Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Islamic “Human Rights” at the UN

Austin Dacey and Colin Koproske have an important article in the latest issue of Free Inquiry, a Humanist journal, about a drive to pass a Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR). The article is a condensed version of a longer report called Islam and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations (PDF). Dacey and Koproske argue, quite correctly in my view, that the world needs to stand up in opposition to a movement from Islamic countries to transform resolutions that declare the need to protect individual rights into resolutions protecting a collective right of Islam to violate individual rights. And they’re doing so largely through slight-of-hand.

The report covers the drive to pass those “defamation of religion” laws that I’ve written in opposition to many times, but only as one part of a larger effort to build an alternative framework of Islamic Human Rights. That effort includes trying to pass the UIDHR, which was “written by representatives from Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and various other Muslim states under the auspices of the London-based Islamic Council, a private organization affiliated with the conservative Muslim World League.”

Unfortunately, those nations are selling the UIDHR as merely a compliment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which just had its 60th anniversary, when in reality the Islamic version is in clear conflict with the old version. They do this, as Dacey and Koproske point out, through mistranslation:

It drew little criticism as it was rife with ambiguous, equivocal language and had an English translation that masked many of its overt religious references. In its original Arabic, the UIDHR often requires Islamic considerations that limit rather than enshrine human rights as outlined by international norms. For example, compare the English and Arabic versions of Article 12, which outlines the “Right to Freedom of Belief, Thought and Speech”*:

English: “Every person has the right to express his thoughts and beliefs so long as he remains within the limits prescribed by the Law. No one, however, is entitled to disseminate falsehood or to circulate reports that may outrage public decency, or to indulge in slander, innuendo, or to cast defamatory aspersions on other persons.”

Arabic: “Everyone may think, believe and express his ideas and beliefs without interference or opposition from anyone as long as he obeys the limits [hudud] set by the shari’ah. It is not permitted to spread falsehood [al-batil] or disseminate that which involves encouraging abomination [al-fahisha] or forsaking the Islamic community [takhdhil li’l-umma].”

The English version reads as an innocuous restatement of well-established norms, embracing rights to speech and generally accepted limits involving slander and libel. In its original Arabic, however, this article demonstrates a clear religious test for speech: one may not express oneself beyond the limits set by Islamic law, and one must not “encourage abomination” or “forsake” the Islamic community. The concepts of “falsehood,” “encouraging abomination,” and “forsaking” are unclear and dangerously open to potential abuse by religious courts. It is apparent that it is not citizens who are protected, but the umma (Muslim community). The rubric of judgment is not public law, not universal standards of justice, but shari’ah (Islamic law).

Much of this follows the framework developed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the same group of 57 Islamic nations that is pushing defamation of religion laws, when they issued a previous declaration of Islamic human rights:

The OIC’s most significant entrance onto the field of human rights came in 1990, with the adoption of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. This document, affirmed by all fifty-seven member states and considered canon to this day, used much of the language from the 1981 UIDHR, this time making it clear (even in English) that “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic shari’ah,” and that “The Islamic shari’ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration” (Articles 24 and 25). In place of religious freedom, its authors issue what is in effect a prohibition against conversion from Islam: “Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of compulsion on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion or to atheism.” Article 22, the Cairo Declaration’s “free speech” provision, clearly suggests that it is Islam, not the individual, that deserves protection:

(a)Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the shari’ah.

(b)Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic shari’ah.

(c)Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.

In other words, you have the right to free speech unless what you say is found offensive or contrary to Islamic law. This is not freedom, it is theocracy. And as I discussed a couple weeks ago with Jeremy Beahan, the producer of my radio show who is also a philosophy professor, it is important that the left provide a coherent defense of the liberal democratic values of human rights and a coherent critique of policies that violate them, whether those violations are done in the name of Christianity, Islam or any non-religious political philosophy as well.

Failure to do so allows the right to dominate the discussion, which is a very bad thing. The right wing critique of radical Islam, while often accurate in terms of the ideas and actions it is aimed at, is also often accompanied by their own version of Christian chauvinism and/or jingoistic nationalism and bigotry. But this need not be the case. A defense of the universality of human rights can and must come from the left, unaccompanied by a broader hatred of Muslims in general, or jingoism, or any sense of Christian chauvinism.

Indeed, we can look to the critiques offered by moderate Muslims like Muqtedar Khan as a good example of such a critique. Khan has long been urging that the US work with liberal and moderate Muslims against their common foe, reactionary Islamists. And while being a critic of American foreign policy, he has avoided the worst excesses of some factions on the left in playing the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” game.

If Islam is to be humanized it will be through the efforts of scholars like Khan, who are actively working to bring about an Islamic enlightenment and fight against the anti-modernist forces in their own religion, while at the same time providing a solid critique of American foreign policy as helping to feed those anti-modern, anti-Western tendencies. This is very important and I would like to see more liberal scholars taking the lead in doing the same thing.