Ever since the beginning of the new millenium, more and more attention began to be paid to the concept of universal human rights and to the need for global morality, considered to have a positive impact on global politics and to improve the life of people across the globe. While these universal human rights have yet to be enforced, the very idea of their existence gains ground among people all around the world, no matter their cultural background or religious appurtenance. While some of the rights mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are a long way from becoming “equal and inalienable” in many countries around the world, others refer to basic human needs and fredoms and should be guaranteed to people everywhere.
Human Rights Implementation in the Islamic World
The Islamic world is perceived by human rights activists in the Western countries as the area where most human rights are violated. This is the area where, according to Naseer Aruri (1987) individual human rights are thoroughly disregarded, no matter the specific of the government, their ideology or foreign policy. This tragic ‘human wrongs’ (Dunne & Wheeler, 1999) practice is mostly associated with Islam and the related local traditions. Not even conservative Muslims can deny that human rights have yet to be implemented in the region. Women are not equal to men, religious freedom is just a dream with few to no chances of turning into reality, people are still imprisoned illegally, testimonies are coerced, domestic workers are abused, legitimate political participation is absent, punishments for crimes like theft, alcohol consumption, apostasy and fornication still include member amputation, flogging, stoning or crucifixion.
It is still necessary to clarify whether these abusive practices are rooted in Islam, because the implementation of human rights in this region is also closely connected to the controversial historical relationship with the Western countries. The modern individualism culture promoted by the current human rights regime is perceived here as just another manifestation of the increasing "Occidentosis" (Campbell & Ahmad, 1985) or "Westoxification" (Lechner and Kaplan, 1992). Consequently, popular human rights contempt is often manifested as an anti-Western reaction and is meant to express common disgust towards the Western civilization, rather than to exemplify the Islamic tradition.
Islam compatibility with human rights and reconciliation potential
The ambiguity of the human rights issue is obvious and could stem from the various understandings of fundamental Islamic teachings. Islam's “not inherently illiberal" relationship with politics in general and human rights issues in particular is very complex and even paradoxical, up to a certain point (Dalacoura, 1998). Qur’an, Sharia and sunna traditional readings often tend towards the denial of some human rights, considering them as ilegitimate. Nevertheless, Islam leaves remarkable room to interpretation, recommended by the Prophet himself. As Shamsuddin al-Kaylani shows, Mohammed Arkoun acknowledges the presence of human rights ‘petals’ and ‘seeds’ in Islam (cited in Jayyusi, 2009), and this could represent the basis for a reconciliation between Islam and the modern human rights ideal. There are many conflicting opinions on the possible compatibility of the two, but it is very important to acknowledge the potential for reconciliating them and the need to build a local and global understanding of human rights.
East-West tensions and the disapproval for the concept of universal human rights
The permanent tensions between the West and the East and the threatening rise of Islamism are considered representative for the Huntingtonian "civilizations clash". It was the discussion related to human rights during the UN Conference in Vienna, in June 1993, the one that determined Huntington to further support his claim regarding the absence of universal human values (Huntington, 1993). Numerous foreign ministers and all the Arab ambassadors attending the conference rejected the idea of the human rights' universality, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates. The incident reminds of the abstention of Saudi Arabia during the Declaration's ratification in 1948, the first international manifestation of an Islamic government's reluctance to accept human rights, concept perceived as alien and in the detriment of the Islamic tradition (Bielefeldt, 1995).
Katerina Dalacoura (2003) considers that the opposition to the human rights concept is embedded deep in the Islamic world's perception of the West and its relationship with this civilization. Analizing the social and political context is critical to understanding the Middle East's response to various concepts promoted by the West, as the idea of human rights is present in the Islamic teachings, but in a different form than the modern concept promoted by the Western civilization. As Dalacoura (2003) shows, although neither the Qu'ran nor the Sharia contain explicit acknowledgements that people have rights derived from their status as human beings, numerous Islamic communities have been respecting many human rights.
Rafsanjani, former Iranian president reminds that the human rights being drawn up by the international community have been discussed in Islam for quite some time (Bielefeldt, 1995). One example is that of women's political equality and property rights, discussed in the Islamic world in the 7th century and in the West in the 19thcentury. As Heiner Bielefeldt (1995) suggests, the human rights issue was not raised by the Western culture exclusively, and, despite his controversial claims regarding human rights, Mawdudi is right to blame the Occident for claiming that human rights are their exclusive heritage and for disregarding, this way, the human rights tradition of the Islamic world.
