It's about tolerance

2012-07-20 00:00

CIRCUMCISION was the subject of emergency discussions by politicians in Germany’s parliament this week, highlighting yet again the importance of promoting understanding of religious and cultural issues at a national level in multicultural societies.

The main political parties represented in the Bundestag were planning to pass a resolution yesterday that would exempt from punishment circumcision of underage boys. A need to resolve the issue arose after a district court ban on circumcision recently enraged Jews and Muslims. The court said the practice inflicted bodily harm and should not be carried out on young boys.

Mass migration in an increasingly globalised world has created new social pressures on the modern secular state. The impact on freedom of speech and expression can severely test the boundaries of what is acceptable in countries where there is a significant community of immigrants whose religious or cultural values are different from those of the indigenous population. The same can be said about tolerance for indigenous African cultural values which are sometimes seen as being at variance with liberal attitudes towards matters such as gay marriage and ritualistic slaughter of animals.

In France and Belgium, religious symbols, such as the burka, cannot be worn in public. In France, families that are deemed to have forced their children to wear burkas face legal penalties. Elsewhere, Roman Catholic adoption agencies would rather close down than offer children for adoption to gay or lesbian couples. British Airways has banned an employee from wearing a cross. What are the parameters that publicly funded faith schools should adhere to? These are some of the difficult issues that should be addressed with tolerance and understanding.

Recently, a Sunday newspaper, the Observer, misquoted the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, as stating that Muslims must owe their primary allegiance to the nation state instead of the Umma and that they should be less sensitive to criticism of Islam. What he actually said was that the modern secular state must leave space for those whose identities are embedded in their religion. This kind of misrepresentation has generated a great deal of Islamophobia in the Western world: that such misrepresentation appears in a liberal, left-leaning newspaper makes it all the more galling. Reports of burka-clad women being spat on or being attacked are quite common. A highly educated feminist neighbour expresses the sentiment that she is so incensed at seeing a women in a burka that she would like to tear it off, although she is too well brought up to give in to such an urge. Jewish graves are desecrated. Christian wives of Muslim friends express fears about the threat of Islam and the imposition of a Caliphate, a totally unfounded fear. Much of this animosity stems from the atrocities of 9/11, the 7/7 bombings in London and the Madrid train attack. And the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have left the Muslim world conflicted.

Those who agree with the archbishop’s view that people who have embedded religious identities should have space in the public sphere to exercise some of their rites do so on the understanding that in performing these rites or duties they do not harm others in the society. Wearing a cross on a chain around your neck, a burka or a skull cap should be a matter of individual choice. Of course, where faces need to be revealed for purposes of border control, policing or for driving licences and passports these rights need to be restricted. Some feminists view the burka as a symbol of male dominance and repression, whereas others view it as a matter of free choice. Clearly, if someone is forced into wearing a burka they should have recourse to the law of the land. Faith schools should be acceptable, providing they follow the national curriculum. Even religious family law may be acceptable, providing state law is the final arbiter if a party to a dispute requests a remedy in state courts.

Circumcision presents us with a particular problem if it is performed on a child. It offends against personal autonomy and rational choice which have become increasingly more important and dominant in the modern liberal state. However, this view is not acceptable for those who feel that autonomy comes from your relationships, cultural values and religion that this gives one a sense of oneself. Having been circumcised at the age of seven or eight, I have no particular sense of loss nor has it given me a sense of social identity. But others have expressed the view that they felt mutilated.

Liberals have to tread warily in finding the right balance between what is acceptable in a modern multicultural society. In return, people with embedded religious identities should be more tolerant of criticism of their religions. People of faith feel free to be critical of people of other beliefs and faiths. In exercising this right to free expression, people of faith or religion should not be offended by those of other religious beliefs or those without any who express offensive views about their beliefs.

• Hassan Asmal was born in Bergville. He left South Africa in 1960 to live in London. He has a MSc in political theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He writes in his private capacity as an observer of transformation, racism and change in South Africa.

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