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Acceptable tolerance

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Acceptable tolerance

A Muslim woman complains to the Human Rights Commission about being barred from a Hastings courtroom in 2009 for wearing a hijab, or headscarf. It’s the sort of stuff that is guaranteed to light up talkback radio switchboards for days.

Increased coverage of Islam and these “flashpoint debates” surrounding the accommodation of Muslim beliefs and practices in English-speaking countries is a feature of a new edition of a book by University of Otago Professor Rex Ahdar (Law) and fellow law professor Ian Leigh, of Durham University (Religious Freedom in the Liberal State, Oxford University Press, 2013).

Ahdar and Leigh say religious people experience fewer problems in freely exercising their faith in Western countries than in many other parts of the world, but there is no reason for complacency. They maintain that what some people dismiss as “innocuous anecdotal examples” of state restriction upon religious communities are, in reality, indications that religious freedom is under increasing pressure in the West. They cite, among many other cases, the recent banning of burqa in France and the curtailment of infant male circumcision in Germany.

Ahdar says New Zealand examples are, thankfully, less common.“We have actually been more accommodating of Muslim practice and custom than many other liberal states.

"For example, all of our meat for prisons and most supermarket meat is subject to halal killing. In some countries that would cause a huge fuss.” But, he adds, this accommodating, tolerant attitude will be tested as religious pluralism grows.