When you think of religion and human rights, the mind wonders to conflict, religious wars and extremism. Religion and human rights are often presented as dualistic, secular and religious. I think that this is unhelpful and ultimately detrimental to both religion and human rights.
The potential antagonism that sits between Islam and human rights is a media favourite. In the UK we never hear of human rights being discussed in a religious sense, and equally never hear about Islam in a positive sense (let alone in relation to upholding human rights standards).
If we cannot show that Islam and human rights are reconcilable, then we alienate millions around the world and fail to realise the potential universalism of human rights. Equally, if you fail to acknowledge the role of human rights within religion then you leave your institutionalised faith open to abuse. You leave yourself open to men who use the faith for the most despicable acts. Religious discourse feels itself with absolutism, so why not a human dignity/rights discourse?
There is no shortage of examples where an interpretation of Islam can be seen to be in violation of what we consider to be our human rights. The persecution women of all classes suffered under the Taliban in Afghanistan, honour crimes in Kuwait, Stoning to death for having no marital sex in Nigeria, marital rape not being recognised as an issue in Syria etc and the list could go on. In a few countries religious freedoms are violated with capital punishment available for apostates from Islam; these include Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. The widespread and controversial issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) is still justified by many under religious grounds. It is clear that for some, Islam acts as justification for some heinous acts. In the same light, Christianity and other world religions can act as justification for these terrible acts.
I would argue therefore, we have a responsibly to put forward positive arguments to how Islam (and perhaps more widely religion in general) and human rights can be reconciled.
The academic Biedfelt suggests there are a number of ways a Muslim might square their passion for human rights with their religious belief. These vary from ‘Islamisation’ which is the belief that Sharia, by its divine nature represents human rights and human dignity; through to ‘Political secularism’ that suggests it is right to remove religion from power politics as the Quran offers no advice in governance. This would suggest that Islam acts as a guide for individuals but not governments.
What Bielefeldt’s analysis clearly illustrates is that there is no such thing as an “Islamic” understanding of human rights. Islam is lucid and is based on individual interpretations (as are all religions).
It is clear that the two variables here, Islam and human rights can both be interpreted and changed to fit into either partly antagonistic or partly supportive understandings of Islam or human rights. There is nothing inherent about any antagonism or overlap.
I am under no illusion that Islam is often used to justify the most heinous actions. In the same way Christianity can be or a plethora of secular ideologies are.
It strikes me that Islam is no more predisposed than any other faith to be compatible with or antagonistic towards human rights. It has the potential to be supportive. It is essential that human rights theorists take a serious look at how human rights fits with the different world religions, because if you do not you risk alienating billions of people around the world whose primary moral compass is religion.
Equally, if religious leaders arrogantly dismiss human rights as a modern secular discourse; they run the risk of removing a moral core from their faith and leaving it open to abuse through misinterpretation and human fallibility.
This article was adapted from the my thesis Human Rights and Religion: A case study of Christianity