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Human Rights and Muslim Identity
 Human Rights and Muslim Identity Identity has been defined as oneness: that which endures as a self-regulating unity throughout change; or as sameness: that which can be identified as being the same from among diversity or pluralit
Saturday, December 10,2005 00:00
by Dr. Azzam Tamimi

 Human Rights and Muslim Identity
Identity has been defined as oneness: that which endures as a self-regulating unity throughout change; or as sameness: that which can be identified as being the same from among diversity or plurality of things.1 It has also been defined as self-identification. An institution is said to have an identity when the members are able not only to distinguish it from other institutions, but also to convey its distinctive character in words, gestures and practice, so as to reassure themselves that it should exist and that they have reason to belong to it.2

The phrase Islamic identity may, thus, be understood to refer to the criteria that are not only common to Muslims but that also distinguish them from non-Muslims. In view of the fact that a high degree of plurality exists among the Muslims, the set of criteria that define Muslim identity would have to be minimal. In my opinion, these criteria would have to include the belief in God as the only deity worthy of worship and total obedience, and the acceptance of Muhammad, peace be upon him, as the messenger of God through whom revelation was communicated to humanity. For Muslims, divine revelation is the frame of reference in all matters pertaining to man’s relations with his Creator as well as to man’s relations with his fellow humans, whether Muslim or otherwise.

This basic tenet of the Islamic faith, upon which all other fundamentals are based or from which they may derive, is the common denominator among all Muslims irrespective of their sect or race.

There are at least three ways in which one may relate Muslim identity to the issue of human rights. The first would be to discuss how this identity can be reinforced through the activity of defending and safeguarding human rights.

The concept of human rights in Islam is rooted in the concept of divinity. Muslims believe that man was created by a transcendental God who favours no human over another except in terms of piety and good conduct. In a bid to defend Islam or to promote it, several contemporary Islamic scholars and thinkers have sought to show that Islam has from the outset laid the foundations for human rights by asserting the supremacy of the value of justice and of the principle of human dignity. Some of the effort made in this regard has been aimed at developing an Islamic, as compared to secular, discourse on human rights.

Both in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the value of justice is considered the highest of all values, for it derives from one of God’s main attributes, The Just. Hence is the emphasis on ’equity’ rather than equality in Islamic thought. This is one of the areas where the Islamic conception of human rights differs from the secular conception. The principle of human dignity derives from the belief that al-insan (the human being) is the vicegerent of Allah on earth. Al-insan, who is honoured and preferred to all other creatures, is expected to lead a life guided by Allah’s law, or the Shari’ah. This is another area where disagreement exists. The word al-insan, in the Islamic terminology, refers to the human being irrespective of gender, colour or race.

Three Qur’anic verses, which are crucial to determining a Muslim’s identity, summarise the concept of human dignity:

1- Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: "I will create a vicegerent on earth." (2:30)

2- We have honoured the children of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favours, above a great part of Our Creation. (17:70)

3- O mankind! We created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. (49:13)

The second approach would be to talk about the violations of basic human rights, whether in Muslim countries or where Muslims are in the minority, that have adverse effects on Muslim identity and that threaten its essential features. One would talk about modes of repression and persecution that go back to the colonial era, or that persist under secularist national rule in the modern territorial-state that inherited power from the colonial authorities.

Ataturk’s Turkey, Pahlavi’s Iran and Bourguiba’s Tunisia would be excellent examples to show how the post-independence territorial state has sought to obliterate Muslim identity, not through a simple process of secularisation that separated church from state, but through a systematic process of Westernisation. This process has ranged from the destruction of traditional civil society to forcing people to change the way they dressed, the way they spoke, the way they wrote their languages, the way they brought up their children and the way they conducted their public as well as most private affairs.

The Muslim world is one of very few remaining regions in the world where local culture is being systematically eroded through the persistent violation of fundamental human rights. Mosques have been placed under direct government control, freedom of the press is non-existent, opponents are silenced or liquidated, women are punished for choosing to be modest, men are persecuted for choosing to follow the sunnah (way of the Prophet), and prisons host more prisoners of conscience than criminals.

