Religion, God and human rights (part 2): It’s complicated

I recently asked the question on my Facebook account whether or not religion should be addressed when talking about human rights. The answers are worth writing here:

  • Well, I see some mainstream religions operating as obstacles to human rights in North America, so I would vote Yes, discuss. Equally, there are other religions that do not have controlling values, so it isn’t a one sided thing either, of course. We certainly live in a judeo-christian society whose ideals are very much bound in the expressions of our laws and legal system, this often being the contact point for people with human rights and constitutional challenges both historically and currently. So much to talk about here…
  • We try not , but it the spot it is very necessary most of the time to give examples and to compare and to show that most religious values are not far from the Human rights values especially in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa].
  • I also think that at times it is necessary/unavoidable [because] people use religion as a reason/excuse to show why human rights can be denied. The challenge would be to find ways to show how ones religion is or can be compatible with HR values. So I vote: YES! Write about it!!
  • The Human Rights are before any religion as they are his rights, as a human being. But there are no contradictions between them.

For the most part in my human rights work, I have tried (deliberately) to avoid the issue of religion. But it was unavoidable in recent years working in Indonesia and the Middle East and North Africa. Especially when I would develop manuals for workshops that dealt with Shari’a and human rights. No circumventing the issue at that point. If anything, that workshop, held in Indonesia in May 2009, was one of the more productive and thought-provoking workshops I’d ever been part of in that country. Granted, the participants were government officials who’d already received training in human rights. But also present were drafters of legislation “influenced by Shari’a” – the laws they were drafting were not strictly Shari’a, but were inspired by the Qur’an and the Hadith.

Our approach was two-fold, trying to strike a balance between laws and values. 

In terms of laws, we tried to provide a balance in presenting international human rights treaties and standards on the one hand and Shari’a on the other, being as critical as possible of both legal frameworks. Doing this simply made sense, but it also helped to diffuse the frequently-cited argument that international human rights law originates entirely from a Western perspective. It is an argument that has certain merit. As Micheline Ishay notes in The History of Human Rights, “our modern conception of rights, wherever in the world it may be voiced, is predominantly European in origin.” But today’s Western-centric conception of rights should not be pushed aside and dismissed as a mechanism through which to maintain the West’s control over the rest of the world. Besides, the inherent character of human rights necessitates that the rights are defined and interpreted over time; they are not static and immutable. 

Examining the international human rights framework alongside Shari’a enabled us to appreciate the commonalities between the two, which clearly outweigh the differences. But the differences were nonetheless significant, and a great deal of them centered around equality between men and women (Shari’a was shortchanging women, in case you were wondering). We were fortunate enough in the preparation of the workshop to get the assistance of some university professors and Ph.D. students who developed a research document for the purposes of the workshop. The publication, Women’s Rights in Muslim Communities: A Resource Guide for Human Rights Educators, highlighted a number of substantive women’s human rights issues, namely:

  • Women’s political leadership rights
  • Women’s reproductive rights
  • Women’s rights in marriage: consent, child marriage and finance
  • Women’s rights to freedom of movement and choice of dress

The second part of our approach was to tackle values. It’s not a novel approach – we do this is most of our programs – but I think it was more delicate in this instance. We threw participants a survey been published in the Jakarta Post on beliefs of Islamic studies teachers. Some of the more disturbing results of the survey were as follows:

  • 73.1 percent of the teachers don’t want followers of other religions to build their houses of worship in their neighborhoods.
  • 85.6 percent of the teachers prohibit their students from celebrating big events perceived as Western traditions, while 87 percent tell their students not to learn about other religions.
  • 75.4 percent of the respondents ask their students to call on non-Muslim teachers to convert to Islam.
  • 58.9 percent of the respondents back rajam (stoning) as a punishment for all kinds of criminal and 47.5 percent said the punishment for theft should be having one hand cut off, while 21.3 percent want the death sentence for those who convert from Islam.

I had a mixture of disbelief and depression as I read the article. One fifth of the 500 teachers surveyed – over 100 teachers – wanted the death sentence for those who commit apostasy. It seemed more than a little harsh. Then again, at the time I was listening to Fox News in Jakarta and an ignorant right-wing moron was screaming that “the Jihadists would be loose on the streets of America!” 

Human rights law doesn’t mean much unless it reflects what people believe in or are at least are willing to believe in. That’s only going to happen if their values are in-line with these laws. I had presented in a workshop last year an assumption that basic human rights values – respect, equality, non-discrimination – had their origins in the great religions of the world. While I believe that the religions of the world have greatly influenced our unique and collective sets of values, I’m reconsidering that values originate from religion. In Victor Stenger’s book God: The Failed Hypothesis, he writes that values (he refers to “principles” and “moral precepts”) predate religion:

“The Judeo-Christian and Islamic scriptures contain many passages that teach noble ideals that the human race has done well to adopt as norms and behaviour and, where appropriate, to codify into law. But without exception, the fact that these principles developed in earlier cultures and history indicates that they were adopted by – rather than learned from – religion. While it is fine that religions preach moral precepts, they have no basis to claim that these precepts were authored by their particular deity or, indeed, any deity at all.”

He goes on to say that, regardless of whether we are theists or atheists, we as humans have an innate sense of what’s “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.”  Having worked in human rights with a great number of people from dozens of different faiths (or none at all), I wholeheartedly ascribe to the notion that we as humans have a natural sense of what’s good and what isn’t. 

The topic of religion and human rights is vast and can be quite thorny. For me, this blog entry is only a small step towards a better understanding of the complexities that are behind addressing religion within a human rights framework. Your comments, and thoughts on other issues that should be addressed, are always welcome.

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