Islam and Human Rights

This article is excerpted (with permission) from the Center for Inquiry report Islam and human rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations by Austin Dacey and Colin Koproske (pp. 5-6, 9, 16, 17, 21-2, 23). Read the whole report.

As this paper is being written, sixty years after the issuance of the world’s first and greatest
statement in favor of universal human rights, both the document and the institution put in
place to protect its ideals (what has, since 2006, been called the UN Human Rights Council)
are threatened more than ever. There is now an alternative human rights system, infused with
religious language and layered with exceptions, omissions and caveats. The movement toward
“Islamic human rights” (IHR) has been successfully presented to the Human Rights Council (HRC) as
merely “complementary” to the UDHR.[1] The meager opposition to this subversion is suppressed,
as “religious matters” are increasingly forbidden from discussion in UN chambers. Western powers
have either failed to stand up for the UDHR or withdrawn from the human rights discussion
altogether. In what follows, we will trace the development of these worrying trends, and look
briefly into the leading historical explanations of political Islam’s emergence into the arena of
international relations.

The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR) provides a useful starting point.
While opposition to the UDHR under the banner of conservative Islam was widespread even
during its inception in 1948, this 1981 document was the first official political statement of
Islamic exceptionalism in the realm of human rights. The UIDHR was written by
representatives from Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and various other Muslim states under the
auspices of the London-based Islamic Council, a private organization affiliated with the
conservative Muslim World League (Mayer 2007, 30). This declaration drew little criticism, as it
was rife with ambiguous, equivocal language and had an English translation that masked
many of its overt religious references. In its original Arabic, the UIDHR often requires Islamic
considerations that limit rather than enshrine human rights as outlined by international norms.
For example, compare the English and Arabic versions of Article 12, which outlines the “Right
to Freedom of Belief, Thought and Speech”:

English: Every person has the right to express his thoughts and beliefs so long as he remains
within the limits prescribed by the Law. No one, however, is entitled to disseminate falsehood
or to circulate reports that may outrage public decency, or to indulge in slander, innuendo, or
to cast defamatory aspersions on other persons.

Arabic: Everyone may think, believe and express his ideas and beliefs without interference or
opposition from anyone as long as he obeys the limits [hudud] set by the shari’ah. It is not
permitted to spread falsehood [al-batil] or disseminate that which involves encouraging
abomination [al-fahisha] or forsaking the Islamic community [takhdhil li’l-umma].

The English version reads as an innocuous restatement of well-established norms, embracing
rights to speech and generally accepted limits involving slander and libel. In its original
Arabic, however, this article demonstrates a clear religious test for speech: one may not
express oneself where limits are set by Islamic law, and one must not “encourage
abomination” or “forsake” the Islamic community. The concepts of “falsehood,”
“encouraging abomination,” and “forsaking” are unclear and dangerously open to potential
abuse by religious courts. It is apparent that it is not citizens which are protected, but the
umma (Muslim community). The rubric of judgment is not public law, not universal standards
of justice, but shari’ah (Islamic law).

Those familiar with the numerous objections to international human rights law originating from
Islamic nations over the last three decades will be surprised to learn that almost all of these
nations were not only signatories to the UDHR and later agreements such as the ICCPR and
ICESCR, but also active contributors in their formulation. Studies by Susan Waltz, professor of
public policy and international relations at the University of Michigan, indicate that the major
powers generally played less significant roles in the later stages of drafting the UDHR than did
their smaller, Eastern (and often Islamic) counterparts (Waltz 2004). While particular
representatives from Muslim states expressed discomfort with various articles involving
marriage, family law, and freedom of religion, such opposition was no more pronounced
than the resistance from some non-Islamic nations. Further, the universality of human rights
was not an object of great concern for Muslim states during the drafting process; most
showed general support for the motivations and prescriptions therein, and none cast a vote
against the resulting document (Saudi Arabia was alone among Muslim states in abstaining,
joining South Africa and various Eastern Bloc states) (Mayer 2007, 15). Contemporary leaders
who would denounce the UDHR as an exclusively “Western project” therefore
fail to acknowledge the important contributions of Islamic states to its creation. In their ignorance
of history, they reveal the harmful political dimension of their cause—the appropriation, rigidification, and
politicization of Islam as an obstacle to international human rights law.

