American Muslims and a Meaningful Human Rights Discourse in the Aftermath of September 11, 2001

By Shakir, Imam Zaid | Cross Currents, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

American Muslims and a Meaningful Human Rights Discourse in the Aftermath of September 11, 2001


Shakir, Imam Zaid, Cross Currents


THE TRAGIC EVENTS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, have called into question many fundamental Islamic principles, values, and beliefs. The ensuing discourse in many critical areas reveals the weakness of Muslims in making meaningful and substantive contributions towards a clear understanding of the Islamic position on a number of critical issues, here in the West. The purpose of this paper is to examine one of those issues, human rights, in an effort to identify: (1) how human rights are defined in the Western and Islamic intellectual traditions; (2) why current Muslim approaches to discussing human rights are inadequate in terms of contributing to a healthy discourse around the subject here in the West; (3) why human rights issues are of central importance to Islamic propagation efforts in North America; (4) what are the implications of the tragic events of September 11, 2001 for prevailing Muslim views of human rights; and (5) considerations for refraining Muslim conceptualizations of human rights.

This paper is not designed to respond to the attacks of those authors who assail the philosophy, conceptualization, formulation, and application of human rights policy among Muslims. Such a response would be quite lengthy, and owing to the complexity of the project, would probably raise as many questions as it resolved. Nor is it an attempt to call attention to the increasingly problematic indifference of the United States government towards respecting the civil liberties and other basic rights of its Muslim and Arab citizens. Furthermore, it is not an attempt to examine or elaborate on existing Islamic human rights positions. I do hope that this paper will help American Muslims identify and better understand some of the relevant issues shaping our thought and action in the critical area of human rights. Hopefully, that enhanced understanding will help lead to the creation of a meaningful discourse on the subject here in the West, thereby building bridges of understanding which can in turn lead to a healthier appreciation of a fully articulated Islamic position in this vital area.

Defining Human Rights

A review of the relevant literature reveals a wealth of definitions for human rights. Some of these definitions are quite brief, others quite elaborate. (1) However, few of these definitions deviate far from the principles delineated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), issued by the UN General Assembly in 1948. That landmark document emphasizes, among other things:

The right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to freedom of thought, speech, and communication of information and ideas; freedom of assembly and religion; the right to government through free elections; the right to free movement within the state and free exit from it; the right to asylum in another state; the right to nationality; freedom from arbitrary arrest and interference with the privacy of home and family; and the prohibition of slavery and torture.

This declaration was followed by the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1966. In the same year, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was also drafted. These arrangements, collectively known as the International Bill of Human Rights, were reaffirmed in the Helsinki Accords of 1975, and buttressed by the threat of international sanctions against offending nations. When we examine these and other international agreements governing human rights, we find a closely related set of ideas, which collectively delineate a system of fundamental or inalienable, universally accepted rights.

These rights are not strictly political, as the UDHR mentions: "The right to work, to protection against unemployment, and to join trade unions; the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being; the right to education; and the right to rest and leisure." In summary, we can say that human rights are the inalienable social, economic and political rights, which accrue to human beings by virtue of their belonging to the human family. …

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