Should a Liberal Society Tolerate Religious Minorities?

March 26, 2013 3:22 pm

DemocracyThe very definition of liberalism can be summarised in Voltaire’s famous quote, ‘I don’t agree with what you’re saying, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.’ It is rare that the essence of an ideology can be truly captured in a single sentence, but I feel that this is most fitting with what liberalism truly wishes to uphold in a society. Liberalism was one of the fundamental building blocks of modern politics, which is why we have liberty, equality and justice, and is also why the French motto is ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity). This may reflect the views of the ideology, but is that different in a society? What really constitutes a liberal society? Well, to be summary, a liberal would be open to and embrace reform; advocate democracy and be tolerant of other people’s beliefs, e.g. religious minorities. This leads me onto my next point: what is a religious minority?

Again, I must be summary, but a religious minority can be very simply explained as being ‘A religion that is in a minority in a country, state, or region.’ The problem with religious minorities is that they are often prone to stigmatization and discrimination from majorities. An example of a minority religion in the UK is Islam, which, of course, have a huge stigmatizing burden that weighs them down as a result of their troublesome fellow believers, often referred to as ‘Muslim extremists’ or ‘fundamentalists’.

In a liberal society, surely we would be expected to tolerate such dangerous behaviour, as one of the fundamental principles of liberalism is freedom of religious expression. One could clearly see the paradox here, in that while a key idea that constitutes liberalism is the concept of freedom and liberty, but at the same time liberals are expected to tolerate religious minorities that wish to infringe on our freedom by following their religious scriptures literally. For example, in the Quran, it states ‘Anyone who does not obey Allah, leave or change religion or not believe must be killed.’ I put enormous stress on the words ‘must be killed’, because I think that those are the words that undermine liberalism’s beliefs. How can we have liberty and yet tolerate a fundamentalist religious minority that obeys such dangerous mandates? It must be one or the other, and in either case the fundamental ideas of liberalism would have to be changed.

The main question can now be addressed: should a liberal society tolerate religious minorities? Let’s stay with the obscure, but sadly realistic, example of Islāmic fundamentalists.  The second paradox which I shall draw in is ‘tolerating the intolerant’. In a liberal society, one would be expected to be committed to multiculturalism, but nowhere does it state that they should also be committed to tolerating violence towards the tolerant!

I understand that fundamentalists don’t contribute hugely to the population, but they are still able to surface flaws in liberalism. Now, fundamentalists aside, we can ask the titular question again and look on a more universal scale. Should liberals tolerate religious minorities? Well, people, nowadays, seem to be incredulous to the fact that multiculturalism in societies has brought excellent things, and it is only the ignorant societies that allow institutionalised stigmatization. More liberal societies, however, can see the benefits that multiculturalism will inevitably bring, such as a better understanding of oneself and one’s morals on a grander scale by understanding other cultures and seeing different alternatives. This will make people not so rigid and give them the ability to reform. But why is the ability to reform so important to society? First and foremost, sticking with traditions is certainly not the best thing for a society. If we stayed with traditions, slavery would not be abolished, gay people would be executed and women wouldn’t have the vote. Is this good for a society? Absolutely not. Furthermore, through multiculturalism we can understand our own fallibility and that one way is not always the best way. This proves that multiculturalism (including religious minorities) can only strengthen a liberal society.

The liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill claimed that ‘There are many truths by which the true meaning cannot be realised until personal experience brings it home.’ This illustrates my previous point about multiculturalism enriching and teaching a socially rigid society. During the crusades, when many different religions mixed, the Christians discovered that wrapping wounds can stop the bleeding, which was a discovery that saved countless lives. This advancement in medicine was taught to the Christians by Muslims, which demonstrates how other religions, even minorities, can teach a society. Who is to say that religious minorities don’t hold the key to something that we do not understand? Religious minorities

Now, onto democracy and equality. In a truly liberal society, there must be equality and democracy. This means that religious minorities must be levelled to the majorities. The paradox that lies within democracy, however, is that democracy states that the majorities are the most powerful, so the minorities must, therefore, be controlled by the majority. Does this not undermine democracy, which proudly boasts about equality and liberty? If the majority wished to abolish religious minorities, would a liberal society not, by definition, have to abolish it?

Back to fundamentalists and dangerous groups of people, or ‘cults’. To pick and choose groups that we want to stigmatize is completely immoral. Are we incredulous to the fact that violent fascists (e.g. neo-Nazis) still exist? While these people do, obviously, carry a social stigma, we are not intolerant, and they are not constantly picked on in media, are they? I think that a fascist’s ideological history would be far more brutal than a religious person’s. A liberal society, in particular, would tolerate such a group, as they are, by nature, acceptant of other ideologies, even ones that are as extreme as their fascist counterparts. The fact is that there is a huge difference between tolerating and promoting. Liberals would certainly not promote fascism, as they wouldn’t promote fundamentalist Muslims, but they must still be tolerant. On the other hand, is it not the duty of a government to look after its citizens? Which takes precedence? The safety and security of the people, or the welfare and happiness of violent and dangerous cults? If it is the latter, and if tolerance is defined by rationality, then the government cannot be tolerant, because they care more about the minority than the overwhelming majority, which would also undermine democracy.

There are many, many examples of intolerance throughout history, specifically revolving around religion, and/or religious practice. A very recent example of the French government banning any form of religious accessory in schools led to the exclusion of many religious schoolchildren, who had to be educated elsewhere. This obvious stab at religion even left some people having to pay for education. The French’s hypocrisy is astonishing, bearing in mind one of the constitutional rights of the country is ‘the right to free education’. Another example further away in history was, of course, the Holocaust – irrefutably the most appalling crime that the world has ever seen. All these problems were born of religious intolerance. It is now clearly not a question of whether a liberal society should tolerate religious minorities, but whether any society under the regime of any ideology should tolerate religious minorities.

Finally, I shall refute that while it may be a duty to protect the citizens of a society, it is also the duty of a liberal society to tolerate, not promote, religious minorities. There can be a line drawn, though; namely when violence is instigated. – “You can’t pick and choose which types of freedom you want to defend. You must defend all of it or be against all of it.”

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