Summer Course: Religious Rights and Rule of Law

Supporting Leaders

Summer Course: Religious Rights and Rule of Law

02 Aug 2012

This was the second of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation's university summer schools. McGill in Montreal followed Singapore. The theme was human rights, law, and religious minorities, a mainstream theme in our Faith and Globalisation Initiative. Though the two week course was accredited by the participant universities, it happily avoided the intense pressure of contemporary university life. The chance for probing debate and free-wheeling discussion was taken by everyone, not least the teaching staff.

I attended under the heading of "guest lecturers" but was only really a guest as far as the university's excellent student accommodation was concerned. McGill had the foresight to have bought up a large hotel next to the big city park. We were close by Boulevard St. Laurent which did its best to be like Paris on a hot summer's day.

With students as culturally diverse as those from Monterrey, Mexico and Peking University, the different perspectives on the topic were bound to be stimulating. All fared well despite having English as a second language, shaming at times the anglophones from the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. It was sad that two students from Fourah Bay in Sierra Leone failed to get their visas. The strong phalanx of cultural anthropology students from the University of Western Australia in Perth made a distinctive contribution, often lacking in law-based approaches to religion.

So what were the take-aways from two weeks of high powered conversation between professors and some very bright students from around the world? Well, for me at least, a new appreciation of the importance of law in the sphere of religion. I knew already that a judicial judgement crafted with immaculate precision by a Supreme Court judge, or arguments marshalled by legal experts, the Stephen Sedleys of this world, had the refined quality and intricacy of a Swiss watchmaker. There was something quite beautiful about the forensic, legal use of words with each meaning carefully balanced, so different from the sloppy use of language we have become accustomed to when words mean just what each interlocutor wants them to mean.

What I had not realised was to what degree different judiciaries made it up as they went along, pulling general principles on which to base their judgements out of the air, or finding them pinned enigmatically into old constitutions. This was perhaps the product of the intimate, intractable nature of dealing with the amoebic reality called religion. But it was also a fortiori the post-war product of an invasion of human rights concepts into the legal, political and social terrain: freedom of speech versus freedom of religion versus equality and anti-discrimination legislation. A good half of the legal battle in protecting human rights in many societies has become deciding between them.

This is not to drive a wedge between accounts of human dignity and discourses on reciprocal obligations and the Common Good, but simply to point out that while the idea of subjective human rights is a vital fail-safe against government repression, it is not the only way to talk about justice and the good of the "other". Indeed, as the last decade has illustrated it can throw up some intractable political and legal problems. Moreover, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has pointed out it is historically spurious to proffer a rigid distinction between religious accounts of human dignity and secular accounts of human rights. They trace back to common antecedents.

The case-study approach used at McGill in the second week of the course was ideal for drawing out the key factors in judicial decisions regarding religious utterances and practices. Many of the human rights "freedoms" inevitably come bracketed with a set of agreed limitations so that judgements depend as much on interpreting the limits of the limitations as on the nature of the freedom. Likewise how much do intentions matter? Is a homophobic utterance intended to provoke hatred, encourage violence, or is it just what a religious leader believes is a simple voicing of a moral position or a religious belief, badly expressed, arguably both a matter of freedom of religion and freedom of speech? And does it matter if this takes place on television, at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, or from a pulpit or in a Mosque? And, if you think legislation on hate-speech is a bad idea, how do you stop people burning the Holy Qur'an, or printing cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH), with the dire consequences of doing so socially, by way of making a point about freedom of speech?

It would be a foolish person who dismissed all this as a lot of irrelevant intellectual speculation. The fact that litigation on religious issues has been growing in the last decade shows clearly the social and political significance of the underlying religious issues. Growing number of law cases are the most obvious manifestations of the irruption of religion in the 21st century onto the international stage and as a socially contested area.

It has been the mantra of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation since its inception in 2008 that we condone religious illiteracy in our statesmen and political leaders today at our peril. And do you know what? After the summer school in McGill my conclusion would be that we got that part of our message dead right.