Sunday, 1 July 2007

Religious Exemptions

A magistrate in Manchester has walked out of a court because a defendant refused to remove a full-face veil, and this seems to have caused some controversy. Admittedly the magistrate could have handled it better than just walking out, but his point remains valid. You can't turn-up in court with your face covered - you could be anyone. Whose word do we have to take that this is actually the person who it should be?

I don't know how the law stands on this. Could anyone turn up in court with their face covered and expect everyone else to go along with it? Somehow I doubt it, and if it's true for one person it should be true for all people. We can't give special permission for people to be exempt from laws and conventions because of some belief they hold. Where would it stop? If it is indeed the case, then hey, my brand new and convenient religion forbids me to appear in court unless I'm provided with beer and strippers! I'm being silly of course, but how is that any more silly than the demands of any faith? They are all essentially made-up to fit some possibly questionable historical anyway.

It's time for the government to put its foot down and state that no religious 'rules' are valid for any exemptions or special treatments in any walk of life. It doesn't matter what your magic book or man with super powers from the past says - we are all equal, and we all have exactly the same rights, along with the same responsibilities. The overriding motivation behind any of our actions should be for society, not because we're scared of some mythical punishment that might befall us when we die. A life that is lived well purely because we fear a supernatural punishment is not worthy of admiration at all. It is to be pitied.


Luke said...

You're right - we do all have exactly the same rights. And people of some *cultures*, as well as religions, feel uncomfortable showing their faces in front of strangers. Rather than get cross at how ridiculous the magistrate thought their ideas are, wouldn't it have been far more sensible to find a easy way round, such as allowing the women in question to show her face in a private room with only women present? I'm sure you'd feel very uncomfortable if required to remove your trousers in public, (unless of course you're Chris Hyde) but it's only a cultural thing that makes us funny about showing our pants!

Secondly, I don't think I'm alone in having a certain level of respect for a culture that prizes modesty, when compared to the direction in which ours is heading. We all know how people behave on a Saturday night in Bristol town centre, and I certainly find the way some parents dress their pre teens, especially girls, very inappropriate and disturbing.

Dominic said...

I have as little concern for 'cultures' as I do for 'religions' where that culture is divisive or oppresses other people. While I agree that sometimes people might dress too far the other way, at least it is their choice. Veils etc. may well be the 'choice' of some of the people who wear them, but I very much doubt that it's the case for the majority. If your 'culture' says it's ok for your family to have you murdered for bringing 'shame' on them by going out with the wrong person, then you can bet that women in that situation don't have much of a free choice when it comes to veils.

I completely agree with the nasty sexualisation of children. However, it is still more or less a free society, so there's not much we can do to stop parents doing such things. It would probably help if we enforced strict uniforms at every school, so at the very least girls wouldn't be exposed to that sort of peer pressure where it affects them most.

Luke said...

I think it's as unfair to associate those Muslims who have committed 'honour killings' with all other believers in Islam as it would be to say that Rowan Williams, as a Christian, sanctions the behaviour of Christian pro-life activists who put bombs under the cars of abortionists. Whilst, of course, the oppression of women does exist in parts of Islam, there will still be many women of Muslim origin or conversion who make their own choice to dress in a modest fashion.

I agree completely that enforcing strict uniforms at school would positively affect the direction in which our attitude to children is travelling. But aren't we just then taking away their 'free choice' to wear what they like?

Dominic said...

You're right of course - not all religious people are associated with the more extreme members of any faith. However, I'm afraid I have the rather all-encompassing view that it would be better if religions that believed they are the 'one true way and everyone else will burn in hell' were ended, somehow. It doesn't matter how 'moderate' someone is as there will always be someone who takes that fundamental message too far. It's divisive and doesn't actually do any good, so let's get rid of it. We don't live in the dark ages any more!

I'm not picking on Islam either. I think that a lot of the teachings of most religions can have harmful interpretations, and going from my belief that there's no God anyway, it's not like they have an 'upside' that is worth any bad bits. Consign them all to history and let's treat each other well because we honestly want to and believe it's the right thing to do, rather than from some fear that we will burn in hell when we die.

Eoin said...

"there will still be many women of Muslim origin or conversion who make their own choice to dress in a modest fashion. "

This "choice" is, of course, culturally mandated by patriarchal culture which gives few of them any real option. There is very little "free will" in any religious culture, least of all one stuck in a 14th century mindset. On the other hand, presumably you accept the behavior ( of women I assume you mean) in Bristol on a Saturday night is not mandated by a secular culture, not demanded by a secular culture, but merely acceptable within a secular culture. Girls will be girls. This distinction should be obvious.

in this case a religious culture is in conflict with the laws of the State and the magistrate - quite rightly - demanded that the religious observer obey the secular law and reveal her face. No ifs, no buts. To allow religious exemptions for veils is to create an appalling precedent. I assume that Dominic mentioned honour killings not just to pick on Islam but to point out that the excuse which relies on cultural exemptions in courts of law would, in extremis, allow the magistrate to regard honour killings as legitimate, and islamic killings for apostasy or homosexuality as acceptable. Where does it end?

We give no regard to culture, or private religion, in lawful societies; if the religious observer disobeys the law he faces punishment. The court is not a private sphere, and Muslim believers are subject to the secular law which demands that they - and we - reveal their face in court ; just as we would penalize a religious fanatic, Christian, Muslim or otherwise, who refused to recognize the court, or treated it with contempt in another fashion. Or as we would jail a Christian Scientist who let his kid die by refusing medicine due to his, no doubt sincere, conviction that what he was going is right. Secular States have their own values, laws and customs, and people who live in them must abide them regardless of what other ideology or theology they hold, or face the consequences. The Judge should have held her in contempt, however, rather than walking out.