April 7, 2007

Islam and Human Rights

Posted in Religion at 7:38 pm by egalitaria

Is Islam compatible with International Human Rights standards? The criticism that many Muslims have had of the very term “human rights” and all it encapsulates is that it is a Western notion, introduced amongst us in order to propagate other ideals, which are in contradiction to the Holy Scriptures. Muslim human rights lecturer and advocate Abdullah An Na’im (from
Sudan) says in a paper the following:

Muslims should neither discriminate against people on any of those grounds, nor be required to abandon their religion in order to qualify for these rights. To justify their own human rights claims without distinction on such grounds as race, sex or religion, Muslims must accept the right of others to be entitled to the same rights and without distinction on such grounds.

The problem I see lies in the theology of religion. A religion that proclaims exclusivity like Islam or traditional Christianity is bound to fall into the trap of elevating individuals belonging to that religion over everyone else. A distinctive separation is carved, real or imagined, between “self” and “the other”. Such informed supremacy leads to the notion that entitlement of goods and rights should flow to one over the other. How does one overcome this logical problem? He doesn’t give a specific straightforward answer, but says that:

The attitudes or views of Muslims should be understood in broader historical context, socio-economic and political analysis, as with any other human beings and their communities. In other words, I am calling for applying an historical and social scientific analysis to understanding the role of Islam among Muslims, as should be done with other believers and their societies.

If I can frame it in my own words and limited understanding, the problem is twofold, the first of which can be solved, but the second I’m not sure. Economic, social and cultural rights should logically not be a problem, where equitable and just distribution of resources should be defended even on Qur’anic grounds. But when it comes to civil and political rights… Let’s see, because Islam is a holistic religion that outlines principles for living in all areas of life and government, it has a role to play in defining politics of a country.

If Islam is used as a framework in understanding and shaping politics of a nation, what rights are given to any other religion in contributing to this? Does Islam theologically support the rights of another religion in shaping rules of governance and regulation? According to principles of human rights, each is given the right to express and contribute. But is this theologically acceptable in Islam? Whether or not these are taken into consideration is different question.



  1. nat said,

    I think “Economic, social and cultural rights” and “civil and political rights” are difficult to separate, to begin with.

    Furthermore, Islamists (here anyway) sometimes have better records than secularists in those things traditionally considered ‘civil/political rights’ – freedom of assembly, opposition to detention without trial, democracy, even equitable treatment of diverse communities, etc.

    Perhaps the backdrop of this article are the recent controversies involving Muslims and non-Muslims in this countries.

    I feel the crux of the problem is not the degree of Islamisation (sp?), but rather the ability of a government to manage inter-religious differences. And here, I think our current government has failed miserably.

    The better alternative is to take the bull by its horns, allow rational and calm public discourse and find the best way to justly adjudicate competing claims. Sounds like a stretch? I really don’t think so.

    After all, the prevailing sense among all religious communities in Malaysia seems to be that their religion is under threat. But if every religion is ‘being threatened,’ who is actually doing the threatening? Dialogue and open discourse will reveal that no one is out to get anyone else. The culture of secrecy and ‘don’t talk about it!’ only breeds suspicion and mistrust.

    You’ve written a lot about the internal diversity of Christianity, and I’m sure you appreciate the internal diversity of Islam as well. In the article above, if you replace the word “Islam” with “Christianity,” perhaps you might find yourself asking “Wait a minute, whose interpretation of Christianity are we talking about here?..”

    I am willing to accept any influence in politics as long as that influence is positive (yes, the most subjective word in the world).

    I’m fine with keeping church and state separate, but there is nothing *inherent* in Islam or any other religion that makes for a divided society. Each religion, including Islam, has had its historical epochs of both extreme tolerance, and extreme intolerance.

    The challenge is to come to a consensus as to which influences can be easily assimilated into a just model of politics, and which influences cannot. As always, I put my faith in the sincerity and the sense of justness within us all. Beyond that, it’s just being allowed the opportunity to talk things out (presently almost impossible, but we’re working on changing that.. 🙂 )


    ps- salameander = cool! how do you know michelle? going for her full moon? 🙂

  2. EJ said,

    Hi Tricia,

    Have you read “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists”, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl?



  3. Leon Jackson said,

    Tricia, I think this is indirectly related to the dilemma you raised;


    Its a classic article by Lee Harris called the future of tradition. Personally, I think the root of the problem of superiority and the us-vs-them complex comes when people claim to have a God’s-eye-view of reality and to be above criticism and conformity to the understood reality around us. It can happen to Christians and anyone, just look at the Chrsitians who hold that the world is 6 thousand years old despite all the science, they embrace a sort of non violent myopia that violent jihadist muslim have in a different form, as well.

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