On the 11th of September, 2016, some 30 masked men occupied the entrance of a Sikh temple in Leamington Spa. They protested against an interfaith marriage taking place at their temple – a marriage between a Sikh and a Muslim.
The former treasurer at the temple, Jatinder Singh Birdi, claimed that: “There have been tensions that have been going on for a couple of years with some people objecting to mixed marriages taking place in the Gurdwara,”. The rather catabolic and retrograde Sikh group ‘Sikh Youth Birmingham’ claimed to have up to 100 people involved in the protest, both inside and outside the Gurdwara. Furthermore, a recent video has emerged of the protest and on it a man filming is seen decrying interfaith marriages: “Leamington Gurdwara, allowing interfaith marriages. Sikhs and Muslims, it’s messed up”.
The event has left many in Leamington Spa – and likely the UK as a whole – clearly overwrought. Many locals in Leamington Spa pointed to the fact that this incident should be called out for what it is: religious sectarianism. There’re probably right. Even if they’re wrong, this incident still represents yet another instance in which a group of people are prepared to forfeit fundamental human rights for the sake of a sanctified, illiberal tradition.
The event has left many unanswered questions. We might wonder, for example: why are a group of people adamant to prevent a marriage between two people from going ahead merely because of the disparity between their respective families’ religious beliefs? We might also wonder: how did we arrive at a situation in which groups holding antiquated, bigoted views are mobilised in a country as liberal and egalitarian as the UK?
Whilst we should contemplate such pressing questions, we should also make sure that we praise the fact that so many people who believe in equality and universal human rights are standing in solidarity with the couple. The couple’s allies have rightly referenced article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which stipulates that “consenting adults, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.”
However, this article seems to be tossed aside by those protesting the marriage. Interfaith marriage (or even same-sex marriage) is acceptable “but not in our local community” seems to be the common retort. Such a retort is unfortunately given sympathy by a faction of alleged defenders of human rights who are wont to argue that the buildings within which marriages are conducted, many of which are owned by religious organisations, should conduct the ceremonies according to the beliefs of the practicing communities, including their views of what constitutes “marriage”.
Nevertheless, there is no firm agreement amongst Britons as to whether religious organisations should be entitled to public recognition of marriages defined according to the beliefs of religious communities. Such religious views of what constitutes “marriage” often differ quite dramatically from those of modern Europeans. Furthermore, these ‘marriages’ may conflict quite radically with the laws and definitions of a nation, for example in cases of polygamy or religious marriage between an adult and a minor. In such cases, citizens from the nation as a whole may simply not grant official recognition to the ‘marriage’ within other civic contexts, such as in British courts.
This highlights the tension between the laws of nation states and religious laws peculiar to faith groups within them. This situation reflects an important ideological tension between political liberalism and those keen to exploit misunderstandings of what liberal tolerance involves. Liberal states do permit religious believers to hold bigoted, sexist, and irrational views, of course, some of which are despicable to others (including others within the religious community). Religious people are also permitted to practice their own way of life within the legal limits of the harm principle.
Universal Human Rights rest on the idea that human beings need certain minimal, fundamental liberties in order to flourish – thus ensuring that all people can take recourse in fundamental human rights no matter their creed, race, age, sex, gender, or nationality. This means individuals must be protected from others who would not extend to individual members of their communities the same freedoms they demand from others, and from their country in which they live. Some religious leaders and adherents would curtail other peoples’ freedoms and compel them to live according to the dictates or values of others, as the protest against the interfaith marriage demonstrates.
This obviously reflects another tension. Moral universalism is the position that rights are given to you irrespective of creed, race, sex, age, etc. This position is being undermined by those advancing various forms of moral relativism – a position that argues that rights are relative to, say, the creed that a person carries, or one’s position in the social structure of power.
With regard to the interfaith marriage case before us, all the points I’ve raised thus far are clearly important and something that we must surely mull over. Yet, this isn’t what this article will principally focus on. Instead, there is another issue I want to explore, one that I will unapologetically explore at length given the complexities of the issue I want to bring to light. This issue concerns two opposing political factions – factions which are mutually prevents the required steps that will ensure that our country, collectively, crystallises its commitment to universal human rights:
1) The nationalist far-right is extending degrees of mistrust towards cultural minorities, and ignoring the liberal-leaning groups within minority religions who champion universal human-rights, thereby obscuring the fact that religious “communities” are hardly homogeneous.
