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.

      When a nutjob becomes the hero of other nutjobs

      Thank you CNN and Fox News for making my day. Both websites had Gary Faulkner on their home pages at some point today. He’s been arrested in Pakistan for trying to find Osama bin Laden. at the time of his arrest, he was “carrying a pistol, a sword, night-vision equipment and Christian religious books.”

      I saw the CNN page first, which had a video clip of Faulkner’s brother sitting on a park bench. He tells us his brother is not crazy, only that he took things personally when bin Laden “made some references to our God, the God of the Bible, in a poor light, and the fact that he was taunting America and getting away with killing thousands of Americans.” I wasn’t aware that Americans had their own God. This explains why we’re all so jealous of them.

      By the end of his interview, he laid it out in clear enough language: “As an American, he’s doing something that we would all wish to do. If we saw Osama walking down the sidewalk, you and I, well I know I would probably put a bullet in the guys’ head.” Praise the Lord for vigilante justice! 

      The comments flowing from this report were as much fun to read as it was to watch Faulkner’s brother say he wanted to pop bin Laden. “KimKim38” does a bang-up job of infusing poor grammar into their comment: “What were they thinking? Who is running things over there? Some idiot obviously!! Gary Brooks Faulkner is a true American hero. He should get a metal and another chance to complete his mission.” What type of metal were you hoping he receive?

      “Jeekers” tries to dumb down the past 1400 years of world history into all that is squeezable in a comment: “They will keep doing what they do because they are waging jihad and have been for 1400 years. The modern world needs to answer their Jihad. We tried to ignore them for many years because we thought our modern militaries were no match for them, and they turned around and used our technology against us. We should make it very clear to them, do another big attack and Mecca, Medina, and the Dome of the Rock will disappear for all time.” There were over 1600 other comments stemming from the article that were just as revealing of the average-anonymous-online-commenter’s ability to spit out byte after byte of what a friend once called “verbal diarrhea.” Pass the Pepto!

      With a guy like that appearing on headline news on CNN, I thought, what juicy “real” news items await me on Fox News? They did not disappoint! Once again, Mr. Faulkner is almost universally heralded as a hero. “fred13” speaks from the heart (obviously not from the head, in which case he might not have made two spelling mistakes and such an uninformed comment): “We need some of his kind in gov. to rid our country of ilegals. Go get him Faulkner your a true American.” Go ahead, elect him to office once he comes back. He’s a man who’s been put in jail for burglary, larceny, and domestic violence assault. As another commenter wrote: “Palin / Faulkner 2012!” If that’ll be the case, I for one will hope those Mayans were right and it won’t matter anyway.

      I recently wrote about the dangers of uninformed, unkind, discriminatory and hate-filled comments that are so prevalent on the Internet nowadays, and this to me is a further example of such a disappointing trend. I was discussing this issue with other human rights activists last week and one of them questioned what difference it made to tweet, blog of comment using a language that is kind, non-discriminatory, respects other peoples’ values and opinions, and tries to move ideas forward using human rights language. In many cases, one activist argued, we are preaching to the converted. In many ways this is true, but then again I feel that people who are equipped with the skills to dialogue using human rights-friendly language can and must speak up whenever they can. If cyberspace is filled with comments from people who are ignorant, uninformed, inflexible in their belief and value systems, unwilling to tolerate or accept anyone “different” from who they are, then I say go ahead and flood cyberspace with just as many open-minded, respectful, and earnest efforts to move conflicting human rights issues to the forefront of our ever-growing global consciousness. 

      I know it’s not easy. The organization I work for, Equitas, is in the middle of hosting over one hundred human rights defenders from about 60 countries. As human rights defenders, it makes sense to advocate “all human rights for all,” as one resource person, Yousry Mustafa, said last week. But in practice, our personal values of “different” people – different cultures, religions, sexual orientations, values and beliefs – often makes that statement conditional.

      Calling Faulkner a hero and saying that “As an American…I would probably put a bullet to the guy’s head” would shame me to be an American. I revile Osama bin Laden for his actions, and deplore the loss of life – of Americans, Canadians in Afghanistan, thousands of civilians in the US, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and countless others – that is the direct result of his distorted reality. But I would want him to be brought to justice for his crimes and sentenced accordingly. Applauding a convicted felon who willingly goes to Pakistan seven times on his own manhunt, thinking he will succeed where thousands of American soldiers with billions of dollars of military equipment have so far failed is shortsighted.

      And while I’m on the Fox News rant, let me point out another brilliant example of inflammatory and essentially dumb-ass moronic comments that only the crudest of idiots could possibly think of writing. (Oh come on, I can only speak kindly for so long.) There was a news item on Oklahoma lawmakers trying to ban Shariah from the courts. Most of the comments so far….oh, forget it, you know what I’m about to write. Here they are:
      • It’s about time. This is the first step in ridding us of all towel heads and their evil religion.
      • AMEN AND HALLELUJAH OKLAHOMA…Each and every state better step and fight for the rights of American citizens..or face THE AMERICAN VOTER in the booth….THROW THE BUMS OUT [I hope they “face the American voter.” That’s the point, isn’t it? But isn’t voter turnout down south almost as bad as for us Canadians?]
      • The Hisidic Jews in New York get to follow a set of laws because of their religion, so the Muslims should get the same deal. [OK, a modicum of reason going on here, but still a lot of work to do…] 
      • This is AMERICA, not Islamica. We use the CONSTITUTION here! Get with it or get out of here. The fact that shariah is even discussed is deeply offensive to me. I’m a US CITIZEN subject only to the laws of this land that are legal under the Constitution of the United States, when I’m on US soil, not some International garbage created by some monkey in a kangeroo kourt. Those who seek to pervert that will find themselves facing savage resistance. [“Kangeroo”? Why is it no one can spell anymore? “Savage resistance”! Betcha he’s got a gun at home for just such an occasion.] 

      Oh my, we have a long way to go.