Minority Rights or Citizen Rights?

Roundtable discussion on with Hamid Taqvaie, Ai Javadi and Azar Majedi
On banning religious symbols, Islamic courts, civil freedoms, minority rights and racism

Worker-communist review: The debate surrounding the banning of conspicuous religious symbols in schools and government workplaces in France have raised some fundamental questions about religious freedom and freedom of choice and dress. Is the ban a restriction on religious freedom, choice and dress? How far must a ban go? Why?

Azar Majedi: This is a restriction on the role of religion in the affairs of the civil society, rather than religious freedom as such. The ban is aiming to restrict the meddling of religion as an institution in the running of the state and society at large. 

Religious freedom is commonly understood as freedom of religious beliefs and practice. However, depending on your point of view, practicing one’s beliefs takes different dimensions. In a secular society, religion is and must be separated from state, education, citizens’ formal identification and so on; it must be a private matter. Therefore, from a secular point of view, the state and education must not represent any particular religion or religious belief. Using religious symbols, such as veiling, would be considered a denial of the principle of secularism, and contradicts the principles of a secular society. By banning religious symbols in public schools and state institutions, one is aiming to safeguard a freer society where religion remains a private affair. 

To get a clearer picture and to avoid any false assumptions, one must look at the history of the development of modern and civil society. Secularism is the product of this process and one of the pillars of such a society. To eradicate the influence of the church from the affairs of the state, to relegate religion to the private sphere and to restrict the role of religion as an institution are all significant achievements of modern society. The French revolution is an important historical moment in this process. These restrictions on religion became necessary in order to materialize the main slogans of this revolution: ‘Freedom and Equality’.

Going back to your question, this ban is a restriction on religion, but not a restriction on individual freedom or individual rights. In my opinion, this ban is a necessary step towards a freer society, and furthermore, I believe restricting religion will help create a more equal society, particularly for women. By restricting religion, society is in a better position to respect individual/citizen rights. However, I believe that this ban is not enough. We should ban religious schools and the veiling of under-aged girls.

Worker-communist Review: In the debate around the banning of religious symbols in France as well as regarding the establishment of a Sharia court in Canada, the issue of minority rights has been raised and that minorities and ‘their’ cultural and religious difference need to be respected in a multicultural and pluralist society. Please comment on minority rights. Isn’t there a conflict between minority and collective rights versus individual rights? What about vis-à-vis the concept of citizenship?

Azar Majedi: If I remember correctly, historically, the concept of minority rights was raised in the US civil rights movement. The struggle against racism and for the recognition of equal rights for black people in the US acknowledged minority rights as a valid and credible legal concept. Later, the concept of respect for minority rights extended to any deprived or disadvantaged section of society, even women. In fact, historically, minority rights meant the recognition of equal and universal rights for all citizens in a given society by extending equal rights to members of a deprived section in the society. In this context, minority rights do not contradict individual or citizen’s rights; on the contrary it extends it to all citizens. Whereas now, in this new context i.e. respect for multiculturalism, respect for different cultures, or cultural relativism, minority rights has been transformed to imply the rights of a collective, not members of that collective. In reality, this practice is discriminatory. Recognizing certain rights for a community or a collective based on culture, race, or religion in essence means depriving the individual members of that collective of the universal laws of the larger society. It gives prevalence to the collective vis-à-vis individuals. Thus, contrary to what the defenders of multiculturalism like to portray, this practice is not egalitarian, but rather it is discriminatory. In a given society, there must exist one set of laws that applies to all citizens, not different laws applying to different communities.

Worker-communist Review: Some say that disregarding the special needs and rights of minorities leads to racism? Is it racist and discriminatory and ‘Islamophobic’ to ban conspicuous religious symbols or oppose a Sharia court in the west?

Azar Majedi: I addressed the first part of the question above. I should also mention that I do not recognize the concept of ‘special needs of minorities’. Regarding the second part of the question, I should state that not only it is not racist or discriminatory to oppose the Sharia court in the West or ban conspicuous religious symbols, it is the contrary. Setting up of such courts is a discriminatory and racist act. (I have explained this issue and talked about Islamophobia further in my speech in Canada, which is published in this issue.)

Worker-communist Review: We are told that banning religious symbols and or a Sharia court will lead to extremism yet we see a rise in extremism in the west as a result of multi-culturalism and in the identification of people with the political Islamic movement. Please comment.

Azar Majedi: I do not see any direct relation between these two, i.e. the rise in one would result in the rise or fall of the other. As far as political Islam is concerned, the main characteristic of this movement is extreme reaction, and its main tool for political advancement is resorting to terror. The rise in the identification of certain sections of the society in the West with political Islam, especially among the youth, is a result of a more complex situation. I believe that the existing racism in the West, the socio-economic deprivation of the immigrant population, or citizens from non-Western origin, the alienation this section feels and so on create fertile ground for resentment towards the west and western values. On this ground, and in the absence of a strong, progressive and humanitarian anti-racist and pro-integration movement, political Islam has been able to recruit with its aggressive methods of propaganda. Political Islam has been able to take the real resentment and frustration of this section of the population hostage and cash in on it