2) The regressive-left is rushing to insulate minority groups in the cotton wool of moral relativism – with the consequence of lowering our moral expectations of individuals within minority groups
Let’s begin by focussing on the first faction. Those carrying this set of views have ludicrously claimed that the tiff in Leamington Spa’s Gurdwara can be explained away rather simply: the tiff shows the inherent pitfalls that a Non-Neo-Christian (and thus ‘non-British’) domination will disseminate within our country. Sikhs, Muslims (especially Muslims) – they’re all perpetrators of a non-British and thus slipshod consecration of outmoded and un-implementable sets of values – values that will ‘never’ have dominion over our country. ”We all know”, they argue, that it’s minority groups who are most likely to be the ones unashamedly gathered in the most retrograde pockets of society: “Just look at the typical Muslim on the news – he is a thawb donning, caliphate-craving fundamentalist at odds with western values!”
Whilst it may well be the case that there are numbers (however big or small) within a minority group – Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, etc., – who may well have demeaned views on a given topic (what we might say is out-of-touch with the “typical” – whatever that means – British national), it’s nevertheless false that this somehow warrants any hasty generalisation that non-Christian religious minorities are, as a whole, somehow not only necessarily unsuited to British life but are also necessarily warring against it.
Unwarranted hasty generalisations reflect an important fact about the nationalist far-right: obfuscation. This obfuscation concerns how they deal the other – one that fuels the ideological engine – one that in academic circles is called the fallacy of hasty generalisation.This fallacy is achieved when one reaches an inductive generalisation based on insufficient evidence – basically making a hasty conclusion without considering all the variables involved. The group as a whole will be coloured with the hues of the minority – a minority that of course fails to sufficiently represent an entire group.
Any “explanations” which paint groups as a whole with the colours of a minority number in a minority group deserves repudiation. Nationalist right-wingers tend to share with left-wing defenders of “culture” a belief in the undifferentiated unity of the minority ‘group’, when in fact minority cultures are often composed of individuals with widely differing views. Left-wing ‘culture’ apologists never tire of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy.
In response to liberal critics of some minority group’s ideological, authoritarian strains, the lefty culturalist retort is always, “that is not the ‘real’ Islam/Sikhism”, or “there are many types of Islam/Sikhism”. Next they turn around and say “Islam/Sikhism is a religion of peace,” as though this were the real Islam/Sikhism, and there are not many other versions that diverge from it. If the nationalist far-right’s generalisations paint a political fiction of minority groups as “all the same”, the left’s simplistic stance as defenders of ‘minority cultures’ (rather than of individuals) equally fortifies the political fiction of group uniformity (more on this later).
Not only are do the nationalist far-right’s generalisations essentially mar minority groups as carriers of antediluvian values but, lest we forget, such generalisations sadly foment increasing degrees of mistrust, scepticism and dismissal towards liberal individuals/movements within minority groups who champion universal human-rights. Consequently, any liberal strands that champion universal human-rights are seen as repeating historical ethnocentric attitudes because they prioritise human universals over cultural particularities.
There is a dangerous assumption here at play: members of ethnic minority groups are inherently and essentially different to us – their customs and perspectives impossible to ‘penetrate’. This is paired with the assumption that no common humanity could conceivably transcend cultural barriers. Furthermore, there is another assumption that our British culture is inherently alien and alienating to the ‘other’. Given these assumptions, the view that develops is that what matters are not the existential situations in which human individuals find themselves, and how they respond to their various circumstances. Rather, their ‘situatedness’ defines them, and constrains their ‘essence’ to pre-formed boundaries.
This view – or ‘worldview’ has the dire consequence of thwarting the emergence of an all-pervasive liberal-multicultural platform, one that is committed to moral universalism in the form of universal human-rights.
Liberal individuals and movements within minority groups therefore face considerable obstacles from bridging their own group to other external groups under the mutual interest in securing universal human rights that could better all individuals irrespective of their group membership. Champions of human rights who identify as, for example, ‘Sikh’ or ‘Muslim’ – people who may accept the validity of interfaith marriages within their places of worship (or interfaith marriage more generally) – are completely shut down. The far-right philosophies of both nationalist and religious fundamentalists not only relegate them to obscurity in mainstream society, but they silence their voices within their own (minority) groups (especially when they hail from ultra-conservative communities).
