Over on Why Evolution is True, Greg Mayer posted an article on religious freedom from the perspective of Kenan Malik, originally written for New Humanist magazine. In it, Malik wrote… well, let him say it for himself:
Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence or other forms of physical harm to others. Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. These should be the fundamental principles by which we judge the permissibility of any belief or act, whether religious or secular.
In the comments, lots of atheists took exception to the article, especially where Malik said that burkas shouldn’t be outlawed, citing “discrimination of women” and the like. While I can appreciate those sentiments to some degree, I personally think Malik is right on in his above quote. This is especially true in Westernized nations where women cannot be forced under penalty of death or torture to wear them. People, if we’re going to hold them responsible for their actions, need to be able to make choices which impact their lives. That means people should be able to choose their own religions, their own cultures, their own social customs and modes of dress. So long as it isn’t directly forced upon them, Muslim women should be allowed to wear how they choose, within the larger social context of the nation in which they live. That means that for France, for example, they have decided that people doing certain things must have their faces exposed. That’s fine. For people not doing those things, however, there should be no restriction on what they wear.
Malik is on point with that view completely. Women in these nations are not forced to be Muslims, women in these nations are not held at gunpoint and forced to put on a head-to-toe black bag, they choose to do so. If we’re going to value religious and social freedom, we have to allow people to make their own religious and social choices and deal with the consequences thereof.
This isn’t just a liberal atheist problem though, the same thing happens with conservatives. Everyone seems to think that the way things are done in their own culture is the way everyone everywhere ought to do them. That’s just not true. It’s ridiculous to declare by fiat that your standards apply everywhere and then attack those who don’t hold up to your standards. Sorry, I don’t think they ever voted on your standards or agreed to embrace them.
Now, as everyone knows, I’m 100% in favor of human equality. Men and women, blacks and whites, theists and atheists, gays and straights, everyone ought to be equal. Everyone ought to have equal rights and equal responsibilities. If you can decide to put on a t-shirt and jeans, a Muslim woman should be able to decide to put on a burka. It doesn’t matter to me if they all want to run around naked sporting a purple mohawk. It’s their life, their choices and their responsibilities for those choices. You have absolutely no right to insist their choices match yours.