13 June 2014

Muslims Debate Human Rights (1)

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It was in this text: “UDHR’s Bias toward Western Democracies,” By Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop It was in this text: “UDHR’s Bias toward Western Democracies,” By Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop http://www.libertyandhumanity.com/themes/international-human-rights-law/the-universal-declarations-bias-towards-western-democracies/

The Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram, with links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), recently rocketed into global infamy after their abduction of over 250 school girls and their threat to sell them into slavery or forced marriage in exchange for the release of their jailed companions. They’ve also been known to kill scores of policemen and civilians in the northeast of Nigeria, Muslims and Christians. Less publicized were their latest brazen attacks on villages, in which, dressed as soldiers or policemen, they gather everyone in the center square and systematically massacre men, women and children.

Then some of you might have read a NY Times Op-Ed, about how Junaid Hafeez, a young poet, Fullbright scholar and English professor, was arrested on the charge of blasphemy against Islam, and how Rashid Rehman, the special coordinator of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, had courageously undertaken to defend him in court. Rehman was soon gunned down in front of his colleagues and the attackers have still not been apprehended.

With items like this in the news daily, no wonder many westerners assume a fundamental contradiction between “Islam” and human rights. Much of this comes, of course, from a western media bias against Islam since 9/11, and also, let’s be honest, from news services eager to increase their profit margins by publishing (in print or on TV) what is most extreme and sensationalist.

You probably would never hear stories like this one published last week in Pakistan, “Ulema’s Council Fatwa Declares Honor Killing Un-Islamic”. Yet these issues are being debated among Muslims all the time, and even here in Pakistan, which has witnessed countless suicide bombings (with fellow Muslims by far the most numerous victims, both Sunni and Shia), the highest ranking Muslim clerics are condemning all politically and religiously-motivated violence. No young single woman in particular should ever be killed. What’s more: “No Muslim sect will be declared non-Muslim and no Muslim or non-Muslim will be declared worthy of being killed.”

That’s Pakistan and its religious establishment, and that’s newsworthy. But all mainstream Muslim institutions and scholars have been condemning violence in the name of Islam long before, and especially after 9/11 – in the west, of course, but also most everywhere in the Muslim world. You might ask, “Why is there still so much violence that seems to be motivated by religion?” There are many reasons beyond the jihadis’ simplistic yet terrifying single mindedness. Social and political unrest account for most of it, but explaining violence isn’t my topic here. If you’re wondering about the topic though, just look at this one frustrated Pakistani-American Muslim's article shortly after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing (“Do You Even Hear Muslims When We Condemn Violence?”).

My task in this and the next blog is to unpack the main points of an article I just finished, which will appear in January 2015 in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, “Islam and Human Rights: A Growing Rapprochement?” In this blog I deal with the contested nature of religion and human rights – along with the fuzzy concept of “human rights” itself! Then I’ll turn to the special case of Islam and human rights.

 

What on earth are “human rights”?

With so many agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world purporting to further the cause of human rights (like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), this may seem like a silly question – something scholars would ask, because their livelihood seemingly depends on making everything more complicated than it really is! I assure you, though there is some truth to this (though I would add too that reality is really a lot more complicated than appears on the surface!), the notion of human rights is quite slippery. Here are just a few thoughts you might pursue:

 

*** Philosophically (and theologically): the dominant current has been the idea of “natural law,” that is, human beings have an innate sense of justice, which posits that laws in society ought to respect the dignity of each human person. This idea can be traced back to the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and then to the Stoics, who taught that the universe is purposeful and that human reason applying itself to virtue can discover these natural laws. Natural law was then forcefully articulated by Cicero (1st century BCE) in a Roman context – so much so, that these ideas endured and were passed on to the Muslim philosophers (like Ibn Rushd, or Averroes in the 12th century), then to Thomas Aquinas, often called the “Father of Roman Catholic Theology,” then to the Renaissance and finally to 18th-century Enlightenment.

So, for instance, the American Declaration of Independence declares the following: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“Creation” is mentioned there. Even in the United States today, this is controversial. The dominant ideology is secular – because of the (not-so-clear) "separation of church and state" – and, though most Americans are at least nominally Christian and would agree with Muslims and Jews that human rights accrue to all humans by virtue of creation, many others are agnostic or atheists, or Hindu, Buddhist or of some other faith that does not believe in a Creator God.

This was the case of the United Nations General Assembly’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which begins with this phrase,

 

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, …”

 

This is the assumption that seemed to capture the consensus of a wide variety of people from many ethnicities, religions and nationalities, who at the time were reeling from the horrors of two world wars. True, as you can read in the text from which I took the above picture, the formulation comes straight out from the European Enlightenment. Still, this quasi-natural law formulation (the UDHR studiously avoids any reference to the divine) won the approval of all nations present in 1948, including the Muslim states of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey (only Saudi Arabia abstained).

Since that time, however, much has been written from many angles to find some kind of philosophical backing for this notion of inalienable human rights. Do they stem from “nature” (another contested term), or are they a logical imperative, much as Kant would have argued? Also in terms of ethical theory, you can read many articles and books published in the past decades seeking to ground human rights theory from either positivist or utilitarian positions.

