Shared Norms in a Globalized World?

By: Mona Siddiqui

April 29, 2016

Religious Freedom: Past, Present, and Future Challenges

Stanley Hoffman said, "If death defines the human condition, injustice defines the social one. There is a duty, national and international, to reduce it as much as possible. But there is no definitive victory." Victory may remain elusive, but the imperative to strive to eliminate all forms of injustice wherever we can must remain at the forefront of any international ethics. Governments throughout the world are increasingly aware of the need to address political, economic, security, and ethical challenges across national boundaries. Although state interests differ on a variety of human concerns, the use of the phrase "global society" emphasizes humanity’s interconnectedness and interdependence despite the diversity of cultural, religious, economic, and social practices. As such, there is a desire for a more inclusive way of thinking and acting that can create a global order of shared practices and good governance without homogenization.

While it may not be practical to speak of a global community bound together by certain norms, neither is it impossible to uphold certain norms as being indispensable to good global governance and human flourishing. At the very least, reflection on shared norms and values reminds us of questions we have forgotten to ask, of human idealism in its deepest sense. Values such as justice, equality, empathy, religious freedom, and human rights for all may seem to be distinct values of secular modernity, the Enlightenment heritage, and the preserve of liberal democracies. But they also resonate across diverse religious populations and political aspirations. Even if they are considered politically or theologically charged terms, today such values have become fundamental to our understanding of human desire, agency, and aspiration. They are about establishing moral accountability and principles aimed at connecting rather than disconnecting humanity.

Globalization, innovative technology, and ease of travel mean that we are connected more than ever before to the hopes and suffering of others. In many ways, it has never been easier than it is today to foster the sense of a shared earth, shared values, and a shared humanity. As Mohammad Samiei argues, modern technologies have "annihilated" and "compressed" distance or space "so that distant events and decisions affect local life to a growing degree and any crisis anywhere can virtually affect human beings everywhere. Hence, what happens to 'others' nowadays matters to us to an unprecedented extent." Thus, this process of globalization has immediate local impact in multicultural societies so that how we understand the world may be how we understand our neighbor.

We all speak from a particular place, but today we cannot escape the fact that modernity has done away with many of the premodern ideas of justice, male-female relations, and ideas of the common good. Humankind is a locus for unending growth and possibilities where law itself should be seen as a cultural construct, rather than only as natural or divine law. International legal norms are applied in largely multicultural diasporas with competing moralities and interests. Shared values are not about the homogenization of norms or governance or ignoring the moral, legal, and, social complexity of any society. Rather, they aim to rise above daily politics and help us realize a more authentic self and a more authentic society.

Religious institutions may be on the decline in the Global North, but religious life and values still shape how many of us think of the world and the questions we continue to ask. But we need to rethink our human concerns in the light of our faith and but also the effects of modernity. In most Western societies the political language is that of liberalism and liberalism speaks a language of rights where the individual is at the center of the worldview; liberalism recognizes the individual over the collective. This has given a new model of freedom to society, along with a new social order where religion no longer retains its former elevated position in society. The rise of democratic rule, the concept of civil society, the consciousness of all kinds of human rights including religious rights, gender rights and sexual rights are all part of this new political and moral consciousness. Thus, irrespective of East or West, the human rights language including its international dimension through the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has captured our imagination and immersed itself in the global political and legal discourse.

The rights based language recognizes human freedom as essential to human flourishing and that there is no human dignity without human freedom. The freedom of the individual citizen to choose his or her own moral life must lie at the core of any humane governance. From the Islamic perspective, this is thrown into sharp focus with the verse, "If God had so willed, he would have made you all one community, but [He has not done so] that He may test you in what He has given you; so compete in goodness" (Q5:48). This is not a matter of private morality but rather demands the public imperative to recognize and accept religious pluralism and freedom of conscience as intrinsic to a just society.

This is the debate which must be kept alive for the next generation who may become complacent about their own freedoms. Our humanity is reduced if we are not free. Human rights are a struggle and an aspiration in many parts of the world where there is poverty, inequality, violence, and degradation. Thus, it seems to me that if religious voices want to tell a different story from the one told by the state, they cannot dismiss human rights as optional or irrelevant. Religious ethics must compliment not clash with the rights based discourse in a language which is meaningful not just authoritative. Only then will religion surface forcefully and justly as a public good rather than simply a private passion. The idea of 'global civil society' calls for a widely agreed-upon body of universal principles, a global ethic, to guide our norms and relations with one another.

Our hopes for a more equal and more just world where people can live without fear and oppression depend on how each of us thinks of "international morality." Ideas of justice and how nation-states conceive, even legislate for, human freedom and rights are central to this discourse. Today freedom of religion, whether understood as an individual or collective right to practice a faith, to convert to another faith, to worship in public, is considered by many as a moral good which is indispensable in a community of free individuals. And yet individuals need to live within and experience a variety of freedoms, including intellectual freedoms before the full meaning of religious conscience can be understood. Religious freedom cannot exist as a theoretical principle alone, it must be a lived reality. This becomes harder in societies where basic human rights are denied, where people live with violence and where religion is a coercive force imposed by the state or a community. Whatever our ideals, at the very least, religious freedom is imperative in creating a moderate world order in the face of sectarian violence, ethnic conflicts, and bloody revolution. If politics is a goal-oriented activity, international relations is the domain of moral choice. Norms cannot be analyzed outside the structures of power or the specific embodied social practices in which they are embedded and expressed. Even though we know that the world is characterized by diverse moral codes, competing moral systems, and theories, this reality should not preclude us from having the courage to engage in international debates on the value of freedom and justice.
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