More graffiti here.
The ex-gay movement is a movement dedicated to “curing” gay people and helping them to escape their sinful non-hetero lives. One of the treatments is conversion therapy. Rather than accepting gay people as they are and give them equal rights, conversion therapists – who are usually religious extremists – try to impose their own morality on other people. Their most willing patients are homosexuals who are themselves religious and suffer from an inner contradiction between their sexual orientation and their religious beliefs. Conversion therapy starts from the belief that homosexuality is a psychological disorder that can be cured. That is obviously a controversial belief, especially after such incidents:
In 1974, Rekers, a leading thinker in the so-called ex-gay movement, was presented with a 4-year-old “effeminate boy” named Kraig, whose parents had enrolled him in the program. Rekers put Kraig in a “play-observation room” with his mother, who was equipped with a listening device. When the boy played with girly toys, the doctors instructed her to avert her eyes from the child.
According to a 2001 account in Brain, Child Magazine, “On one such occasion, his distress was such that he began to scream, but his mother just looked away. His anxiety increased, and he did whatever he could to get her to respond to him… Kraig became so hysterical, and his mother so uncomfortable, that one of the clinicians had to enter and take Kraig, screaming, from the room.”
Rekers’s research team continued the experiment in the family’s home. Kraig received red chips for feminine behavior and blue chips for masculine behavior. The blue chips could be cashed in for candy or television time. The red chips earned him a “swat” or spanking from his father. Researchers periodically entered the family’s home to ensure proper implementation of the reward-punishment system.
After two years, the boy supposedly manned up. Over the decades, Rekers, who ran countless similar experiments, held Kraig up as “the poster boy for behavioral treatment of boyhood effeminacy.”
At age 18, shamed by his childhood diagnosis and treatment, Rekers’s poster boy attempted suicide… (source)
This story has a strange ending: Rekers, the “therapist”, was recently caught having a homosexual relationship… More about homosexuality, gay rights, and religious extremism. More absurd human rights violations.
I really hope this isn’t true:
Female homicide bombers are being fitted with exploding breast implants which are almost impossible to detect, British spies have reportedly discovered.
The shocking new Al Qaeda tactic involves radical doctors inserting the explosives in women’s breasts during plastic surgery – making them “virtually impossible to detect by the usual airport scanning machines.”
It is believed the doctors have been trained at some of Britain’s leading teaching hospitals before returning to their own countries to perform the surgical procedures.
MI5 has also discovered that extremists are inserting the explosives into the buttocks of some male bombers.
“Women suicide bombers recruited by Al Qaeda are known to have had the explosives inserted in their breasts under techniques similar to breast enhancing surgery,” Terrorist expert Joseph Farah claims. (source)
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.
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 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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
There was some controversy these last days over the decision of the BBC to allow Nick Griffin, leader of the extreme right-wing British National Party, to participate in the discussion program “Question Time”. Here’s an absolutely hilarious remix of that program (it’s only a minute long):
Regarding the controversy: I don’t see why this person shouldn’t be allowed to speak. Extremists also have a right to free speech. For those who feared that his appearance on Question Time would have given him undeserved legitimacy, look at the video above… I rest my case.
A non-cropped version:
Update July 10th 2012: It seems that losing the reigns of government hasn’t changed the Taliban’s habits. Here’s a recent execution just outside of Kabul, of a woman accused of adultery:
I’ve stated many times before in this series about errors and lies in statistics that one of the most important things in the design of an opinion survey - and opinion surveys are a common tool in data gathering in the field of human rights – is the definition of the sample of people who will be interviewed. We can only assume that the answers given by the people in the sample are representative of the opinions of the entire population if the sample is a fully random subset of the population – that means that every person in the population should have an equal chance of being part of the survey group.
Unfortunately, many surveys depend on self-selection – people get to decide themselves if they cooperate – and self-selection distorts the randomness of the sample:
Those individuals who are highly motivated to respond, typically individuals who have strong opinions, are overrepresented, and individuals that are indifferent or apathetic are less likely to respond. This often leads to a polarization of responses with extreme perspectives being given a disproportionate weight in the summary. (source)
Self-selection is almost always a problem in online surveys (of the PollDaddy variety), phone-in surveys for television or radio shows, and so-called “red-button” surveys in which people vote with the remote control of their television set. However, it can also occur in more traditional types of surveys. When you survey the population of a brutal dictatorial state (if you get the chance) and ask the people about their freedoms and rights, many will deselect themselves: they will refuse to cooperate with the survey for fear of the consequences.