 

*** Legally – how do you establish a universal right binding on all states?

So then, what about the nature of “rights”? One influential theorist, Wesley N. Hohfeld, has pointed to a number of complexities in this area. Does “having a right” mean one is entitled to something, and does this not also impose a duty on another person to give it us? Or is it simply an immunity for keeping one’s legal status safe? Or is it the privilege to do something (like voting)? Or is it the power to alter existing legal relationships? This might all sound abstract or too theoretical, but it creates some real conundrums in practice, particularly for the “right to life.” Of all the rights, this one seems the most likely candidate for “an absolute right.” Yet, while the European Union has banned the death penalty, the United States and many other countries still have it on their books. Definitions and boundaries related to human rights are routinely disputed.

 

*** The list of rights – the so-called “generations of rights”:

Since the eighteenth century the drawing up of constitutions in the West is seen as a way to curb government power and enhance individual rights. The UDHR, despite its great moral authority was not a legally enforceable document, though it is the first of three main documents in what is now called the International Bill of Human Rights. The other two documents were signed in 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC). The ICCR represents what many call the first generation of rights, based on the notion of freedom and political participation. These are also called “blue rights,” meaning civil and political in nature. They are “negative rights,” in that they serve to protect individuals from the harmful incursions of the state.

Of all rights, those listed in the ICCR are the most legally enforceable, unlike the second generation of rights, those concerned with human equality, as spelled out in the ICESC – or “red rights,” so-called because they are “positive rights.” As opposed to the negative rights, these rights are claims on the government to fulfill people’s needs. Those include the right to health care, the right to employment, rights to science and culture.

Finally, the third generation covers group and collective rights (like minorities, indigenous rights, etc.), environmental rights (starting with the 1992 Rio Declaration), women’s rights (the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW) and intergenerational equity and sustainability rights. Naturally, these rights are even more difficult to enact in a legally binding way. Yet you can imagine that, from the perspective of this website and the views of many people of faith (and many very secular, left-leaning people too) these rights form the backbone of a sustainable human colonization of this planet. We can’t survive as a species in the long run if we don’t agree together on some basic ground rules for the way we treat one another and the "commons" we inherited from our ancestors.

That said, these rights are controversial and contested. The United States, for instance, took years to ratify the ICCR, and when it did, it registered several reservations; and it never ratified the ICESC, nor CEDAW, nor any environmental treaty to date. Muslim countries were much more involved in the committee work leading up to the International Bill of Rights than the US – something to keep in mind for the next section.

 

Some historical background

I want to make three quick points here. First, Muslim representatives to the UN at this stage were western-educated and rather liberal in their outlook. For instance, though Article 18 on religious freedom stipulates the right to change one’s religion and therefore directly contradicts traditional Islamic law, not one Muslim state voted against it. They didn’t see this as terribly important and would rather not go on record for opposing it. The Pakistani representative, for his part, Sir Muhammad Zafrulllah Khan, was adamant about the Qur’an supporting religious freedom – a position taken by all the more liberal-minded Muslim reformists today.

Surprisingly too, no Muslim nation in the end voted against Article 16, which requires equal rights for spouses in marriage. It was debated more passionately by Muslim representatives than Article 18, mostly because in all five schools of Islamic law a Muslim women is forbidden from marrying a non-Muslim man, and, additionally, her rights to initiate divorce are much more limited compared to her husband. Interestingly, the United States did vote against this clause, as interracial marriages were still forbidden by law on its territory.

Second, according to Ann Elizabeth Mayer (her book on Islam and Human Rights is now in its fifth edition), this was the period of decolonization and though Muslim nations often voted differently on many issues, in general they all tended “to identify with the victims of human rights violations.” As many Muslim people groups were fighting (sometimes militarily) for their independence, Muslim nations in the UN often found themselves systematically opposing western nations that were holding out on minority rights and anti-discrimination laws. As she puts it,

 

“Coming out of periods of subjugation by European powers, they were naturally enthusiastic backers of the principle of self-determination and were united in denouncing the human rights violations that European colonialism had perpetrated as well as the hypocrisy of European states that gave lip service to human rights that they were unwilling to grant to subjugated populations in their colonies.”

 

Third, starting in the 1980s observers note a wave of resistance to the universal character of the UDHR and the International Bill of Human Rights. This push back came mostly from two regions, Asia and Muslim states, in the first case for reasons of cultural specificity (this coincides with the rise of cultural relativism in the social sciences), and in the second for religious reasons. In the Muslim case several initiatives emerged. First, conservative European Muslim leaders, mostly from Paris and London, issued the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR, 1981); then, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) issued the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (1990); finally, the Arab League’s Arab Charter on Human Rights (ACHR, 2004).

This will be my starting point for the second blog. As it turns out, the world was becoming “furiously religious” at that time, as sociologist Peter Berger put it in his 1999 book, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics.

[On this topic, I received this week my copy of Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History, to which I contributed the chapter entitled, “Fundamentalism Diluted: From Enclave to Globalism in Conservative Muslim Ecological Discourse”]