What happened between 1948 and 2008? Why are many of the original supporters of the UDHR
(such as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria) now contesting its universality and core principles? One
critical factor has been the rise of Islamist thought and politics.[2] The Islamist ideology
prevalent in Arab and Muslim societies today is not an intractable relic that has survived
through modernity (as many in the West mistakenly believe), but in an important sense it is a
reaction to modernity, forged in the fires of political and economic strife and fueled by a
painful struggle for identity.

Even a casual inspection of the Cairo Declaration, the IDHR, and other IHR literature shows
that in general, IHR schemes “have consistently used distinctive Islamic criteria to cut back
on the rights and freedoms guaranteed by international law, as if the latter were excessive”
(Mayer 2007, 3). For instance, Article 22 of the Cairo Declaration states “Everyone shall have
the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the
principles of the shari’ah.” This Article permits limitations on freedom of expression that
clearly are not permitted by the UDHR, whose Article 19 simply states, “Everyone has the right
to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without
interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and
regardless of frontiers.” The Cairo Declaration mentions shari’ah fifteen times, mostly in order
to qualify various rights by stipulating that they must be exercised within the limits of shari’ah.

A central tenet of international human rights law is that persons are equal in dignity and
rights. By citing shari’ah as the source of law and a constraint on individual freedom and
rights, the IHR literature makes a presumption of inequality in rights, for under classical
shari’ah, there is no equality in rights for women, non-Muslims, and apostates. The IHR
literature does nothing to remove this presumption. As a result, the only plausible way to
understand the IHR movement, despite public statements regarding its compatibility with
international standards, is that it seeks to use the instrument of Islamic law to curtail the
equality in rights accorded to women and non-Muslims by those standards.

In the classical interpretation of shari’ah, when a woman commits apostasy she may be
coerced through imprisonment and beatings to return to the fold, unlike male apostates, for
whom the punishment is death (Schacht 1964, 126). With regard to courtroom testimony
and inheritance, she is counted as half a man. Christian and Jewish subjects under Muslim
rule occupy a separate legal class in classical shari’ah: the dhimmis. Dhimmis are
understood as a “covenanted people” or “protected people.” The term dates back to the
Treaty of Khaybar in 628 C.E., in which the Jewish inhabitants of Khaybar surrendered to
Muhammad’s forces. In return for the right to live peacefully in a Muslim state, dhimmis were
obliged to pay special taxes and to accept various forms of social subordination to Muslims
(Schacht 1964, 130).

The Cairo Declaration contains no endorsement of equality of rights, and instead says in
Article 1 that all human beings “are equal in terms of basic human dignity and basic
obligations and responsibilities, without any discrimination on the grounds of race, color,
language, sex, religious belief, political affiliation, social status, or other considerations.” As
Ann Elizabeth Mayer observes, equality in “dignity” and “obligations” does not necessarily
signify equality in rights (Mayer 2007, 102). In Article 19, the Declaration states that “All
individuals are equal before the law, without distinction between the ruler and the ruled.”
According to Mayer, “this might seem to be an affirmation of equal rights, but in the context
of a document that carefully avoids guaranteeing equal rights or equal protection of the
law for women and non-Muslims, it should be read as meaning only that the law applies
equally to rulers and ruled—that is, that rulers are not above the law.”

The pattern of evading the question of equality of rights is even more blatant in the UIDHR. In
Article 3.c, the English version of the “Right to Equality and Prohibition Against Impermissible
Discrimination” reads: “No person shall be denied the opportunity to work or be
discriminated against in any manner or exposed to greater physical risk by reason of religious
belief, color, race, origin, sex or language.”

