The question of minority rights is often tricky, as recent events prove so well. Groups in Thailand and the region have made demands which seem to fly in the face of logic and tradition. Relatively small numbers of Indonesians have called for the right to change the dress codes of athletes and entertainers. A small group of Thais not only demanded changes in a TV drama, they succeeded. While it is vital that everyone has the right to speak and to petition for change, it is not so clear that every such demand should be taken equally seriously.
The obviously misnamed Islamic Solidarity Games prove the point. The Games opened on Sunday in Indonesia in something of a shambles. As the Qatar-based TV network Al Jazeera put it on its website, "Tensions mar Solidarity Games". The 44-nation event was in principle supposed to be an athletic competition in many sports. In short order, however, it became a religious-political debate over, of all things, bikinis. It sidelined the athletics completely, objectified many of the female participants and showed the ugly side of a small, noisy minority which has been a thorn in the sides of Indonesian governments for decades.
The Games' organising committee decided months ago that international rules would be used at the Indonesian events. Female athletes routinely wear two-piece kit for track and field, beach volleyball and swimming. But some national sports groups which ban two-piece equipment for women insisted on applying their special rules to all competitors.
So the brouhaha in Indonesia quickly descended into a somewhat familiar ethical quicksand.
Indonesia's marginal Muslim groups waded into the bikini affair whole-heartedly. They escalated their demands. Male spectators should be barred from watching the women's swimming events. Male and female competitions should be held on alternate days. After months of delays and two changes of venue simply over what women athletes should wear, the "Solidarity" event is looking more and more like a rather nasty international incident.
Similar extremist demands marred the 2011 Southeast Asian Games in Indonesia and, most recently and spectacularly, the Miss World pageant there. Outsiders argued the Indonesian social fabric would be destroyed by foreign women in bikinis. And again, authorities gave in to the extremists, moving the pageant itself out of Jakarta, and cancelling the swimsuit part of the pageant.
No big loss to the world, perhaps. But principles are at stake, too. Censorship by violence is ugly, whether it is state violence, or by private groups.
In Thailand recently, a tiny splinter group of Muslims, deeply invested in political protest, demanded that a TV network change or cancel a soap opera because some of its members claimed they were offended by references to the Middle East. Rather than take a stand for free speech, the producers bowed to the minority and made script changes.
Minority rights are a keystone of democracy. The majority and the powerful must always be held to account. But there also exists the possibility of what has come to be called the "tyranny of the minority". This is an apt description of actions which manage to toss aside both the law and national common sense, and replace them with illogical alternatives that come with threats of censorship and violence.
While each case must be considered on its own merits, a reasonable and informed public need not give in to small and unreasonable demands without careful thought.