PERSPECTIVE: FREEDOMS ON TRIAL – Conflicting claims to personal liberty still trouble democracies

PERSPECTIVE: FREEDOMS ON TRIAL – Conflicting claims to personal liberty still trouble democracies – our ‘human right’ to express our thoughts, which others may choose not to agree with, and so are also free to choose to read or to ignore ?!!

Darjeeling MP, Hon'ble Jaswant Singh and reinstated opposition BJP Veteran Stalwart with Dr Harka Bahadur Chettri - well aware of how states are born and the process therein to experience ?!! (Himal News)

From The Telegraph
By Krishnan Srinivasan

The author is former foreign secretary of India

The common factor that unites the Gujarat and Maharashtra governments’ actions against the books of Jaswant Singh on Jinnah and James Laine on Shivaji respectively, the fatwas against Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen, Pramod Muthalik’s hoodlums assaulting women in Mangalore pubs, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s campaign against the painter, Hussain, is the habitual testing of the boundaries of individual personal liberty and human rights. Democratic societies today are overwhelmed by the complex variety of conflicting claims to personal liberty.

Personal liberties are under pressure in many parts of the world and from many quarters. Nation states that are supposed to be the protectors and custodians of human rights are often the worst offenders. Israel, which sees itself as fighting for the liberty of its people, arrogates to itself the right to curtail the freedom of the media, uses disproportionate and random violence against civilians, and is pauperizing the whole population of Gaza, whereas the Palestinian population sees itself as fighting for the freedom of the Palestinian people from a foreign and oppressive military occupation. Does the right of Israelis to live safely within their own borders, which are presently undefined, justify the outrageous violations of human rights law for over half a century? Aung San Suu Kyi has been imprisoned in Myanmar for 21 years, solely because she threatens the perpetual military regime through the democratic process. Nelson Mandela was in a South African jail for 27 years in similar circumstances.

The concept of intellectual freedom is one that concerns us because it is assumed that a person is more fulfilled under conditions of liberty. The only limitations in theory should be the self- imposed ones necessitated by forms of collaboration, where tensions may arise between the personal freedom to think and work at one’s own rhythm, and the common good of attaining a higher level of social harmony. Even the closest chosen social interactions could constrain liberty when the freedom of the individual comes into conflict with that of others, a feature typical in any community life. Therefore, society has perforce to make a choice between countervailing liberties. Civilized societies emphasize the importance of freedom for education, science, the arts and democracy itself. The basic sources of international human rights law are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the various United Nations covenants approved thereafter.

In the Netherlands there is a ‘Party for Freedom’ that carries out a campaign against immigrants, in Austria a ‘Freedom Party’ that is part of the federal government, and in Hungary the Jobbik Party that opposes foreigners, Jews and gypsies. Most countries in the European Union have similar political formations. These reflect the diffuse feelings of fear because of the growing number and visibility of immigrant Muslims, exacerbated inevitably by the association of fundamentalist Islam with international terrorism, and on a more structural level, the still only partial integration of these immigrants with society owing to social, religious and ethnic factors. Immigrants from less developed countries to Europe, who have not been exposed to successive emancipation movements, have problems adjusting to the cultural gap, which only supplements the challenge of different linguistic and religious traditions. Aspects of discrimination against immigrants have led to aggressive reaction. The percentage of unemployed young migrants with weak educational skills is high, and gangs and criminal acts have resulted. The forces of law and order are not always free of racial reflexes, which add to the mutual divide and the reciprocal image of an enemy.

The Belgian parliament has forbidden the veil in public spaces for the sake of security, and the French are close to similar legislation. The Danish premier has declared that “there is no place for the burqa and niqaab in our society”. The debate, however, centres on who is discriminating against whom and on what grounds — in France, some 2,000 women are believed to wear such clothes, a percentage so low that one may wonder why there should be a problem. Two-thirds of this number are French citizens and 90 per cent are younger than 40. Are European societies now obsessively fixated on symbols through which small minorities are marking their collective identities, when these emblems are not shared by the vast majority of their own ethnic and religious group? Why should the building of minarets for mosques damage the beautiful Swiss landscape more than traditional Christian bell- towers?

Yet, it is entirely understandable that societies wish to protect their own value-systems — which may include the security of persons and property, tolerance, and freedom of expression — from a minority that chooses to repudiate everything but the material advantages gained from migration to another cultural environment. But how far can such protection go without abuse of individual liberty of expression in an absolute sense?

Since the dress code of Muslim women has been pushed to the political agendas of European countries, defendants of the hijab, burqa and niqaab are inclined to claim that the Quran prescribes this kind of attire. This argument brings the issue under the protection of the fundamental freedom to practise religious or philosophical faith enshrined by the Universal Declaration and the Covenant on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. But the Universal Declaration itself has come to be marginalized in some Muslim countries as a product of Western culture and therefore inapplicable to Islamic societies. In 1990, the Organization of Islamic Conference, which now counts 56 nations, subjected all the rights and freedoms in the Universal Declaration to the Islamic shariah.

In the course of its history, the Muslim world did not develop the idea of separation of religious and secular authority. Nor did it develop any clerical hierarchy that was empowered to prescribe a unique orthodox interpretation of the holy book. Religious prescriptions have thus been interpreted through the centuries in different ways in different countries. In consequence, the reference to the shariah is equally open to a variety of interpretations. The scarce references in the Quran about proper dress only concern the female gender, and without attempting any contestable exegesis, it may, however, be confidently stated that such prescriptions as there are have enjoyed a heterodox observance.

It was perhaps the Iranian revolution of 1979 that launched a fundamentalist reaction to women who had been laying aside the veil since the early 20th century, and the donning of the chador and the hijab to make a religious statement became the marker of a new order, which reinvented an opaque tradition that had never been observed throughout the entire Islamic world.

Some Islamic fundamentalist groups outside the Islamic world, especially in the United Kingdom, are seeking to impose the shariah within their segregated communities. The imposition of a traditional female dress code is, for them, an expression of the rejection of the Western cultural environment in which they choose to live. From these circles there are calls for sexual segregation that counter the gradual and welcome evolution towards gender equality which has taken place in the last century, typified by universal suffrage, equal rights and pay and equal participation and benefits in education, professions, sports, medical care, birth control and the right of abortion.

These are deeply felt achievements relatively recently attained in democratic societies, and attempts to reject or retract from them will touch a highly sensitive nerve. Indeed, feminists will rightly point out that we still have a huge way to go before women in countries like India achieve justice and equality in the distribution of social roles.

In India, as in other democracies, society must be on guard against fundamentalist actions that seek to contest the gains in human rights which have been made over the last hundred years. Obscurantists see no irony and feel no shame in sheltering under the very laws of human rights they seek to subvert.

Speaking of liberty, Charles de Montesquieu in his De l’esprit des lois of 1748 wrote that “no concept has been used in a greater variety of meanings, and stuck in the minds in so many ways”. How true, even 260 years later.

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