We shouldn't tolerate vulnerable people being harmed. But human rights are essentialby David Anderson / June 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
Tolerance is the least inspiring of virtues: it means putting up with people or ideas that we don’t much like. So Theresa May struck a chord after Saturday’s London Bridge attack when she said that “there is to be frank, far too much tolerance of extremism in our country.”
Correctly exercised, tolerance is a necessary staging post to the higher objectives of trust and integration. But taken to excess, its effects can be toxic. A distinction has to be made between things that must be tolerated and things that must not be tolerated.
Many of us are confused about how to draw this line. Faced with cultural difference, we are unsure which of our own values we are allowed to defend, and which we are supposed to modify or abandon. We see the consequences of that confusion every day, in unrealistic demands for full assimilation or—conversely—the turning of a blind eye to practices that should never be accepted.
“Tolerance does not extend to expressions of religious belief that unjustifiably restrict the rights of others”
Useful guidance may be found in the European Convention of Human Rights—the Council of Europe instrument to which the major parties have all committed post-Brexit. The ECHR is not, as often supposed, a one-eyed assertion of individual freedoms over our responsibility to society. Rather, its half-century of case law, both from the European Court in Strasbourg and under our own Human Rights Act, offers a subtle balancing of the two.
It offers three lessons of primary relevance to the current debate on extremism and integration.
First, confidence in setting limits. The European Court reminds us that democracy is founded on tolerance—but also on pluralism and broad-mindedness. So everyone has an absolute right to believe what they like, to change their beliefs, and to share them with like-minded people. But tolerance does not extend to expressions of religious belief that unjustifiably restrict the rights of others.
That is so whether you are a Christian who wants his child to be beaten at private school, a Hindu who seeks to rely on the sacred status of a bullock to avoid the legal consequences of a TB diagnosis, or a political party which seeks to elevate the law of God over the law of man.
In none of these cases was the cry of “It’s my religion” enough to win a reprieve from the law of the land. The latter case resulted in a ruling by the European Court that the Turkish Government was entitled to dissolve a political party that stood for the introduction of sharia law for Muslims, notwithstanding its commanding position in the polls. As the Court commented: “Sharia is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy.”
The consequence is that as Matthew Wilkinson of the Cambridge Muslim College has written, Islam must adapt to being “one legitimate faith among many legally equivalent faiths,” with the Sharia existing as “a code of personal religious conduct rather than constituting the legal framework for the whole or even part of society.”
“Crude incursions into expressive and associative freedoms tend to worsen the problem they seek to cure”
The second lesson is confidence in applying the numerous laws we have. Failure to investigate or to prosecute corruption, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual abuse and so-called honour crimes should never be excused, or tolerated, by misplaced respect for cultural difference. Always, we need to be alert to the risk of discrimination. But police and social workers should not have to fear accusations of racism—as was said to be the case in both Rotherham and Rochdale—when they investigate practices that are not tolerated by the law.
Police and others rightly value their links with the communities that they serve. But the vulnerable people in any community may be precisely those for whom so-called “community leaders” do not speak. Examples are the feminist Muslims, gay Muslims and ex-Muslims, described by Maajid Nawaz as “minorities within minorities,” who may be stigmatised and subjected to physical threats even in the west. These are people whom—as the ECHR reminds us—it is essential for the law to protect.
The third lesson is humility: an acceptance that the battle for hearts and minds is an impossible one to direct. There is every reason for the government to have a robust counter-extremism policy. It may quite legitimately fund groups which wish themselves to fight extremism. But if the state seeks to control or to monitor “extremist activity” that poses no threat to the life, wellbeing or property of others—to close the discussion down—it will attract resentment and suspicion. Such crude incursions into expressive and associative freedoms tend to worsen the problem they seek to cure.
In all these ways, human rights have a muscularity with which they are rarely credited. Rather than hampering the fight against terrorism and extremism, they reinforce its legitimacy.