Promoting Islam as a defender of human rights is fraught with difficulties. Many advocates of human rights readily point out the numerous examples of humanitarian failures carried out in the name of Islam: the Taliban in Afghanistan, female genital mutilation in Africa, the penal code in Saudi Arabia, genocide in Darfur, and the September 11 attacks in the United States. As a result, human rights proponents are often tempted to blame Islam, if not religion generally, for human rights violations. The avoidance of Islam and religion in human rights dialogue presents a serious problem for the advancement of universal human rights, however.
Separating religious belief from human rights requires that we undertake the impossible task of distinguishing an important source of our ethical values from ethical norms themselves. For many people, the validity of human rights stems from a foundational belief in God and the dignity that God imparts to every human being. Although the foundations of human rights may be debated, human rights scholars cannot easily dismiss the potential that foundational beliefs, including Islam, hold in advancing human rights agendas. After all, approximately one billion inhabitants of this earth identify themselves as Muslim. To ignore the values of Islam would be to deny the voices of one-fifth of the world’s population in determining what should be “universal” human rights.
Unfortunately, human rights theorists are frequently at odds when attempting to engage in discourse with religious thinkers. This discomfort with discussing religion arises not only as a result of religiously motivated violations of human rights but also because of structural differences among the modes of discourse relevant to human rights. These differences include the disciplinary dominance of human rights as legal or political discourse, Western liberal paradigms that assert the privatization of foundational belief, and the interdisciplinary boundaries between religion and human rights theory. Thomas Pogge observes, for example, that the shift away from religion to politics as the appropriate sphere for