Peter Tatchell: Why has the left gone soft on human rights?

There are no worldwide protests to support the Zimbabwean struggle

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Large sections of liberal and left opinion have gone soft on their commitment to universal human rights. They rightly condemn the excesses of UK and US government policy, but rarely speak out against oppressors who are non-white or adherents of minority faiths. There are no mass protests against female genital mutilation, forced marriages, the stoning of women and gender apartheid in the Middle East.

A perverse interpretation of multiculturalism has resulted in race and religion ruling the roost in a tainted hierarchy of oppression. In the name of "unity" against Islamophobia and racism, much of the left tolerates misogyny and homophobia in minority communities. It rejects common standards of rights and responsibilities; demanding that we "make allowances" and show "sensitivity" with regard to the prejudices of ethnic and faith communities. This attitude is patronising, even racist. It judges minority peoples by different standards.

A moral hierarchy has shaped public policy on discrimination. Legislation against racism is much tougher than legislation against homophobia. Racial slurs provoke far stronger public condemnation than sexist ones. Some liberals and left-wingers mute their condemnation of intolerance when it emanates from non-white people; whereas they would strenuously denounce similar prejudice if it was being vented by whites against blacks or by Christians against Muslims. They argue that we have to "understand" bigots from racial and religious minorities; yet few of them ever urge the same "understanding" of white working class bigots.

Some argue that western Christianisation and colonialism are responsible for prejudice in minority communities. The hate-mongers in these communities are deemed more or less blameless. They are victims, not perpetrators, according to this guilt-ridden "anti-racism". Such nonsense infantilises non-white people; treating them as inferiors who are incapable of taking responsibility for their actions and of moral behaviour.

Double standards on human rights influence law enforcement. Fundamentalist Muslim clerics are permitted to endorse the so-called "honour" killing of unchaste women; whereas any woman who dared advocate violent retribution against Islamist misogynists would soon find herself in court.

We have long experienced the hypocrisy of the political right. In the name of defending "freedom", many conservatives defended the very unfree regimes of Franco's Spain and Pinochet's Chile. Alarmingly, this selective approach to human rights is now echoed by sections of the left, with their lack of protests against the murderous regimes in Iran, Zimbabwe and Sudan. President Mugabe has massacred more black Africans than PW Botha in South Africa. In contrast to the global anti-apartheid movement, there are no worldwide protests to support the Zimbabwean struggle for democracy. Why does a black tyrant murdering black people merit less outrage than a white tyrant murdering black people?

These double standards have many downsides. Respect for diversity has sometimes degenerated into the toleration of abuses; as when the anti-fascist left embraced the Muslim leader Iqbal Sacranie after he denounced gays as immoral, harmful and diseased. Sadly, the right to be different has often become a trojan horse for the subversion of human rights.

It would be a mistake to dump multiculturalism because of its sometimes oppressive interpretation. But we also need to recognise that by celebrating difference, multiculturalism can divide people, especially on racial and religious lines. This has resulted in conflict - such as the riots between Afro-Caribbean and Asian youths, and tensions between sections of the Muslim and Jewish communities.

Too much focus on difference can spill over into separateness, which subverts an appreciation of our common humanity and undermines notions of universal rights and equal citizenship. It can produce a new form of tribalism, where societies are fragmented into myriad communities, each loyal primarily to itself and with little interest in the common good of society as a whole.

The anti-racist struggle has been weakened by the excesses of the "diversity agenda". In the 1960s and 1970s, all non-whites united together as "black people" to fight their common oppression: racism. Then black divided into Afro-Caribbean, African and Asian. More recently, part of the Asian community has split off to identify primarily as Muslim, distancing themselves from other Asians - Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and atheists. This fragmentation has been endorsed by some on the left, who have colluded with communalism and the division of the Asian community on religious lines. These left-wingers have a great deal to say about the oppression of Muslims but little or nothing to say about the racism and disadvantage experienced by Asians of other faiths or of no faith at all.

Multiculturalism can thus foster a "Balkanisation" of the humanitarian agenda, fracturing communities according to their different cultural identities, values and traditions. When these differences are prioritised, our common interests get sidelined.

Progressive multiculturalism is about respecting and celebrating difference, but within a framework of equality and human rights. It is premised on embracing cultural diversity, providing it does not involve the oppression of other people. Human rights are universal and indivisible.

www.petertatchell.net

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