Multiculturalism in the Framework of Human Rights

Aaron Rhodes

Co-Founder, Freedom Rights Project

Remarks at the Conference “How Can Europe Do More to Advance Human Rights?” Brussels, 4 December 2012

I would like to use these brief remarks to offer some perspectives on the notion of “multiculturalism,” and to share my concerns, as a human rights advocate, about threats to fundamental human rights in Europe posed by some interpretations of multiculturalism.

I am not sure why the word “multiculturalism” even exists as a descriptive term, because all societies are in fact multicultural.  Even the most isolated groups, which have not been influenced by global diversity, whose members share a common religion, a common language and ethnic heritage, common symbols and customs—even such societies are in fact multicultural.

They are multicultural because all cultures are dynamic and changing, all are borne by individuals who see things in different ways.  There are people in every cultural group who challenge the dominant authorities and their interpretations about what are the central values and authority structures of the society.

From the outside, cultures may appear to be homogeneous and static, but it is never the case.  Multiculturalism thus describes every society, whether its leaders admit it or not.  And this brings me immediately to the issue of universal human rights norms, norms that were founded around natural rights of human being as such, rights common to all humanity and the multicultural world.   But since universal human rights principles became codified into international law, leaders of many countries have rejected fundamental civil and political rights, justified by the claim that such rights “contradict our culture.”

They have made these claims in rejecting international laws banning discrimination against women, banning discrimination against homosexuals,  banning religious minorities, upholding punishments for a wide range of sexual and other practices that do not hurt anyone else, and upholding inhumane forms of punishment like stoning people to death and cutting off their hands and feet for petty crimes like theft.

National authorities from many countries also say democracy, the Rule of Law, and rights like the freedom of expression can’t be fully implemented in their societies because these are not consistent with their “culture.”

But whose culture are they talking about?  When certain mullahs of Iran talk about defending “Islamic values,” they are not speaking for millions of Iranians who are Muslims but who don’t agree with the way the government justifies its denials of human rights on the basis of Islam.   One often hears female genital mutilation being defended on the basis of culture but it is also denounced on the basis of culture, from people in the same society.

Like it or not, pluralism exists everywhere and the virtue of liberal democracies is that they provide for cultural pluralism—for multiculturalism—within a framework of equal citizenship and human rights.

Europe is certainly multicultural, having become much more diverse in recent decades, and Europe also has the most extensive, complex and overlapping human rights institutions and laws of any region in the world.  And yet despite these things, the most precious of human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression, is increasingly being restricted.  Unfortunately, an effort to deal with the fact of multiculturalism by what amounts to a utopian ideology of multiculturalism, is to blame.

If you had told me, 20 years ago, that a British citizen was jailed for a casual joke made to friends ridiculing a sports figure, or that the European Court of Human Rights had upheld the conviction of Swedish citizens who distributed leaflets saying homosexuality was a perversion, and that the right to private life includes a right not to be subject to “negative stereotypes”, I would not have believed you.   And I would certainly not have believed that the human rights community would be largely supportive of these violations.  I suppose we have to wait for the Russians and Chinese to report on them in their efforts to discredit the EU’s promotion of human rights abroad.

What has happened in Europe to allow these things is that governments and courts have come to the conclusion that when private citizens hurt the feelings of members of particular groups with their speech and publications, they must be silenced.  “Tolerance” has become a higher ideal and social goal than the fundamental human right of freedom of expression.  And it is a tolerance that often considers criticism as insult or “hate speech,” a tolerance promoted by and enforced by the state, a tolerance of force that says to citizens, be careful what you say—you might wind up in court or in the slammer.

European institutions, including educational institutions, seem to promote tolerance more than human rights.  The main intergovernmental institutions established to protect human rights are also deeply involved in promoting tolerance, but these are fundamentally different kinds of activities.  Protecting human rights means monitoring the behavior of states so that they do not infringe on individual liberties.  Promoting tolerance, in my view, is a matter for citizens in their relations with one another.  It is a job for civil society.

