Minority or Citizen? A Roundtable Discussion

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?

Hamid Taghvaee: In my view, banning religious symbols in schools and workplaces is completely justified. The ban has nothing to do with religious freedom because it is a social and public ban. In civil societies, religion and religious practices must be free as long as they remain private matters. Civil society can only recognise freedom of religion as a private matter; otherwise it will not be civil society anymore. Any interference of religious practices in the affairs and social activities of civil society should be banned.

In terms of freedom of dress, it is obvious that the veil is not a kind of dress and has got nothing to do with freedom of choice. Veiling is a religious must for Muslim women; wearing it means abandoning the right to choose any other sort of dress. One can say that by choosing Islam, Muslim women in fact choose not to practice their civil freedom of wearing any kind of dress they like. The veil is a religious obligation and comes with Islam! By selecting Islam, women abandon the right to select their dress.

Azar Majedi: This is a restriction on the role of religion in the affairs of 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 the state, education, citizens’ formal identification and so on; it must be a private matter. Therefore, from a secular point of view, the state and educational system 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.

Ali Javadi: I agree that banning conspicuous religious symbols in schools and workplaces is a ‘restriction’ on religious freedom and on the freedom of choice and dress. However, I think we should welcome such restrictions. Allow me to explain. There are many restrictions in society that limit the ‘freedom’ of individuals in some shape or form, such as banning driving while intoxicated, smoking in public buildings or the driving of motorcycles without helmets. Even imposing speed limits on highways in some way limits the freedom of individuals to drive at their chosen speed. However, all these restrictions are necessary and essential to safeguard society and individuals from danger – the danger of being killed by a drunk driver, getting lung disease from second-hand smoke and so on. In the same way, I think society should protect individuals from the influence of religion and the religion industry as we protect ourselves from contagious deadly diseases. The banning of conspicuous religious symbols in workplaces and schools has a similar meaning and intent.

These restrictions are direct applications of the basic principle of secularism, which calls for the separation of state and religion. No adult should be allowed to wear her/his religion on his/her forehead or sleeves, neither at schools nor at workplaces. Children should be kept completely away from the influence of religion and religious institutions, in the same way that we keep medicine and drugs away from children. Children don’t have any religion. In my opinion, religion should be a private matter and not a state matter. The state should be free from the influence of religion. No individual should be allowed to appear at his/her workplace and in schools with conspicuous religious symbols.

One should recall that the basic premise of secularism was to eradicate religion and the religion industry’s influence from the most important instruments of society, the state and educational system, particularly as far as the shaping of the lives of individuals and citizens are concerned. If we strive for a free society then freeing society from the influence of religion is a precondition for a free society. Secularism is the first step toward the freedom of society from religion. A free society should be free from religion and superstitions and limitations that this anti-human ideology imposes on humanity.

I should also mention that while I am for such restrictions, I am not pro an all out ban on all religious expression. I believe in freedom of religion and freedom to campaign against religion. I think a complete ban on religion will allow it to survive longer in the society.

Finally, I would like to say few words about the nature and character of the fight that we are witnessing in France. The fact of the matter is that the Islamists have spread their reactionary wings in Europe and North America and are openly attacking the secular values of western societies. This is an attack on the progressive achievements of these societies. I believe all secularists, all progressive and socialists should fight these attacks by Islamists.

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?

Hamid Taghvaee: Civil societies are based on the concept of the equal and universal rights of all citizens. Philosophically, it is based on the social identity of human beings as opposed to religious, national, ethnic, and any other – one can say – non-humanistic identities imposed on people in bourgeois societies. Society is not a mosaic of different minorities and cannot be based on a collection of different rights for different groups of people; this sort of concept of society is a huge step backwards to medieval societies. The very concept of the minority is not a modern and civil concept. If every citizen, independent of her or his country of origin, religion, race, gender, and so on and so forth, has the exact same rights, then the concept of minority disappears altogether and there will be no need to recognise special rights for non-existent social groups. The problem with contemporary societies is that they first divide people based on their nationality, religion, ethnicity, race and other non-civil – or if you like pre-modernist – factors and then try to be multi-culturalist and ‘respect’ minority rights and other such nonsense! This is not post-modernism; in fact it is medieval and pre-modernism in the true sense of the word.

