June 16-30, 2000

Human rights, justice and Muslims in the modern world

By Massoud Shadjareh
[Crescent International, June 16-30, 2000.]

‘Human Rights’ (HR) are the new criterion by which the west considers itself to be civilised and all other civilisations to be barbaric. This is a role that used to be fulfilled by Christianity. More recently, ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ have been used for it. As the west’s claims to be promoters and defenders of these ‘universal values’ are increasingly exposed, so the emphasis is shifting to ‘human rights’. And yet throughout the west’s history, their opponent and the main target of their propaganda has remained the same: Islam and Islamic universality. It takes only the briefest scanning of the history of HR as a movement to confirm this analysis of its true meaning and role.

The use of HR as a pretext for western political action can be dated back to the French occupation of Syria and Lebanon in August 1860, which was explained as being necessary to protect Christian Maronite minorities. This activity has increased since the second world war. The current vogue for ‘humanitarian interventions’ is just the latest of many forms that this strategy has taken since then.

In fact, the formulation of human rights theory has also largely been politically motivated, and led by advocates with narrow political agendas of their own. The idea of a universal definition of human rights can be dated back to the proposal of an International Bill of Rights of Man in 1945 by Hersch Lauterpecht, a leading zionist. It was this proposal that led to the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN, adopted on December 10, 1948. This was drafted by a committee of 15 experts from different countries, in which debate was politically driven and influenced by the ideological differences between socialism and capitalism. Whilst the countries involve might appear to form some sort of cross-section of the world community –Iran, the Soviet Union and India were all involved — a closer look at their terms of employment, engagement and reference shows this to be a fallacy.

None of the representatives were nationally or culturally representative; in fact it was a specific term of their engagement that they did not represent national or cultural interests but rather were ‘experts’ in the rather narrow field of ‘rights’ discourse that was being used by the UN committee. So all representatives adhered to a narrow concept of ethical theory hailing from such ‘emancipatory’ texts as the Rights of Man by Thomas Paine, and the US Bill of Rights.

Nonetheless, the declaration was called ‘universal’ in order to give it an aura of authority and legitimacy. This so-called Declaration was then forced upon most countries, who in a west-dominated world had little choice but to sign it. In fact, not only is the UDHR not universal in creation, the UN – largely controlled by the US – had, from the outset, no intention of implementing it. There were three sub-committees involved in drafting UDHR, the third of which was to propose mechanisms for implementation. Its findings were rejected, and no other mechanism subsequently approved.

The lessons of history are quite clear: HR and the UDHR have become the tools of the west in furthering western influence and interests, while it has no commitment to any value system whatsoever. In its invasion of Haiti, and in supporting the military take-over in Algeria, the west used the pretext of maintaining democracy. In the last few years, we have seen how the west has effectively supported such aggressors as Milosevic and Putin in their respective campaigns against Muslims, while paying lip-service to their critics. We have seen the west supporting the abuses of human rights in Israel while at the same time bombing civilians in Iraq on the pretence of protecting Kuwait. A close Palestinian friend of mine once said to me that, while some people collect antique furniture and some collect stamps, the Palestinians are collectors of UN resolutions. The hypocrisy of the west goes on and on.

Some Muslim groups have said that there is no such thing as human rights in Islam, an understandable reaction to all this hypocrisy. Others say that the UDHR just needs some fine-tuning to make it Islamic. This is effectively an acceptance of the west’s claim to be moral and just, a claim which has been repeatedly exposed, both in western countries - consider the social oppression of poor people and minorities - and in cases such as Rwanda, Bosnia, Chechenya, Burma, Algeria, Iraq and countless others.

What we talk about when we talk about rights from an Islamic perspective is justice, including ‘adl, insaaf (fairness), mizaan (balance, proportion), ihsaan (goodness, virtue), karaamah (nobility of spirit, chivalry), murawwah (generosity, magnanimity), and much more besides. All these highlight the vast differences between the western and Islamic conceptions of society, and the position of individuals and groups within it.

Perhaps the most important point to make is that in Islam, rights (huqooq) belong first to Allah, then to the community and then to the individual. Compare this with the western conception of human rights in which the individual is given precedence, and thus has the right to be as permissive as he wants, without society having any collective right to be moral.

Take, for example, the whole issue of women in western society. A woman in the west has the right to be a pornographer, yet women, and society as a whole, have no right to be protected from pornography. This has been demonstrated by a case in the USA in the 1980s and early 1990s in which anti-pornography legislation was defeated because it was deemed by legislators (including some feminists) to be a violation of the human rights of individuals.

Another aspect is the issue of rights and responsibility. In Islam, rights carry responsibility – it is a well-balanced system. All those who are privileged in some sense or another also have greater responsibility. Those who are competent in particular fields – for example, entrepreneurs, writers, artists and scholars – are also responsible for the results of their work and the impact they have on individuals around them and on wider society.