Young people today are often woefully ignorant about their constitutional and internationally guaranteed rights but they are more often aware of the importance of tolerance and even more so, of the dangers of expressing an doing things that may be considered intolerant.

I would suggest that what is often promoted as “tolerance” is inconsistent with the actual meaning of tolerance.  Because tolerance means to suffer that with which you strongly disagree. One is not promoting tolerance if one seeks to limit the free speech of others.

European law has moved far in the direction of considering intolerance itself to be a human rights violation, in other words, to outlawing an internal state of mind that is somehow to be ascertained by a court.  The EU Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia of 2008 obligates member states to punish the “incitement to hatred” based on race, colour, religion or national or ethnic origin, to punish the distribution of tracts doing this, and to punish those who condone or deny such crimes or trivialize them.

Now, anyone familiar with the repression that goes on in totalitarian states knows such language very well, and the human rights community has complained that such vague legal terminology -- in authoritarian countries -- is a recipe for the misuse of such laws for political purposes. When the members of  the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were convicted, Russian courts cited their motivation as “religious hatred.”  In fact, the basis of such law lies in articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights put into international law at the insistence of communist states, and opposed by almost every Western European state  at the time as being arbitrary and dangerous to liberty.

While all of us are presumably fully committed to opposing such hateful acts—including incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence, we need to give careful thought to the implications of making broadly and loosely defined behavior and speech into crimes.  Violent crimes against anyone must be punished.  But criticism and even ridicule of cultural practices, debate about the merits of religions, ideologies, and styles can be considered incitement to hatred, but should be protected.  When criticism and ridicule are suppressed or banned in the name of such ideals as tolerance and even human rights, a backlash against these values can occur, and if you follow public discourse on Internet chat-rooms, that backlash is plain to see.  One of the main sources of hostility to Muslims is the incessant drum-beat of public authorities and media warning about “Islamophobia” and labeling any expressions of concern about Islam and beliefs and practices embraced by some in Islamic communities as a dangerous pathology.

Christians, Jews Muslims and members of other faiths, and the members of diverse ethnic communities do not need to accept everything about one another or even like one another’s beliefs and practices.  They need to recognize that all have rights and freedoms within the limits of the law.  Minorities must not face discrimination; it is appalling  -- a violation of religious freedom --  that bans on Muslim women wearing  burqas exist in a number of European countries and are under discussion in others.  It is also a violation of the Rule of Law when members of minority communities are not subject to the same laws and protections that govern others.

The fact of multiculturalism in Europe demands freedom, not repression.   One of Europe’s earliest and bravest defenders of freedom of thought and expression, Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, saw this clearly as early as 1670. Speaking of 17th century Amsterdam, he said it was a place “where the fruits of this liberty of thought and opinion are seen in its wonderful increase, and testified to by the admiration of every people. In this most flourishing republic and noble city, men of every nation, and creed, and sect live together in the utmost harmony.”

When speech is censored or prosecuted anywhere in a society, it puts a chill on freedom everywhere.  As a recent study of censorship on American college campuses* has shown, censorship leads to fear of people who are different, in other words, the exact oppose of the idea of a peaceful, tolerant, pluralistic society.   It leads to the break-up, rather than the unity of society because it forces people only to trust those who are just like themselves.  Restrictions on free speech lead to polarization, extremism, and group-think, because they isolate people from contact with diverse points of view.  Censorship robs people of intellectual growth and makes them satisfied with a low level of intellectual rigor in an atmosphere dominated by politically correct clichés.

My friends, I am afraid that, in a rush to deal with diversity, European societies are retreating from the very principles that ensure that citizens can freely deal with deep differences among them. Peaceful dialogue in civil society requires a principled stand for freedom of expression.  I firmly believe that preserving peaceful co-existence in a multicultural society depends on respecting human rights above all.

*Unlearning Liberty, by Greg Lukianoff.  Encounter Book, 2012.

Dr Aaron Rhodes

Author: Dr Aaron Rhodes

President of FOREF – Europe

Dr. Aaron Rhodes is a former director of the International Helsinki Federation, an international Human Rights Consultantis and currently the President of the Forum for Religious Freedom – Europe.

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