The Eastern human rights concept was significantly affected by the region's history and the long distrust tradition between Christians and Muslims. According to Naseer Aruri (1987), there is no better example of the interaction between the East and the West than the Ottoman millet system and the way it influenced human rights. This system offered political freedom to the religious minorities within the Empire, its actions being later undermined by the British, Italian and French "humanitarian interventions". These interventions supposedly aimed to support Christian minorities, but their actions brought about the Muslim's distrust towards Christians. Religious minorities ended up considered agents of the Westerners, and this made their situation even worse.
Sayyid Qutb is another voice accusing the Westerners of Crusadism spirit (cited in Moussalli, 2001), proving one more time the depth of the Islamic resentment. The post-colonialism rethoric is still powerful, both in the Islamist groups in the region and one the streets of cities like Cairo, Teheran or Islamabad. As Moussalli (2001) notes, Hassan al-Banna denies any religious nature of the discord on human rights. According to him, the Westerners do not fight Easterners because they are Muslim, as they have fought worse wars against their own kind. Their purpose is to control the East, both economically and politically, and they are repressive and unjust.
The very idea of cultural and political "repression" has implications for the human rights implementation in the region. The scepticism of the locals is usually manifested as an anti-Western reaction. Bielefeldt (1995) explains that any sign of commitment to the concept of universal human rights is interpreted as another crusade of the West. Unfortunately, the political instability affecting the region and the involvement of the Western countries in the local politics only succeed to strengthen this perception. In fact, some Islamist movements support their actions with this argument, thus legitimizing their fight against the intrusive Westerners.
Historical perspective supporters suggest that the local human rights practices are heavily influenced by different socio-political factors. This indicates not only that there are some non-religious influences, but also that Huntington’s theory of civilizations clash leaves room for doubts. It becomes obvious that dialogue and openness between the two parties are vital for the human rights implementation in the Islamic world. According to an Islamist reformist, Al-Ghannushi, this dialogue and openness would involve ending the cultural and geographical division between the East and the West, as well as giving up the preconception according to which one side is rational, right and democratic while the other is perverse, cruel and despotic (cited in Moussalli, 2001).
Bielefeldt (1995) shows that most discussions regarding human rights implementation in the Islamic territories currently focus on two fundamental distinctions: between religions (Islam and minorities) and between genders (men and women), both representing major concern issues for universal human rights promoters. These seem to be the main categories of rights violated in the Islamic territories, and the ones surrounded by the greatest disagreements. Discussions on these rights in relation to Islam only succeed to underline the ambiguity of the Islamic teachings on the subject. This ambiguity could prove derogatory and dangerous, but it also suggests a wide reconciliation potential.
Religious freedom compatibility with Islam
Religious freedom, fundamental according to Prophet Mohammed's teachings, has been rather securitised within the Islamic territories and is one of the most controversial issues affecting human rights implementation in the region. Equality between religions is subject to heavy theological debate, while the numerous apostasy incidents are often perceived as crimes both “against God” (the most severe) and against the statal authority (Dalacoura, 1998) and punished even by death. The death punishment raised a lot of controversy, Perry and Khadduri (1985), for example, arguing that it has no legal basis, neither in the Qur’an nor in the Hadith. The Hudud punishments are in fact reflections of practices dating from the tribal rebellion wars that followed the Prophet's death. This clearly points to the socio-political aspects severely influencing such legal amendments.
Instigation from above is also possible in apostasy cases, and excommunication cases are not rare either. One great example is the case of an Islamic philosopher and theologian, the Egyptian Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, excommunicated for criticizing Islam's disregard for human rights. As Bielefeldt (1995) shows, despite the fact that the death penalty usually applied for apostasy is not mentioned in the contemporary criminal codes of most Islamic states, Sudan and Mauritania being the sole exceptions here, there have been reported numerous imprisonment and execution cases uner this charge. Luckily, Abu Zayd did not receive any of these penalties, but his excommunication had quite significant civil law consequences. His marriage was declared null and he was pushed into leaving Egypt, currently residing in Belgium. This case is a clear example of violation of human rights and, implicitly, of Article (18) from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The right to religious freedom is frequently violated in the Islamic world, and such actions are often legitimised with Islamic texts exegesis. It is, however, important to acknowledge the ambiguos and even conflicting nature of these texts. For example, referring to non-believers, a Sura passage from the Qur’an, (2:190), states that they should be slayed. However, Sura passage (2:256) states that religion is not compulsory (Khalifa, 2001). Another Muslim teaching calls for peace and equality in the coexistence with non-believers (Malik, 1981). Confessional inequality is legalized starting from this obvious ambiguity. Monotheists in general and Christians in particular benefitted, throughout history, from religious tolerance up to a certain extent, but they never enjoyed equal rights from the legal and political points of view, they never had full freedom (Bielefeldt, 1995). They were always perceived as second-class citizens (Dalacoura, 2003).