When we limit ourselves to the effects of self-selection (or self-deselection) in democratic states, we may find that this has something to do with the often ugly and stupid “us-and-them” character of much of contemporary politics. There seems to be less and less room for middle ground, compromise or nuance (the president of the country is either a Muslim-socialist terrorist friend, or a warmongering Texas hillbilly idiot).
Only days after the attack on Dr. Tiller, the U.S. is shocked by yet another terrorist attack by a right-wing extremist, this time at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Some have questioned the role of the media in all this. It’s true that parts of the U.S. media, especially on the conservative side, are not characterized by nuanced analysis and balanced reporting. There’s a lot of hate speech, stereotyping and shouting on cable news, on the radio and on the internet. So it’s fair to say that there may be a risk that the media are fanning and nurturing extremism and hate in society, and that they may be responsible for pushing sick people over the edge. (See also here).
I personally regret the lack of quality in the media, and I do believe that journalists and pundits should be more careful in what they say and how they say it. But I also believe that critics of the media should be careful when deciding responsibilities and causal relationships. Society is complex, and people are driven by many factors. Still, most people are ultimately responsible for their own acts (I don’t know enough about the two cases at hand to conclude that the mental condition of the perpetrators at the time of the crime was such that they could be held criminally responsible).
We run the risk that these terrorist events will lead to calls for a more restrictive interpretation of the freedom of speech of the media. Let’s hope that this risk incites the media to question their behavior and to abandon the language of hate.
I mentioned here how the war on terrorism, and more specifically its extension to Iraq (based or not on real facts about terrorism), has been counterproductive and has probably produced more (potential) terrorists than it has eliminated. The two ongoing wars in Muslim countries have enraged many Muslims and have turned their attention to the “American Criminal” and away from the criminals within. They have united the Muslim world, and this unity has reduced the ability and willingness of Muslims to criticize the extremists within their community.
These wars have also offered battleground experience to extremists, including experience in group formation and group discipline. They undoubtedly have led to stronger ties between extremists from different countries who otherwise would never have met.
The wars themselves have to some extent been counterproductive, but the way they have been conducted has made things even worse. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib will be rallying calls for generations of terrorists.
The anti-Americanism of many Muslims has been encouraged by the wars on terrorism, but also by the anti-islamism or islamophobia that seems to be increasingly widespread in the West (see here and here). In fact, and despite the recent assurances of President Obama, the war on terrorism is often merged with or morphed into a war on Islam; not a military war per se, but an ideological war.
The specter of “EUrabia” (based on the EU’s supposedly lax immigration policy combined with the high fertility rates among immigrants), of Western Shari’a, of the incompatibility of Western and Muslim morals and ethics (see here), of sleeper cells etc. all seem to produce a widespread rejection of a caricature version of Islam. Islam is reduced to an objectionable monolith on the basis of extremely rare but photogenic outliers.
No wonder many in the Muslim world feel rejected and turn inwards. And inwards often means towards a more pure and therefore more radical form of identity. They in turn make a caricature of western culture and reject it as a whole because of some aspects of it that they deem objectionable. Another way in which anti-terrorism shoots itself in the foot.
Another point: the fear of militant and political Islam convinces western governments to back some brutal Middle East dictatorships. These are believed to be a lesser evil compared to islamists taking over political power and using it to support terrorists. However, a brutal dictatorship may well be an important cause of terrorism. An interesting parallel with the time of communism, by the way:
David Gardner asks a provocative question in this weekend’s Financial Times: Is the West’s fear of political Islam condemning the Middle East to a generation of poor leadership? Political Islam is the new communism, he argues; the United States fears it so much that it prefers despots to even the most moderate Islamists. The Middle East, by implication, might be going through the same bout of poor leadership that afflicted Latin America and Africa as the Cold War contest played out in their regions. Elizabeth Dickinson (source)
It is now widely believed, even in US government circles, that the war on terror is counter-productive. Especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture in Abu Ghraib and the detentions in Guantanamo have produced a backlash and have increased rather than reduced the terror threat. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate issued the following among its “key judgments”:
The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. (source)
The war on terror has created and exacerbated resentment, hatred of the West and anti-americanism. And with anti-americanism often comes hatred of democracy and freedom and Islamic radicalization.
Read more on the war on terror here.