Extreme Religious Beliefs?

A man was barred from entering the UK this week because he holds “extreme beliefs”. An oversimplification? Well, yes. But it is certainly interesting to look at the story of Pastor Terry Jones, the infamous Qur’an burning provocateur and his recently denied entrance to the UK, from a strictly philosophical point of view.

As I play at being Socrates, let’s begin with the facts. A Home Office spokesman said: “The government opposes extremism in all its forms which is why we have excluded Pastor Terry Jones from the UK.” So Terry Jones – incidentally, a gift of a name for satirists who can manage a Monty Python impression – is denied entrance to the UK because he is an ‘extremist’. What is an extremist? My dictionary (the Oxford English) says: “Extremist: a person who holds extreme political or religious views.” So Terry Jones was denied entry to the UK because he holds extreme political or religious views. We might ask, is it his political or religious views that have condemned him? Richard Dawkins holds extreme religious views, compared to the Archbishop of Canterbury for example, yet Dawkins is welcome in this country (as far as I’m aware…). What is ‘extreme? “Furthest from the centre or a given point” (my dictionary is working hard today), or “far from moderate”. Both of these could be true of Dawkins’ religious views. But there are no cries to deport Dawkins, so Terry Jones’ rejection can’t be simply because of his ‘extreme religious views’.

Perhaps it is his political views? His behaviour certainly portrays a man opposed to, shall we say, multiculturalism. His political views seem to be centred on a fear of the ‘Islamification’ of the USA (and the UK). The BNP also centre their political views on the Islamification of the UK. Do we deport Nick Griffin? He shares Terry Jones’ ‘extreme political views’, but we would not deny him entrance to the UK.

Terry Jones clearly holds extreme political and religious views, but neither of these seem sufficient reason to deny him admission to the UK. The Home Office adds to its initial statement: “Numerous comments made by Pastor Jones are evidence of his unacceptable behaviour. Coming to the UK is a privilege, not a right, and we are not willing to allow entry to those whose presence is not conducive to the public good.” Ah ha! So it is not just that Terry Jones holds extreme political and religious views, but also that he has clearly exhibited “unacceptable behaviour” and his presence here is “not conducive to the public good”. Does this clear things up? There are people in the UK who are subject to ASBOs, presumably because they have clearly exhibited “unacceptable behaviour” and their presence is “not conducive to the public good”. Would we deny them access to the UK? Do we deport them just because they are difficult? No.

I do not suggest that the Home Office has made the wrong decision, and clearly I am substantially oversimplifying the issues involved. However, from a strictly philosophical perspective, a philosopher would be left confused by the Home Office’s statement. Pressing further, a philosopher might want to suggest that we ask to what extent we can use “exclusion powers” to marginalise individuals and groups who hold ‘extreme beliefs’? If our only justification is that these individuals or groups sufficiently deviate from the norm, or that they are “not conducive to the public good”, then I’m not certain we can sensibly use this language in conjunction with a language of “rights”. Given that this story emerges within the same week that the Chinese President Hu Jintao visits America, with much of the media attention focusing on controversy surrounding the human rights abuses that China stands accused of, the issue of a state exerting its power against its dissidents, and the instability of the West’s claim to the moral high-ground, is drawn sharply into focus.

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