In the absence of the rule of law, and in the courts of military ’justice’, thousands have lost their lives without being able to defend themselves or appeal against their convictions. Even in countries where some form of democracy was experimented with, when it became apparent that democratisation did not serve the interests of minority ruling elites, the process was immediately interrupted or even reversed. Though not the only one, the Algerian case may be the best example.

The third approach would be to address the threat to Muslim identity posed by the very same people who claim to defend human rights. This threat emanates from the fact that some of the values promoted, defended and universalised by the Western-led international human rights movement clash with some of the characteristic features of Muslim identity. The secularist discourse on Human Rights undermines Muslim identity by negating, in the name of universalism, the right of Muslims to any cultural specificity. To prove their respect for human rights, Muslims are told they must board the boat of modernity. The price they are expected to pay for this ride is to re-think their religious convictions or re- interpret their sacred texts so as to conform to international standards and universal values.

It is not surprising, thus, that some Muslims regard the human rights movement a post- colonial tool of cultural imperialism. Regrettably, such a radical view amounts to a denial of the role played by numerous organisations around the globe in defending human rights and in exposing the violations and the violators. The contribution of the international human rights movement is indispensable and should be greatly appreciated. What is also greatly appreciated, and should in all fairness be recognised, is that the Western human rights tradition, whose roots are founded in the European Enlightenment, has enhanced both the dignity of the human being and the value of human civilisation. Four major contributions are accredited to this tradition. Firstly, it has endowed the individual with certain basic rights such as the right of free speech, the right of association, the right to a fair trial and so on. Secondly, it has strengthened the position of ordinary citizens against the arbitrariness of power. Thirdly, it has expanded the space and scope of individual participation in public decision-making. And fourthly, it has forced the State and authority in general to be accountable to the public.3

However, in spite of the positive contributions, there are serious misgivings. Some of these misgivings relate to the attitude of the West, both past and present, toward the issue of human rights. Historically, the ’human’ the Europeans referred to when they spoke of human rights was none but their own citizen; the French human, the English human or the Western human in general.4

This probably explains why Europe, which - as a fruit of the renaissance - engaged in the process of building the edifice of the individual within its own borders, destroyed the human person without.

While human rights expanded among ’whites’, European empires inflicted horrendous human wrongs upon the coloured inhabitants of the planet. Native populations in the Americas and Australia were eliminated and Millions of Africans were enslaved. Millions of humans throughout the world were suppressed. Western colonialism in Asia, Australia, Africa and Latin America represented the most massive systematic violation of human rights ever known in history.5 Much of this violation involved undermining other people’s cultural and religious identities.

Though formal colonial rule has ended, Western domination and control continues to impact upon the human rights of the vast majority of the people of the non-Western world in ways which are more subtle and sophisticated but no less destructive and devastating.6 On the one hand, the colonial ruling elite has been replaced, in many cases, by Westernised local elites, very often authoritarian and corrupt, who serve their Western masters and help to perpetuate this unequal and unjust relationship.7 On the other hand the dominant West controls global politics through the United Nations Security Council. If the Western powers so desire, they can get the Security Council to starve a million people to death to force them to submit to their will. The dominant West controls global economics through the IMF, the World Bank, GATT and the G7 or the G8. The dominant West also controls global news and information and it has the powerful means to dictate to the rest of the world styles of life through music, cinema, fashions etc.

Some misgivings concern the way human rights organisations conduct their business. The overwhelming majority of human rights organisations have a radical secularist vision of man and the world. For the secularists, human rights are based on the idea of natural rights. This means that God is left little or no place in man’s life. While this supposes that nothing sacred remains, in reality the divine sacred is replaced by a secular sacred.

Inevitably, some of what Muslims may hold to be unquestionable, or immutable, may be considered a violation of human rights. Questions such as the roles of men and women in family life, the Islamic law of inheritance, the Islamic code of penalties and the Islamic code of moral conduct are some of the issues constantly targeted by the secularist human rights movement.