This inequality is recognized and discussed by Tabandeh, who exposes Sharia's encouragement of unequal treatment. He points out that some punishments, like the one for murder, differ according to the victim's religious appurtenance. Moreover, "privileges" are reserved to ahl al-Kitab, namely the monotheists of the Book, implying that polytheists and atheists should be deprived of all rights (Dalacoura, 2003). The same concept of inequality can also be identified in the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, in the 5th, 10th and 11th articles, and this declaration does benefit from considerable legal recognition in the Islamic World.
The 5th article protects marriage rights against race, color or nationality restrictions only, ignoring faith-related restrictions. The 10th article supports Islam's superiority over the rest of the religions and indicates the criminalisation potential of missionary activities carried by non-Islamists. Another one of its presuppositions involves the forbidding of apostasy in Islam. Finally, the 11th article distinguishes Muslim countries' approach to political and civil rights from non-Muslim countries's approach by its reliance on Sharia.
However, one cannot fail to notice the lack of universally binding Islamic texts, which becomes evident with regard to religious freedom. Mohammed Talbi shows that religious freedom is an ultimate and fundamental proof of respect toward God, towards his sovereignity and his plan for mankind. According to him, respecting this freedom means respecting God's plan, and being Muslim means submitting to this plan (cited in Swidler, 1986).
This leads us to the conclusion that the right subject to article (18) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can see implementation in the Islamic world. The contradictions in the Qur’an texts are the proof that Muslims are not actually constrained by those texts (Dalacoura, 2003) and that the interpretations of the Islamic texts are, in fact, a matter of will and choice. Moussalli (2001) states that religious freedom was fundamental to the state led by the Prophet and can be achieved again.
Women's rights in Islam
Women's rights in the Islamic territories have received considerable attention from the Western media. Muslim women are often considered proofs of the violations of human rights in the region. Their situation is considered unbearable, and gender inequality is a serious reason of international concern. The Islamic tradition is quite ambiguous, and the idea of equality disregarding gender is completely unknown to Sharia (Bielefeldt, 1995). As Dalacoura (2003) shows, men are allowed to physically abuse their wives, to divorce them without any explanation, to have other wives if they choose to. In case of divorce, they have exclusive custody rights over their children, and their testimony is worth twice more than that of women.
Sexual inequality and intolerance is undisguised in the Islamic world, and it is manifested through striking incidents of chauvinism and misogyny. According to Geraldine Brooks (2007), women are required to give up their own freedom and comfort in order to meet the needs of men. Faysal al-Mawlawi and other Islamic thinkers made considerable efforts to justify sexual discrimination in general and polygamy in particular with highly debatable, even irrational biological and ecological reasoning. Polygamy is justified by the higher number of women compared to that of men, and it is said to protect the women from exploitation. It is also presented as a way of protecting women that cannot have children or suffer from severe illnesses – they continue to enjoy their status as married women, while their husbands marry other women in order to have their needs met (cited in Moussalli, 2001).
While such violations of women's rights are alarming, it is important to analyze their origins, because, while the Islamic texts can be interpreted as supporting inequality, it would be inaccurate to consider them the source of these violations. As Dalacoura (2003) reminds, the concept of womanhood confirms the belief that the Islamic tradition is dependent upon the surrounding cultural, political and social factors. The Qur’an does not teach that women should wear a veil, that they should be punished for adultery by stoning or that they should be circumcised or secluded (Khalifa, 2001). Most of these inhumane practices have tribal or cultural origins, they are not imposed or encouraged by Islam.
Several feminist and liberal activists and thinkers have tried to use Qur’anic texts in order to prove the lack of restrictions regarding women's freedom and the illegitimacy of the unequal treatment they receive. They claim that the history of umma is the proof that the Prophet's purpose was to strengthen women's position in society. According to them, it is the followers' responsibility to continue the Prophet's work and eradicate sexual discrimination. Nevertheless, gender inequality remains apparent in numerous modern constitutional and political declarations and texts. For example, the 20th article of the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, referring to married women's rights, foresees that inheritance be inequally distributed between men and women (Dalacoura, 2003).
The Muslim Middle East is definitely a region where the implementation of human rights is necessary. Unfortunately, these rights are not covered by the Islamic writings, and reconciliation attempts have low success chances, mostly under the influence of the numerous historical, cultural and socio-political factors involved. The current opposition to the human rights concept in the Islamic world is not so much a reaction against the rights themselves, but one against the negative impact of the West on the local culture and politics. This supports the potential compatibility of human rights with Islam, compatibility that becomes evident when the ambiguity of the Qur’an is recognized.
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