Both great forces need to be harnessed for the common cause of human salvation.
AT a seminar at the University of Malaya on May 23, a monumentally significant issue was explored: whether religion and human rights are compatible with each other?
At the very outset it was pointed out by the speakers that the topic poses many interesting definitional and conceptual conundrums.
Questionable dichotomy: Religion and human rights cannot be regarded as two separate, adversarial concepts because the right to profess, practise and propagate one’s religion is itself one of history’s oldest and passionately sought-after human rights.
Likewise the ideology of human rights has become a new religion. Human rights theories contain sweeping value judgments, commendable though they are, that rest on faith, not facts. Many human rights assertions are similar to religious dogmas.
The overlapping between the concept of freedom and the concept of religion is also evidenced by the fact that many human rights landmarks are founded on religious theory. The American Declaration of Independence 1776, for example and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man 1789 invoke the name of God.
Diversity in religious doctrine: Every religion, without exception, is a mansion with many rooms. Every religion has a beautiful tapestry of doctrines, principles, beliefs and fables that embrace the inter-connectedness of life, the importance of love, tolerance, sacrifice and peace.
At the same time there is evidence throughout history that all religions have now and then been abused to divide and denigrate and to justify wars, brutalities and inhumanities.
Diversity in human rights theory: Just as with religion, the human rights theory is wide, varied and expanding and has commendable as well as condemnable narratives.
Human rights jurisprudence incorporates “first generation” civil and political rights; “second generation” socio-economic rights; and “third generation” development rights. Most of the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are compatible with religious theory.
Clashes: Despite many commonalities, one cannot deny that there are areas of clear divergence between the secular theory of human rights and the sacred injunctions of religion.
> Rights must go hand in hand with duties – duties to oneself, one’s family, community, nation and the world at large. Human rights jurisprudence pays insufficient attention to duties that complement rights. In religion, on the other hand, duties to God and to fellow humans are paramount. The correlative rights are merely consequential.
> The “right to personal autonomy” treats pornography and blasphemy as part of free speech. Drugs, drinking, gambling, abortion, surrogate motherhood, sexual orientation, cross-gender dressing and free sex are regarded as part of personal liberty. The right to life includes the right to extinguish life through suicide and euthanasia!
> Contemporary human rights thinking is that everyone is entitled to his own view of the good life. He can do whatever gives him pleasure and live howsoever he wishes. The concept of divine will, the world beyond and the concept of sin are regarded as irrelevant or subordinate to the human rights quest.
Reconciling the irreconcilable: Those who wish to treasure both human rights and religion need to find some ways to reduce conflicts and to build bridges between these two great yearnings. The task is challenging but is worth attempting.
> There could be recognition that religion and human rights are overlapping circles at the centre of which there are shared rights, duties and expectations. At the fringes, however, clashes exist and need to be mitigated.
> Religion must be defended against vilification. There is no evidence that religion is a greater threat to human rights than economics or political ideology or ethnicity. While conceding that in the name of religion great atrocities have been committed in all civilisations, it must be noted that wars, conquests, genocide, ethnic cleansing, use of atomic weapons, regime changes, economic sanctions and blockades are more common for political, ethnic or economic reasons than for reasons of religion.
> We need to accept the middle path of moderation in religion as well as in our demand for freedom. Not every civil claim or demand should be canonised as a “human right”. This nomenclature should be reserved only for those core beliefs over which there is wide, universal, inter-civilisational agreement.
> While condemning atrocities in the name of religion (for instance those of the so-called Islamic State in Syria), we must also express our outrage and disgust at how democracy and human rights have been used by the West to bomb nations, overthrow regimes and exterminate millions in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
> In the area of law and morals a distinction could be made between public and private spheres. The state should not invade the private sphere except on the most pressing grounds of security and public order. Some morally questionable claims, such as the “right of speech to pornography”, should be punished only if the pornographer trespasses into the public domain. While not legalising these sinful practices, the state should observe its duty to respect individual privacy as long as a conduct remains in the private sphere.
> A distinction between crime and sin should be recognised. Sins and sacrilege, atheism and apostasy will be punished by God in the hereafter and need not be prosecuted by the state through the agency of the law.
In sum, religion and human rights are both great forces that need to be harnessed for the common cause of human salvation. One cannot deny, however, that in some areas the core beliefs of religion come in conflict with the many modern-day cascading claims of human rights. Though full reconciliation is not possible, the distance between religion and human rights can be reduced.
> Shad Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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