I have, over the past few years, participated in debates over these issues with representatives of international as well as regional human rights organisations. Insisting on the universality of their vision, the secularist human rights defenders refuse to entertain the mere suggestion that a common ground can be reached not by re-interpreting Muslim sacred texts, but rather by revising, re-examining, rethinking or re-writing the Universal Declaration of human rights. After all, this declaration, whose articles I would say are acceptable save for few exceptions, was born out of the global conditions that prevailed in the aftermath of the Second World War. I would like to share with you some of the experiences I had. For I believe they illustrate the magnitude of the problem. One of these experiences was in the form of a live TV debate between me and the assistant to the secretary general of Amnesty International. The Amnesty official insisted that the Universal Declaration was binding upon all and that it was Islam which needed to be re- interpreted in a manner conducive to reconciling it with the declaration. It could clearly be seen throughout the debate that the spokesman for Amnesty found it more outrageous to cast doubt on the universality of the Universal Declaration than to cast doubt on the validity of divine revelation.

The second experience took place in two symposia organised by the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights over two successive years to discuss Islam and Human Rights. During both meetings (held in 1996 and 1997) the Muslim participants, who insisted that it was beyond anyone’s power to alter or omit a categorical Qur’anic text, were accused by some secularist participants of fundamentalism and inflexibility.

Fahmi Huwaidi, who attended the second of these symposia, was confronted by a non-Muslim participant who told him that she was told that this group of Islamists was among the enlightened and moderate. She was at a loss because she could not understand how a person could be enlightened and moderate and at the same time oppose the amendment of a text from the Qur’an.8

Among the Qur’anic verses that the secularists thought should be modified or re-interpreted were those dealing with family relations especially with regard to marriage and divorce, as well as those dealing with inheritance and corporal punishment.

It was not convincing enough for the secularists to be told that while no one who believed in Allah and His Book could change or tamper with certain absolute areas, Muslims were encouraged to exercise ijtihad to provide safeguards that might prevent abuse of the legal order. This ijtihad, it was stressed, would have to come from within the House of Islam and in response to real needs and not in acquiescence to pressure from outside or in order to appease the power to be.

Several Muslim participants expressed concern that the whole purpose of the project was not to initiate dialogue with the aim of reaching a common ground, but rather to impose the Western perspective of human rights and the secularist view of the world on the Muslims. The third experience occurred last May when I was invited to participate in a symposium organised in Helsinki by yet another American foundation called "Search for Common Ground". On the eve of the first session, which was supposed to be exclusively for the Arab participants to discuss the promotion of human rights in the Arab region, delegates were invited to have dinner in a nearby Chinese restaurant. As part of the informal discussion over dinner, a Palestinian secularist colleague of Christian origins expressed the opinion that only secularisation could bring about an improvement to the standard of human rights in the Arab region.

Together with an Islamist colleague from Lebanon, I argued against the secularist thesis and sought to prove that, contrary to the claim made, secularisation has been accompanied by a marked deterioration in the respect for human rights in the Arab region. The discussion shifted to an analysis of international standards and the universal declaration of human rights and as to whether cultural specificity should be taken into consideration.

The following morning and as I headed for breakfast, the organiser’s secretary whispered into my ear that the organiser wished to speak to me. I waited for her and we had breakfast together. She said that she was told I had a very interesting discussion the previous night. I thought she was impressed. I briefed her on the main points raised in the discussion and reiterated that if common ground is indeed what we are searching for we needed to assert the right to cultural specificity and to question the assumption that the universal declaration of human rights was universal.

She turned to me and said: "Azzam, I don’t know how to say this to you, but I would like you not to speak at today’s session." She explained to me that my ideas would disrupt the harmony of the series of meetings her institution had held so far. In other words, it was not recommended at this stage to question what had already become an absolute. I understood from her, and later on from other key persons involved in the organisation of the function, and who were put in charge of steering the discussions, that this forum had a well-defined, previously agreed on, agenda and that it would not be acceptable to throw in new proposals. This experience confirmed my suspicion that the whole project was designed to bolster the peace process in the Middle East through the enforcement of secular notions of human rights.

One of the ways of doing this is to assert universality and deny specificity; to come up with ideas as to how to change the perceptions of people in the Middle East to make Israel more acceptable to them. The assumption was that the values that make Israel unacceptable are those derived from Islam, and for this reason Islam had to be re-questioned.

