims based on the actions of extremists. But no one can deny that the penalty for Hirsi Ali is death. It is spelled out very clearly in the Koran, and it is not an extremist view by Muslim standards. Apostasy is often legitimately punished by death in Muslim nations. It is a widely accepted practice that will never be acceptable in a liberal society.
Despite what apologists would have us believe, one has only to look to the Muslim world to see what their idea of a moderate Islam looks like. When Muslims immigrate to free democracies they bring their cultural practices, and they also bring their religion with them as well. Religion should not be included in the definition culture; in reality it stifles culture. It is true that culture and religion influence each other, but they are fundamentally two different things that are often at odds. Also cultural background does not necessarily dictate religion; there are Christian and Muslim Palestinians fighting against Israel, same culture and ethnicity, but different religion. Even among siblings that grew up together we can find different religions. We can change religion but we cannot change where and with who we grew up.
The Great Destroyer
Culture, by its strictest definition, is the collective artistic and intellectual achievement of a society. When we talk about culture, we often include the idiosyncrasies of ethnic groups, such as preference for particular foods, language, and dress, which are arguably still within the purview of artistic and intellectual achievement. However, one thing that we often include that is neither intellectual nor artistic, is religion.
There are some that may make the argument that religion is both intellectual and artistic; some may even say that it is the culmination of both those aspects of culture. In reality it is a cultural anchor that drags it down and holds it back. It censors art and denies intellectual achievements and conclusions drawn from them. For Muslim societies it holds them to systems that are oppressive and primitive. It stifles innovation. It destroys artistic achievements as quickly as it inspires them. One need only to look to European colonialism to see how Aboriginal societies were destroyed by Christianity. Look at the well documented residential schools in Canada, the United States, and Australia where religion was often used as a tool to eliminate Aboriginal language and culture. Religion is the great destroyer of culture.
Granted, there are many works of art we can point to and say they were inspired by religion, but without religion there still would be great works of art; artists would still be inspired. Many things inspire art: war inspires art, murder inspires art, rape inspires art. Just because something inspires art does not mean it is something worth supporting and protecting. We should strive to free culture from religion, not include it in the definition of culture.
Freedom From Religion
What is often cited as the failure of multiculturalism is in reality the failure of too much accommodation; we cannot accommodate practices that isolate in an inclusive society and expect that society to remain inclusive. Cultural practices are only preferences. Maybe someone who grew up in Taiwan likes to eat stinky tofu, and maybe someone who grew up on the East Coast of Canada likes to eat donairs, these preferences are not absolute. The East Coast Canadian and the Taiwanese individuals can eat either stinky tofu or donairs and no one is going to be told they are going to hell. Society is enriched by both of their cultural practices. However, despite their cultural background, if you give a Muslim bacon it is a serious violation of their religion and could potentially result in serious consequences. The only difference with the Muslim is religion. Religion tells this Muslim he cannot eat bacon, and it is absolute. This is why religion cannot be included as a part of a true multicultural society; religion is absolute while cultural preferences are not. We cannot include in multicultural societies practices that exclude or isolate because they allow for no alternatives.
Multiculturalism is about inclusion; this is its fundamental intent. But, to be inclusive does not mean we should include those that seek to exclude. There are good reasons we limit the free speech of those who preach hate and try to limit the free speech others, and we must limit the freedom to express oppressive religious practices for those same reasons.
We cannot accept practices that oppress women. We can not accept face veils. We cannot accept genital mutilation. We cannot accept arranged marriages. We cannot accept honor killings. We cannot accept sharia justice on our streets meted out by gangs of armed thugs. There should be no room in a multicultural society for the accommodation of oppressive religious practices under any circumstances.
Freedom of religion should include freedom from religion. Under no circumstances should institutional accommodations ever be made for religion. What people do in the privacy of their own homes and in their own minds is their choice and they have the right to do those things. As soon as their religious practices infringe on anyone else’s freedom or run counter to the values of a liberal multicultural society they should be denied, in the same way we combat hate speech. Freedom from religion deserves to be a fundamental human right.