In the Arabic version under the rubric “Right of Equality,” the corresponding section,
Article 3.b, says that all people are equal in terms of their human values (al-qaima alinsaniya),
that they are distinguished in merit (in the afterlife by God) according to their
works (bi hasab ‘amali him), that no one is to be exposed to greater danger or harm
than others are, and that any thought, law or rule (wad’) that permits discrimination
between people on the basis of jins (which can mean nation, race, or sex), ‘irq (race
or descent), color, language, or religion is in direct violation of this general Islamic
principle (hadha ‘l-mabda al-islami al-‘amm) (Mayer 2007, 107).

It is clear from other provisions of the IHR documents that they were not intended to
challenge the basic inequality in rights accorded to women under classical shari’ah. For
example, the UIDHR contains a section on the “Rights of Married Women.” There is no
corresponding treatment of the rights of unmarried women, or the rights of married (or
unmarried) men.

The desire of some Western liberals to accommodate the cultural sensitivity of Islamic nations
runs contrary to the wishes of those within those states who desperately need the protection
of human rights. As Afshari has shown, when Westerners concede the argument over
universality to Islamist activists, they are not “respecting difference.” They are in fact enabling
autocracies to stifle internal dissent, resist criticism, and violate the rights of their citizens.
“Many Iranians,” he explains, “rely on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for moral
and legal support . . . . international human rights law serves as a prestigious platform for
dissident views that demand changes in all cultural practices that sustain and legitimize
human rights violations” (Afshari 2001, 289).

It is clear that if the ideals of the Universal Declaration are to be realized, nations and
peoples committed to human rights must take it upon themselves to reverse the present
trends toward the compartmentalization of rights and censorship of free speech. Therefore,
we join with many civil society organizations around the world in opposing the Islamic human
rights movement and denouncing the unnecessary, unwise, and immoral developments at
the United Nations Human Rights Council and the restrictions on freedom of expression being
entertained by the General Assembly.

The noble purpose of the International Bill of Rights and the United Nations is not to close any
one matter off from discussion within society, but to open all societies to free, public
discussion of every matter. Liberal rights are not guaranteed; we must constantly defend
them against those who would trade our liberties for security, order, control, or conformity. A
common standard of achievement, and not special cultural or religion rights, is the best
guarantor of equal freedom and mutual respect.


[1] On Human Rights Day, 10 December 2007, the Ambassador of Pakistan, addressing the Human Rights
Council on behalf of the OIC, spoke glowingly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, noting the
contribution made to its creation and to the two international covenants by many Muslim countries. He
then went on to claim that the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam: “is not an alternative,
competing worldview on human rights. It complements the Universal Declaration as it addresses
religious and cultural specificity of the Muslim countries” Taken from the International Humanist and
Ethical Union

[2] We use the term “Islamist” (rather than “fundamentalist,” “extremist,” or “radical”) to represent
broadly that ideology which views Islam as the only valid source of law and seeks complete, exclusive
control over state and society.


Afshari, Reza. 2001. Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism. University of
Pennsylvania Press.

Mayer, Ann Elizabeth. 2007. Islam and Human Rights. 4th Ed. Boulder, Colorado: Westview

Waltz, Susan Universal Human Rights: The Contribution of Muslim States
Human Rights Quarterly – Volume 26, Number 4, November 2004, pp. 799-844

Austin Dacey is a philosopher and the Center for Inquiry’s representative to the United
Nations. He is also on the editorial staff of
Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry magazines. He is
the author of
The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life (2008), and his writings
have appeared in numerous publications including the
New York Times, USA Today, and
Science. In 2002 Austin earned a doctorate in philosophy from Bowling Green State

Colin Koproske is completing a graduate degree in political theory at Oxford University,
where he is a Marshall Scholar. He graduated from the University of Southern California in
2007, receiving degrees in political science and music, and was named Valedictorian of his
graduating class. Colin is a visiting scholar at the Center for Inquiry’s United Nations branch in
New York City, and previously interned with the Center in 2006.

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