One of the main objectives of this project was to suggest plans aimed at effecting changes in school curricula. It was suggested for instance that alues that are not conducive to respecting the human rights of the Israelis or to the establishment of peace in the region should be removed from teaching curricula. The Islamic value of jihad was a prime target. This is one of the many ways in which human rights activists have embroiled themselves, or have allowed themselves to be exploited, in a campaign to undermine Muslim identity. This embroilment has been detrimental to the credibility of the human rights movement within Muslim quarters.

Another way was illustrated by the position adopted by the Western human rights movement in support of Salman Rushdie and later on in support of Taslima Nisreen. It is not support for Salman against the fatwa, which concerns me. In my assessment, the fatwa was issued for purely political reasons and had benefited the author of Satanic Verses - whom it brought fame and prosperity - more than it benefited Islam and the Muslims.

What is of concern is the support for Salman’s, and later on Taslima’s, alleged right to free expression without any consideration for the fact that their writings insulted the entire Muslim community that constitutes no less than one fifth of the world’s population. While secular human rights activists talk about freedom of expression as a very important civil liberty, they forget that there is also a right to honour and to dignity for whole communities.

It has been suggested that the Western civilisation, by virtue of the way it has developed, seems unable to empathise with the notion of the sacred, which is very important in other societies. What about the rights of the people who consider the sacred and the transcendent important values? Should they not be entitled to be respected? Should not their right to honour be observed.9 It has also been suggested, as Richard Webster once remarked, that the unconditional Western support for writers Rushdie and Nisreen is not a support for the freedom of thought, but for the European secular tradition of blasphemy.10

It is worth noting that although Islamic values show a high regard for human dignity and great respect for the fundamental rights of man, the secularist discourse within the human rights movement seeks to show the exact opposite. It is not surprising that the human rights movement in the West gives credence to certain individuals of Muslim origin whose main concern has been to cast doubt on the validity of Islamic sacred text.

In Western human rights circles, the followers of Mahmud Taha, such as Abdullahi An- Na’im, are regarded an authority on Islam although in the eyes of most Muslims they would just be regarded apostates. The reason such people are favoured by the Western human rights movement is that they call for repealing more than half of the Qur’anic text for allegedly contravening universally accepted values, including those related to human rights. An-Na’im is highly regarded within these circles for his role in propagating the idea of his mentor that Medinite revelation, which deals primarily with laws and codes intended to guide individuals and communities in all affairs, is a hindrance to Muslim progress. Ask any Muslim what he or she thinks will remain of Islam once Medinite Qur’an is omitted and you will hear one answer: nothing remains.

In conclusion, I would like to stress that there is a need today for the establishment of an Islamic human rights movement to defend human rights without conceding Muslim identity. One of the objectives of such a movement would be to bolster Muslim identity through the defence and promotion of human rights. At the same time, the movement would be expected to search for a common ground on which all the defendants of human rights, irrespective of their ideological convictions, may stand.

The value of Human Rights is indeed a universal value and the cause of defending these rights is a universal cause.

For both the value and the cause to remain universal and in order to prevent their monopoly by one particular culture, cultural specificity has to be recognised and respected. In fact, cultural specificity is an indispensable feature of universality.

Activists in the secular camp of the human rights movement need to understand that it will do the human rights cause no good for them to undermine Muslim identity in the name of defending the universality of human rights.


* Paper presented to the International Conference on ’Muslim Identity in the 21st Century: Challenges of Modernity’, London, 31 October 1998.

1 Peter A. Angeles, The Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy, 1992 Edition.
2 Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought, Pan Books, 1983.
3 Dr. Chandra Muzaffar: From Human Rights to Human Dignity, p.1,International Conference on Human Rights 6-7 December 1994, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
4 Ibid.
5 Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, see ref. above.
6 Ibid
7 Hj. S. M. Hohd. Idris, International Conference on Human Rights 6-7 December 1994, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
8 Fahmi Huwaidi, Hiwar At-Turshan (Dialogue with the Deaf), Al-Ahram, Cairo 11 Nov. 1997.
9 Chandra Muzaffar, from a talk at the Islam and Equality Symposium, organised by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, London 14-16 October 1997.
10 Richard Webster, Paper entitled: Free Speech, History and the Christian Tradition of Blasphemy, The Collapse of Secularism Symposium, Centre for the Study of Democracy, London June 10, 1995.


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