Understanding, respect and tolerance between different beliefs are important for social peace. However, there must be limits. We cannot tolerate harmful actions and beliefs. Nor can we show respect for those who propagate such beliefs or who commit illegal and harmful actions excused by these beliefs. Yet, often we seem to be so concerned with accepting other religions and cultures that we may ignore the criminal and anti-human aspects that sometimes comes with these religions and cultures.
The murder of Kurdish-born Banaz Mahmod (picture) in the UK illustrates this (Herald). This was an “honour” killing ordered and carried out by her father and uncle and their associates. The British public weren’t aware that this happened in their country until statistics were revealed in 2004. Nazir Afzal, a Crown Prosecution Director reports that they prosecute “about a dozen “honour” murders a year but Afzal believes the true number of killings is much higher. “We have cases of murders that take place abroad – people who are taken and killed abroad – so they obviously don’t come into our figures,” he said. The United Nations estimates there are 5000 honour killings worldwide every year!
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in her book Infidel, describes a similar situation in the Netherlands. Statistics on “honour” killing and similar crimes against women amongst the immigrant and refugee populations did not exist until she became a member of parliament and promoted legislation enabling the collection of this information. Ayaan Hirsi Ali herself had been a victim of similar harmful religious and cultural beliefs having undergone genital mutilation as a girl and a forced marriage as a young women. As a refugee in the Netherlands she came under extreme pressure from her community when she insisted on divorcing her husband, and later when she spoke out about the harmful practices and beliefs of her religion (Islam) and culture (Somalian). Her collaborator on a film project, Theo van Gogh, was assassinated and her life was threatened. She almost certainly would not have survived without the extensive government security provided to her because of her parliamentary position.
I recommend Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel (click on picture for details) for a very lucid account of the effects of such cultural and religious prejudice and the problems women encounter in those societies. For us, it also has the value of discussing problems arising from cultural mixing in modern societies as a result of immigration and the settling of refugees.
Liberal societies are sometimes unwilling to face up to these problems because people may just be unaware of practices like “honour” killing or genital mutilation. There is an assumption that these practices are “left behind” when people leave their country of birth. However, often the problem is that willingness by people of the host country to be accepting of, and respectful to, different cultures and beliefs creates an unwillingness to believe the truth of such negative events when they are revealed. It is easier to instead show respect by accepting the assurances of religious and cultural leaders that they do not do such things. Of course, this shows no respect to the unfortunate victims of such crimes.
Let’s not be smug about this. The sexual and cultural oppression of women is not limited to imported cultures and religions. In our own society there are religious groups who oppress their women, and it wasn’t so long ago that women in mainstream society were treated in a way which is not acceptable today. We should not tolerate these practices either.
I suspect a prime motivation for the current urging of respect and tolerance towards different religions in New Zealand is a desire to prevent occurrence of the sort of problems described above or an attempt to prevent reaction by New Zealanders against immigrants. There is no doubt that many New Zealanders fear the consequences of immigration and the growth of minority religions. This is one source of the support that Bishop Brian Tamaki and the Destiny Church have been able to mobilise against the National Statement on Religious Diversity and the Regional Interfaith Dialogue. However, I think that intolerant approach is only a path to more trouble as it can fuel inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence and hostility.
We must be respectful, tolerant and understanding. But we have to do that in a principled way, we have to show humanity to the victims of religious and cultural oppression. These victims usually have few, if any, supporters in their own community. Nor do they usually have the psychological and political strength to defend themselves.
I think we do have to be clear about the values of our modern democratic society and insist that they take precedence over repugnant customs. We should not permit the excuse of divine or scriptural sanction for these. And we should respect the victims of such practices rather than religious spokespeople who justify or deny them.
Go to International Campaign Against Honour Killings website for more information.