Religious Ethics: A University View
Like many Muslim women, Aishah Azmi wore a long dress and a veil (niqab) in the presence of males, covering her head and face, except for her eyes. After pupils claimed it was hard to understand her in class, the school asked Azmi not to wear the veil when working with children.
When she refused to remove it, she was suspended. After appealing this decision, she was eventually sacked. You will remember the media hype around this case.
Beneath the fuss lie pressing, difficult questions. In modern Europe, we live in diverse communities. Our states are committed to treating all citizens equally, and seek to promote and protect certain individual rights and freedoms. One of these is freedom of religious belief. Religious belief often carries with it requirements or expectations in terms of dress.
Now the serious problem is this: in cases such as Azmi’s, we seem to find freedom of religion bumping up against another priority: to provide adequate education in the classroom setting. When this happens, what should we do? To what extent should individuals and groups be treated the same, regardless of differences in their religious and moral beliefs? Should our institutions enshrine those differences, or ignore them? And more generally: what values and policies can keep our communities viable in the face of moral and religious diversity?
EuroEthos, an international research project funded by the European Commission, tries to answer those questions by looking at cases where individuals or groups have sought exemption from the law on the basis of their beliefs. For example, besides the veil case, think of the Catholic adoption agencies’ recent protest against gay adoptions, or of the recent controversy over the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for medical research. The project compares how such cases are tackled in different countries: the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Slovakia, Spain and Turkey, as well as the UK.
At the heart of EuroEthos is the challenge of finding a shared European approach to the issues raised. For the UK, the project is being managed by the Social Ethics Research Group at the University of Wales, Newport. The work of the group is shaped by a strong belief in the value of taking abstract debates about ethics and social justice and applying them to the most complex, urgent issues we face in contemporary society. That is why we have chosen to confront the challenges of diversity in our work.
Like our students, we do well to remember that our first impressions of an issue are not always fully reliable, and that the issues themselves are not always as they first appear. Confronting those issues is inevitable. Finding a clear, fair solution is a trickier prospect. The EuroEthos research project is due to conclude at the end of 2008. If we’ve found the answer, we’ll be sure to let you know.
Dr Gideon Calder is from the Social Ethics Research Group, University of Wales, Newport.