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Introduction

In this video clip you will be introduced to this third course, which is the last in this ExpertTrack.
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Welcome to Course 3, Human Rights, Ways of Life, The Pandemic and the Future. I hope you have enjoyed courses one and two where we examined what constitutes international human rights law and how well this body of law has served marginalised people. In this third and last course, we will examine how human rights Law fares in respect to groups of people with distinctive ways of life, namely Muslim women in Europe and Indigenous Peoples. Of course, not all Muslim women adopt the same lifestyles, and not all Indigenous Peoples have the same ways of life. However, significant numbers of each group are confronted by cultures that are either hostile to their traditions or are indifferent to them and unwilling to guarantee their protection.
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We will then turn to look at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on different groups of people. And finally, we will consider the prospects for and the relevance of human rights in shaping a better world. This week we will look at the rights of people of faith to manifest their beliefs in the exercise of their right to freedom of religion. We will examine how this right is articulated in the European Convention on Human Rights and how it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. We will then turn to focus our attention specifically on Muslim women residing in Europe who wish to wear garments that cover their faces.
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Although Muslim women in Europe who wished to live this way constitute a very small minority, attitudes towards them tell us something very significant about the state of tolerance and pluralism in 21st century democracies. This week’s big question, then, is, how are universality claims challenged by the Muslim woman in Europe? In several European countries, laws have been adopted that restrict the freedom of Muslim women to wear garments that cover their faces. In France, first, a law was introduced that prohibited girls from wearing such garments at public schools. Subsequently, a law was passed prohibiting women from wearing these garments anywhere in a public place.
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The laws, while silent about Islam, were adopted in the context of public concerns about burkas and niqabs, garments that some Muslim women believe they must wear in public to accord with their faith. We shall examine how the European Court of Human Rights has treated these bands and consider the court’s attitude to Christian manifestations of religion as a contrast. There is, of course, scope for us to wonder what impact the requirement to wear face masks as a means to combat the spread of coronavirus may have had on enduring public support for the Burqa bands. Next week we will examine the rights of Indigenous people.

In this video clip, you will be introduced to this third course, which is the last in this ExpertTrack.

The concept of the right to religious freedom is not new. The Treaty of Westphalia 1648 ending the Thirty Years War in Europe, for example, sought to guarantee religious freedoms to Catholics living in Protestant countries and rights to Protestants living in Catholic countries. Why was this so significant? Simply because, as Petty put it succinctly:

“Historically, Europeans have not been especially kind to each other, especially when there are religious differences between them. Religion has been the cause of controversy and war in Europe for centuries. The last hundred years alone have seen attempts at exterminating substantial parts of populations identi­fied by their religious difference: Armenian Christians, Ashkenazi Jews, and Bosnian Muslims have all faced systemic state-sponsored violence.”

Sadly, Europe is not alone in having experienced war and violence in the name of religion. But most attempts to address the question of religious freedom have been rooted in the experience of wars or inter-community violence. It is clear that religious intolerance has, and continues to be a source of violent conflict, genocide and other significant human rights abuses around the world.

This week we will examine the right to religious freedom and then move to focus on the freedom of European Muslim women to wear garments that cover their heads and/or faces. This aspect of religious freedom may seem rather niche; however, the reason for choosing it is that the responses of some governments, as well as that of the European Court of Human Rights, tell us something profound about tolerance in the 21st Century.

By the end of this week you should be able to:

  • identify the importance of religious freedom in the modern era and the protection afforded to it by human rights law instruments
  • identify some of the challenges to religious freedom and the challenges for religious adherents in the modern era
  • examine the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights relating to freedom of religion in general and the Court’s treatment of Muslim women’s choice of attire
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Human Rights, Ways of Life, and the Future

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