LONDON – Freedom of belief or religion is considered in democratic countries to be a fundamental human right and is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of religion includes the right to change religion or not to have any religion. It also covers the freedom to practice the chosen religion and its various rites.
Freedom of religion does not, however, cover practices that do not conform to the laws of the state. For instance while Islam and some breakaway Mormon sects permit or advocate polygamy, most democratic countries including the United States and Britain insist on monogamy and bigamy is a criminal offense.
Forced marriages and honor killings, which are acceptable in some Islamic countries, are illegal in democratic countries, although they still occur.
There is more controversy over the wearing of symbols of one’s faith. In Britain, appeals have been made to the courts to decide whether, for instance, Christian believers can be banned by airlines from wearing crucifixes on the grounds that these are offensive to Muslims.
Even more controversial is the wearing by Muslim women of face-and-head coverings. Few people in democratic countries object to Muslim women wearing head scarves so long as this is entirely voluntary. Some Muslims have pointed out that the Quran does not specify such a dress code, but merely enjoins Muslim women to dress decently and modestly.
Reasonable objections can be made against the wearing in public of clothing that hides the face. Such garb could be used by criminals as a disguise to prevent recognition by security cameras and could be worn by men to hide their sex and identity. A British judge recently insisted that an accused must reveal her face to a jury when giving evidence in her own defense so that members of the jury could more easily decide whether she was telling the truth or not. The wearing of full-face coverings in public is forbidden in France: Britain has not so far adopted such a rule.
Even more important issue arises in schools. In some extremist Islamic and Jewish schools, girls are segregated from boys and not treated equally.
In some schools, textbooks are censored and anything that could be interpreted as having sexual implications cut. Such censorship can mean forbidding girls to study Shakespeare’s plays and many of the most famous paintings and sculptures of the Renaissance.
Some Christian sects, especially in the U.S., believe in the infallibility of the Bible and others insist that children should be taught creationism.
The right to education is a fundamental human right and parents should be free to choose various types and methods of education that they consider appropriate for their children. But this freedom is inevitably constrained by the need, as judged by the state, to impose and enforce appropriate standards. For instance corporal punishment in schools is illegal.
Should governments fund or even allow teaching that denies aspects of science? How far should the state insist on equality between the sexes and on the contents of the curriculum?
European countries, not least Britain, where there are large immigrant populations have yet to find the correct balance between multiculturalism and integration. While the last Labour Party administration seemed to favor multiculturalism, the present coalition government emphasize integration.
Some Afro-Caribbean and South Asians in Britain now consider themselves as British as their white neighbors and are opposed to further immigration, but they have not all adopted traditional British values. Forced marriages for instance are not confined to first-generation South Asians. Ethnic groups still congregate in particular areas. Education is, however, bringing about significant changes. Some South Asian as well as Afro-Caribbean families are competing strongly in academia and the professions.
The Pakistani girl Malala, who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban for going to school, has been recovering in Britain from her wounds. She has shown great bravery and determination through a series of difficult operations performed by British surgeons. She has presented a cogent case for girls to be given equal educational opportunities as boys in Islamic countries. Her views have resonated with audiences in the West.
One quality that must be demanded from all religious organizations in democratic countries is religious tolerance and acceptance of the rule of law. Unfortunately these are rejected by religious extremists. The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently had to call on the Egyptian regime to do more to protect Christians who belong to the ancient Coptic church, which has been threatened by members of the Muslim brotherhood.
Al-Qaida may have lost some important leaders, but it is not the only Islamic jihadist group. Al-Shabab in Somalia and extremist groups in the Yemen and elsewhere pose a continuing threat to peace as well as to freedom of religion. There are no grounds for complacency. We need to remain vigilant and ready to defend our values.
The threat from Islamic extremism is exacerbated by the internecine rivalry between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam as well as between subgroups such as the Wahabists in Saudi Arabia and the Alawites in Syria. Although Islamic terrorists take advantage of Western technology including the Internet, they continue to reject scientific truths and to preach hatred.
Religious extremists — Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu — focus arrogantly on their own interpretation of their faiths and practices. They are intolerant and ignore the basic ethical beliefs common to most religions for living peacefully and in friendship with other people in society.
Japan nowadays fortunately has few religious extremists, but persecution of Christians who would not conform with the demand of Japan’s pre-war militarist regime did occur in the first half of the 20th century. The Aum Shinrikyo terrorist incident was a reminder that there are intolerant and extremist forces in every society.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.