Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction

By John Witte Jr.; M. Christian Green | Go to book overview

3
Islam and Human Rights

ABDULLAHI AHMED AN-NA’lM

Who is raising the question of religion/Islam and human rights, to whom, and to what end? Is the question raised for both sides of the equation, or only for the religion or the human rights side? There is a significant difference if the issue is raised by a religious believer who supports the universality of human rights, in contrast to a believer who opposes the universality of human rights, or an atheist who challenges the ability of religion (rather than religious believers) to support the universality of human rights. There is also a significant difference between raising the issue as a judgment about Islam or about human rights, as opposed to an inquiry about the implications of the universality of human rights for the integrity of a religious community.

Framing the question of whether Islam is inherently compatible or incompatible with human rights is problematic. The question assumes that there is a verifiably identifiable monolithic “Islam” to be contrasted with a definitively settled preconceived notion of “human rights.” But who can definitively and exhaustively know what Islam is and what human rights are? No human being, whether selfidentifying as a Muslim or not, can definitely and exhaustively “know” Islam, and no proposed human rights norms can qualify as universal standards unless and until they are accepted as such by their human subjects. The most anyone can legitimately speak of is his or her view of Islam, never Islam as such, and of human rights as they are already accepted by people around the world, including Muslims.

I also find it difficult to see how any conception of human rights can be “universal” by any definition of this term if it is inconsistent with the religious beliefs of Muslims at large. If universality is a normative claim that these rights ought to be universally accepted and applied, a believer will not voluntarily accept that claim if it is incompatible with her religious beliefs. To attempt to impose this notion on Muslims is not only imperialist, which is by definition a total negation of the concept of human rights itself, but also unsustainable in practice because it cannot be coercively enforced. Universality as an empirical assertion, that these human rights are actually accepted by the vast majority of people around the world, cannot be true if it is rejected by Muslims, an estimated quarter of humanity today.1

Framing the inquiry in terms of the inherent incompatibility between religion and human rights is also counterproductive. Speaking for myself as a

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