|Roundtable discussion on with Hamid Taqvaie,
Ai Javadi and Azar Majedi
On banning religious symbols, Islamic courts, civil freedoms, minority
rights and racism
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?
Azar Majedi: This is a restriction
on the role of religion in the affairs of the 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 state, education,
citizens’ formal identification and so on; it must be a private
matter. Therefore, from a secular point of view, the state and education
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.
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?
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 multiculturalism,
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.
Recognizing 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 multiculturalism like to portray,
this practice is not egalitarian, but rather it 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.
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
Azar Majedi: I addressed the first
part of the question above. I should also mention that I do not
recognize 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.)
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.
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 with 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.