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 multi-culturalism, 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. Recognising 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 multi-culturalism like to portray, this practice is not egalitarian but 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.

Ali Javadi: Frankly, I don’t believe in any ‘minority rights’. This is a totally reactionary concept. I am for the general and undeniable rights of individuals in society. These individual rights are universal and should apply to everyone independent of their race, gender, religion, or ethnicity.

I am sure that individuals have different ‘cultures’ and ‘religions’, however subscribing to a different ‘culture’ or ‘religion’ does not automatically give anyone a different set of rights in society. To understand the full reactionary notion of this concept let me give you an example. In Islam, girls can be forced to marry a man when they become nine years old. Marrying a minor at the age of nine is child molestation or paedophilia and is punished severely in many western societies. ‘Minority rights’ for Islamists would mean allowing little girls to be raped at the age of nine. This is only one aspect of ‘minority rights’. Politically speaking, multi-culturalism is a reactionary theory designed to make concessions and maintain the control of reaction over segments of society referred to as ‘minorities’.

I am for an egalitarian society, a society in which every individual has equal rights.

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?

Hamid Taghvaee: I think I have already answered this question. I should just add that the opposite is true. Believing in different sets of laws for different groups of people is racism and anybody who respects universal human rights should stand up against it. We say people are people in every corner of the world and have the same needs and ideals. They should therefore have the same rights everywhere. A few hundred years ago for say French revolutionaries, you wouldn’t even need to try to prove this. But unfortunately today for our post-modernists this is not the case. They apparently live in the pre-French revolution era!

Azar Majedi: I addressed the first part of the question above. I should also mention that I do not recognise 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.)

Ali Javadi: Let me add that some still believe the earth is flat. Nonetheless, these arguments are pure nonsense. Let me ask: Is raping a nine year old child part of the ‘special needs’ of ‘minorities’? Is reducing the status of women to second-class citizens in the society part of ‘minority’ rights? These arguments are designed to advance the cause of Islamists in their reactionary holy war against humanity. In fact it is completely the other way around; dividing society into different ‘groups’ and ‘minorities’ is an inseparable part of a racist approach and notion.

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.

Hamid Taghvaee: You are right again! The recent dispute on the veil and Sharia in western societies shows the rising role of political Islam in the west; multi-culturalism is its intellectual ally! It is the Trojan horse that opens the gates for this medieval ‘culture’ and Islamic Sharia that tolerates nothing and respects nothing but Allah’s holy laws. Tolerating Sharia in the name of multi-culturalism is like defending Hitler in the name of Jews and gays and other minorities! Islam, like all other religions, recognises no boundaries and ignores and denies human beings and their needs and rights in the name of God (the most recent experiences are the Islamic Republic in Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan). Changing God to ‘Multi-culturalism’ makes no difference. Civilised humanity should stand up against political Islam and its multi-culturalist apologists. This is the only way of respecting and defending any humanistic aspect of any culture in the world.

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 using 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.

Ali Javadi: I don’t believe there is any correlation between the rise of ‘extremism’ and banning of religious symbols in workplaces and schools. The rise of political Islam and its reactionary holy war does not have much to do with these restrictions.

Political Islam as a movement emerged in the seventies while the secular-nationalist states in the Middle East and North Africa were in deep political and ideological crisis. The objective of this movement is to restructure political power in these societies in order to have a bigger share. Extremism and terror and maiming of people are the main instruments of this movement to advance its reactionary cause. One should not pay any attention to these arguments.

The above interview was first published in the Worker-communist Review 1 dated June 2004.

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