LONDON — Should gender segregation be allowed in Muslim public meetings? That question has created a surprising degree of political heat in Britain in recent weeks.
The controversy began after a number of hard-line Muslim student groups insisted that men and women must sit separately at their public meetings and lectures. Universities UK, the official voice of British universities, deemed such segregation to be acceptable so long as women were not forced to sit at the back of the room. The guidance caused an uproar, drawing the prime minister, David Cameron, into the debate, and leading an opposition spokesman, Chuka Umunna, to insist that “a future Labour government would not allow or tolerate segregation in our universities.”
For some, the debate has been an expression of Islamophobia, singling out Muslim practices for criticism. For others, the attitude of Universities UK demonstrates how many in authority are willing to appease Islamist extremists, and to tolerate the intolerable so as not to offend minority groups.
It is true that many racists have seized on this controversy, as they have done with other issues, to foment hostility toward Muslims. But that only makes it more necessary for progressives to claim issues such as this, to bend them to progressive, rather than racist, purposes. To challenge specifically Islamic practices is not necessarily to be “Islamophobic.”
The problems revealed by the controversy are not only those of Islam: The storm over segregated meetings is merely the latest in a series of clashes. From questions of blasphemy to divisions over same-sex marriage, the fractiousness of such debates reflects growing tensions between some strands of religious thought and the changing demands of a secular society. It also reflects a deep-set confusion over what is meant by “religious freedom.”
Most Western societies have, for historical reasons, come to think of “religious freedom” as a special kind of liberty. The modern debate about tolerance and rights developed in Europe from the 17th century onward, primarily within a religious framework. Questions about what could be tolerated were, at heart, questions of how, and how far, the state and the established church should accommodate religious dissent.
Today we live in a different world. Religion is no longer the crucible in which political and intellectual disputes take place. Questions of freedom and tolerance are not about how the dominant religious establishment should respond to dissenting theological views, but about the degree to which society should tolerate, and the law permit, speech and activity that might be offensive or hateful, that might challenge the state or undermine national security.
From today’s perspective, it is easier to see that religious freedom is not a special kind of liberty, but one expression of a broader set of freedoms of conscience, belief, assembly and action.
Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence. Whatever one’s beliefs, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as, in so doing, one neither physically harms another individual 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, religious or secular.
Many on both sides of the debate about religious freedom fail to grasp these principles. Many secularists, for instance, insist that religious views should be kept out of the public sphere. That cannot be right, any more than it would be right to bar the views of racists, conservatives, Communists or gay activists from the public sphere.
Many believers want to retain privileges for religion. As a society, we should tolerate as far as possible the desire of people, religious or secular, to live according to their consciences. But that tolerance ends when someone acting upon his or her conscience causes harm to another or infringes on another’s rights.
So religions should have no right to prevent the publication of material believers deem offensive. Religious freedom requires that people of faith be allowed to speak or act in ways that might offend others; it does not require that others do not cause them offense.
There is nothing wrong with the American government’s requiring Catholic-run hospitals to give employees health insurance that includes free contraception: Churches are not being forced to provide contraception. In their role as secular employers, they are being asked to provide benefits that all employers must provide. To exempt church-run organizations would be to deny those benefits to a particular group of employees.
A religious institution should be free to bar women from acting as clergy members or to segregate the sexes in religious services or private meetings. But enforced segregation in a public forum is a different matter and must be opposed.
All this is not, as many believers suggest, to enforce secular discrimination against religious belief. Many nonreligious groups — fascists, Communists, Greens — could claim that their beliefs mandated certain actions or practices. Yet, it would be illegal for a racist cafe owner to bar black people, or for Greens to destroy a farmer’s field of legally grown genetically modified crops, however deep-set their particular beliefs.
There is a line, in other words, that cannot be crossed — even if conscience demands it. That line should be in the same place for religious believers as for nonbelievers.
Under pressure, Universities UK has withdrawn its advice on segregation, pending a review. Whether it has really understood the meaning of religious freedom in a modern society is a moot question. What seems certain, given continuing confusion about the relationship between the religious and the secular, is that we will see many more such controversies.
Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer, broadcaster and the author of “From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath.”