It is in this context that the liberal Muslim and the liberal Sikh are deemed by the nationalist far right as “not really a Muslim” or “not really a Sikh”. This is particularly
detrimental if a minority group has come to institutionalise values at odds with universal human rights. Those in the group best suited to champion universal human rights within such groups end up receiving an increasingly second-rate status in their own country courtesy of the group of the majority, as well as facing considerable marginalisation within their own groups to which they self-identify.
With the ramifications that the nationalist far-right philosophy presents now spelled out at length, I now want to focus on the other faction, one that seems, at least at first sight, diametrically opposed to it. This faction carries an argument that is far less knotty and is possibly gaining far more traction than the nationalist far-right faction. This second faction is the far-left, or, to be precise, those regressive strands within the far-left: a political epithet that Maajid Nawaz suitably coined: ‘the regressive-left’.
I say that the regressive-left is perhaps gaining more traction today because not only do they arguably outnumber or at least match the vociferous voices of the nationalist far-right on social media but, worryingly, myriads of disproportionate numbers of our young people in university are increasingly spieling the views of the regressive left.
Once I spell out the regressive-left’s argument and its ramifications I hope it will become abundantly clear why this faction’s popularity is a great cause for concern.
Let’s consider the basic framework of their particular argument which they claim legitimises the move from universal moral principles to moral relativism when dealing with moral issues concerning those groups which are, in the UK, minorities. After this we can start to explore their framework in more depth. We can get a good grasp of the basic framework of their argument by focussing on the SCS (Symptoms, Causes, Solution) of their ‘philosophy’.
1) Symptoms: any group that does not occupy the foremost locus of power in the structural hierarchy – which at present is occupied by white, male, western cis-hetero (the privileged) face varying degrees of persecution
2) Causes: those all-pervasive power-structures that manifest between groups in society institutionalise racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, etc., and lend support to the persecution of minorities – because power structures which institutionalise discrimination are largely the cause of persecution towards minority groups
3) Treatment: Offsetting the power structures by championing (pluralist) multiculturalism and relativizing morality by lowering the standards of moral norms of those in persecuted groups in order to redress the power imbalance in the structure – essentially ‘jacking up’ those who occupy a low locus in the hierarchy of power to a position that affords them more power.
With the basic framework spelled out, let’s now inspect their argument in more depth. Whilst this is no easy task, and there may points in my exposition that you find yourself a little, well, discombobulated, try to follow the exposition as best you can with a critical eye.
Right, let’s start from the top. There’s one imposing group that exemplifies privilege
par excellence – namely the group currently containing white, male, western cis-heteros. This group occupies the foremost position of power in society – in all sectors in life members of this group will accrue the most success (money, rights, leverage, etc.).
This group has an important relationship with all those lower in the hierarchy of power: all other groups (Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, LGBT members, etc.) are necessary for the highest tier to retain their foremost position of power (thus ‘privileged’) because institutionalised (discriminatory) power relations with ‘lower’ groups provide the footing upon which they’ve acquired and are able to retain their top-tier position.
In other words, to be in a position of privilege can only achieved if minority groups are somehow persecuted (discriminated against).
The regressive-left take the colours of the power-relations that a minority group has, as a whole (a power relation which firmly puts minority groups in a position that is, in terms of the power they can wield, underprivileged), and then paint all members who identify within that group with such colours – smearing them as ‘all persecuted’; ‘victims’ by definition.
At this point you may well be thinking: why, though, is it the case that if you are in a group which doesn’t occupy the foremost tier in a society you must necessarily somehow be ‘persecuted’? Because minority groups are understood as underprivileged they will thus be seen as occupying positions which either directly or indirectly entail persecution – with power relations being understood as the ‘principal cause’ of persecution. This results in the regressive left refusing to acknowledge that even powerful minorities within groups putatively persecuted can be privileged (on this account, even powerful Saudis of the minority group, Muslims, are deemed persecuted).
The regressive-left not only end up obfuscating important distinctions within minority groups by painting them with a single colour as their far-right counterparts do, they go as far to legitimise flouting of universal human-rights by members within groups they deem “persecuted” because of the moral relativism that power structures create. What this means is that an Islamist (from the minority group called ‘Muslims’) who argues that, for example, “an ideal Islamic state would mean apostates being killed” is thereby excused – views explained away as mere reactions to the even more egregious manifestations of western power.
