International Human Rights Day and Extremism

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Today, December 10, is International Human Rights Day. This affords us – individually and collectively – a unique and important opportunity to ask ourselves difficult questions regarding the individual, society and the confluence between the two. In other words, what is human rights and, just as importantly, whose human rights? The research I have conducted in North America, Europe and Israel has taught me that it is far from sufficient to merely wave the flag of human rights. To engage in self-congratulatory hominies is not to advance human rights; quite the opposite is true.

Human Rights Day

At a time when extremists, both religious and non-religious, pose significant threats to individuals and society alike, we must take a collective breath and ask ourselves, “what are the limits of tolerating intolerance?” Often the instinctive response in Western democratic nations is that tolerating intolerance is the essence of a free, vital and vibrant society. Perhaps. But, as I have outlined in my forthcoming book, Tolerating Intolerance: The Price of Protecting Extremism, (Oxford University Press), the answers are far more complicated, nuanced and uncertain.

The point of inquiry is whether we tolerate intolerance to the extent that the human rights of the tolerant are violated. Re-articulated: does tolerating intolerance endanger individuals and civilians alike? If, as I believe, the answer is yes, then the human rights discussion needs to be re-phrased, even re-countered. Intolerance in the guise of extremism is the antithesis of human rights.

It is important to emphasize that, at its core, the question regarding how much intolerance a society should tolerate requires examining two over-arching questions: to whom does government owe a duty, and when should government intervene, thereby limiting individual rights while protecting individuals?  The question of government intervention in the face of extremism is of extraordinary importance, not to mention controversy and dilemma. In many ways, its resolution requires addressing and, it is to be hoped, resolving, the balance of individual rights with state rights. After all, both are legitimate, yet the harm posed by extremism requires determining to what extent certain freedoms will be curtailed, if not minimized.

The notion of human rights as a zero-sum game demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the tenuous relationship both between different internal communities and between those communities and the nation-state. A more realpolitik approach would be to ask the following:  human rights: at what cost and to whom? Reasonable minds can reasonably disagree; that is one of the most treasured values and principles of democratic society. In many ways, it defines liberal society where discussion and debate represent an ideal.

Thomas Freidman described the world as ‘flat’ in the age of globalization, but perhaps the reality is that of a flat world with walls. The walls, it is important to emphasize, are largely self-imposed by particular communities who choose to separate themselves and shun mainstream society. A flat world with walls is extraordinarily dangerous for those within the walls.

Female circumcision and honour killings highlight the dangers of religious extremism.  In her autobiography, Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes the former graphically and unflinchingly. However, the : disturbing reality is that – almost by conscious design – there is a universal decision not to engage (defined as establishing intelligence-gathering mechanisms, proactively seeking information, aggressively prosecuting) religious-based wrongdoers. That the state might fear religious extremists is an alarming thought; it is also a potential reality.  Honour killings are beyond description; they are also, tragically, not uncommon in certain cultures that treat women as property whose actions directly impact a family’s reputation. According to the principle justifying honour killings, if a woman brings dishonour to her family, her family members must kill her. (Susan Moller Okin, “Feminism and Multiculturalism: Some Tensions”, Ethics, Vol 108, No. 4 ).  In the overwhelming majority of honour killings, those responsible go unpunished.

While the violence does indeed occur in the home, the reality is simultaneously far more complicated and yet uncomplicated. When I sat as a judge in an honour killing case, involving two brothers killing their sister at the behest of their mother, I was struck by the overwhelming lack of remorse those involved expressed and their absolute conviction of the rightness of the killing. In particular, the mother had instructed her sons to kill her daughter in a manner that was beyond gruesome.

Orthodox Jewry in Israel is, according to experts (documented in author’s files), more extreme than in the past; while a number of issues reflect the increasing extremism, two examples are telling: separation of men and women on public transportation and on sidewalks in some religious neighbourhoods. It’s important to note that religious texts do not justify either measure; rather both are the result of Orthodox groups articulating extremist positions predicated on community and political considerations. Both measures have direct impact on the status of women in the religious community; both reflect sexual discrimination based on extremist interpretation of religious text that directly affects the rights and status of Orthodox women.

The Israeli Supreme Court held it was illegal to force women to sit in the back of public buses; nevertheless, the effort reflects a hardening of interpretation regarding gender and the status of women. While Orthodox Jewry, like other faiths, emphasizes modesty, there is a sharp distinction between clothing guidelines and measures that clearly discriminate against women. Measures directed at women are reflected in what has been described as a new religion unrelated to traditional Judaism: it is a religion where ‘kosher is not kosher enough, conversions to Judaism can be cancelled, traditional female modesty is insufficient and separation of men and women is demanded with the exception of within the privacy of the home.’

If the state defers to the cultural mores accepting – even demanding – such behaviour, it abdicates its duty to the individual.  The very fact that honor killings go unpunished in many cultures highlights the direct harm multiculturalism can cause.  In questioning whether society owes a duty to the culture or to the individual harmed by that culture, the answer must resoundingly be that the primary obligation is to the latter; the celebration of the former must be tempered by the reality of the harm caused.

I suggest, then, that the core question we ponder on International Human Rights Day is to whom does the State owe a duty; how we answer it determines just how important human rights truly are and whether we view those rights concretely or abstractly.


For additional reading regarding honour killing the author suggests:


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