Those on the regressive left argue that in order to rebalance the power-relations, certain concessions have to be granted. This results in them making the obscene claim that whilst the white, male, western cis-hetero archetype of privilege has the right to reflect over instances of human rights flouting in the groups that he and his ilk has persecuted, he *SHOULD NOT* criticise them. This is because criticising will only forge further persecution because criticising only exacerbates the imbalance of power: pushing the minority’s position to the ground whilst elevating his own position of power.
If one manages to clear away all the fuzziness of this argument they will discern an eerie figure: moral relativism. What would otherwise be deemed a contravention of fundamental human-rights – and thus furnishing a strong basis for deeming it immoral – the guilty-party is instead pardoned in virtue of being deemed the right kind of bully – the ‘persecuted’, the ‘victim’. Moral expectations in minority groups are accordingly lowered and sympathies elevated.
Focussing again on the event in Leamington Spa, due to both the structural interplay underpinning this tragedy and the moral relativism that it brings about, the regressive-left argue that we people who defend universal human-rights, people who largely make-up the privileged west (even though increasing numbers of people the world-over are becoming rightful defenders of fundamental human rights), must necessarily resort to silence, to turn a blind-eye, for the sake of offsetting the lopsided power relations that exists between all self-identifying groups. This lopsided relation which may well concern a principle deeply occultist, ‘power’, but it is a structural relationship that is obviously incontestable.
However, obviously it doesn’t follow that offsetting lopsided power-relations requires forgoing a commitment to moral universalism. Also it doesn’t follow that offsetting lopsided power-relations requires a lowering of moral expectations. In other words, it does not have to be the case that what’s needed is a social platform drowned in the currents of moral relativism. Instead, all human-beings should be conferred the same kind of upstanding moral expectations that most of us readily confer the white, male, western cis-heteros.
Maintaining a commitment to moral universalism plays an indispensable role in offsetting the power relations because, amongst other reasons, universal human rights have the potential of creating a level playing field upon which we can all strive for a better quality of life, reciprocally, and without having to persecute others – especially those most persecuted minority groups – to achieve it.
Given my lengthy expositions of both factions – two factions, of course, that squawked loudly in response to the shocking series of events that took place in Leamington Spa – we are thus in a better position to start thinking about what’s required to redress these very problematic views. Accepting the validity of my characterisation of the two factions, people will inevitably formulate different ‘solutions’, of course. However, I hope that none will detract from the following. What I am going to suggest may well be terse but I think it’s nonetheless an unavoidable response
An indispensable solution to ensure that the kind of flouting of human-rights that we have seen take place in Leamington Spa doesn’t happen again is to ensure that balanced critique takes place, a critique that is freely able to unfurl unabated towards and within minority groups, a critique that is death to the calls of considerations concerning power relations, a critique that happily dances in various degrees of gradations and nuance. This requires a discourse far more sophisticated than what the nationalist far-right is willing to carry through and a discourse accepting a far more universal degree of morality than the far-left is willing to accept.
In light of all of this, we can see that the fight comprises three areas – three battles that all those who believe in universal human-rights must participate in.
- We must push back against the awry, outmoded and unforgivable religious sectarianism exercised by those who either say “no, full-stop, to interfaith marriage” or those who claim that “yes to interfaith marriage, but not in my temple”.
- We must also fight the nationalist far-right with their sickly smearing of all those groups who do not represent the pseudo-Christian British Apollonian figure as somehow being necessarily unsuited to British life and warring against it. If we do not, those defenders of human rights who come from minority groups – particularly those groups that may well be institutionalising values at odds with universal human rights – will continue being on the receiving end of various degrees of mistrust, scepticism and dismissal.
- We must also resist the dangers posed by regressive strands of the far-left ideology – providing bulwark against their attempts to usurp the platform upon which moral universalism rests by way of moral relativism. This is especially important in order replace the regressive-left’s ebbing of moral expectations and the consequent “racism of low expectation” with steadfast and stalwart degrees of consistent human-rights defence.
This three-way fight is indispensable for those who maintain a view that a world that implements universal human-rights is a fundamentally fairer and thus a better place. Universal rights are not only indispensable for all people no matter the locus they occupy in a structure of power in a given society, but, lest we forget, universal rights are an indispensable way of ensuring that couples who want to consecrate their affection for one another in the form of marriage are able to do just that. And this is right that should never be flouted even if a group of people take issue with a couple’s differing religious beliefs (or race, sex, gender, or nationality).
Benjamin David founded Conatus News in 2016. He currently works as an editor for Parliamentary Review.