However, perhaps the most important facet of our meaning of Islamic human rights is standing against oppressors (mustakbireen), whoever they are and wherever they are, even when this means bearing witness against our own people. This is the key in our present situation, when Muslims the world over, and numerous non-Muslims too, are confronted with a oppressive and exploitative western civilisation, and are ruled by repressive governments who put the interests of that civilisations before the rights and concerns of the people they rule. In this situation, the responsibilities of Muslims can be seen in an ayah from the Qur’an: "How could you not rise up and fight for the sake of those opp-ressed men, women and children who are praying and saying ‘O God, would not thou send us a protector?’" (4:75)

The whole of the shari’ah deals with the question of implementing justice and maintaining mizaan (balance). This is in sharp contrast to the realities of western law. In Britain, we have recently seen the case of Tony Martin, who was jailed for 15 years for killing a burglar who entered his house; compare that to the case of Drazen Erdemovic, who was accused of killing 1200 men and women in Srebrenica. After confessing to killing 75 people, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail. This was reduced on appeal to 5 years, with the judge saying that he was still young enough to be rehabilitated!

The reality is that the British legal system – said to be the mother of all western legal systems – is shaped by the need to protect property, not people. Take the famous Ealing vicarage case; three men broke into the vicarage, of whom two raped the vicar’s daughter while the third burgled the house. The burglar was sentenced to 15 years in jail, while the other two – found guilty of rape and some 30 other acts of sexual assault – were jailed for 7 and 5 years respectively. The burglar’s cry to the court as he was led away encapsulates the whole of the system: "What about the rapists?"

Our research shows that more than 80 percent of oppression worldwide is against Muslims. There are 250,000 Muslims imprisoned just for being Muslim. Their oppressors include both Muslims (for example, in Turkey, Algeria, and Iraq) and kuffar (as in Chechenya, Bosnia and Palestine). It is important to note that Islamic discourse does not discuss such issues in terms of Muslim versus non-Muslim, but in terms of the oppressed and the oppressors. But the reality of the situation cannot be escaped.

In Uzbekistan alone there are 30,000 Muslims currently in jail. In Turkey, a country that the IHRC has been following very closely for the last 3 years), our sisters are oppressed for wearing hijab, and have been treated brutally by police and the judiciary when they have protested peacefully. In Chechenya we have seen on the pretext of capturing terrorists, that the whole country has been destroyed by Russia. In short Muslims have become the new demons and underdogs in today’s ‘civilised’ world.

It is been said often said that Muslim life has become the cheapest commodity around. Killing cats, dogs and foxes arouses more passion than the slaughter of Muslims in Chechenya. It is true that we can’t expect much from the kuffar, but why is it that as Muslims we ourselves are not valuing our own lives or the lives of our brothers and sisters? We have brave fighters in Chechenya, Turkey and elsewhere; why do we not support them properly?

"Whoever kills a believer intentionally, it is like killing the whole nation" (al-Qur’an 4:93). This ayah truly shows the value Allah puts on the lives of the believers. So what can we do in our circumstances nowadays, and is it effective? One of our campaigners sent an excellent example. There is the story of Bibi Maryam. When she was giving birth to Isa (a.s.) she needed food, and Allah s.w.t. told her through Jibreel to shake the date-tree under which she was sheltering. Imagine a woman who has given birth; she is weak. How can Allah ask a woman in that state to shake a tree? But, the ayah continues, Allah will help you; and thus dates fell on her lap for her to eat.

This story shows that we must make an effort of our own, and then Allah will help us with the result. Our responsibility is to take the initiative and do what we can; and the results lie with Allah. Even on Yaum ul-Qiyamah, Allah will ask only whether we have done our best; he will not ask us if the result is positive or not. This is not saying that we should disregard the results, and simply work without thought or wisdom, because following hikmah is a part of doing whatever we can. Unfortunately the attitude of some Muslims on this issue is appalling. They give such excuses as "we cannot do anything in this kuffar system", and sit instead to wait for the establishment of the khilafah, or for the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam, before doing anything.

I see this as stemming from a poor attitude. Some people look at the task at hand or the enemy and say that it is too big or too difficult. This unfotunately is the defeatist attitude of some Muslim leaders. They need to be reminded of the speech given by Imam Abdul Alim Musa a few years ago in which he compared the superpowers to the story of Goliath and Dawood (a.s.). People said to Dawood, "the goliath is bigger than you; how are you going to defeat it?" Dawood said "the enemy is so big, I can’t possibly miss!"

There are also some other groups who believe that they should be leaders of the movement because they are western-educated. The late Dr Kalim Siddiqui always emphasised that this sort of people should not be leaders of the Islamic movement, arguing that western-educated individuals could only follow in the footsteps of their masters. He argued that leadership has to come from within the Islamic tradition, and that the criteria for leadership has to be taqwa.

Another point is that western or westernised intellectuals are seldom close to ordinary people in Muslim societies; the westernised intellectuals tend to stay in an ivory tower and be distant from the masses. All movements in Islam, since that of the Prophet (s.a.w.) have been grassroots movements. We have seen in Iran the problems that occur when elitism starts to take power from the people; the case that comes to mind is that of Abol-Hasan Bani Sadr, who had to resign from the presidency.

The Muslim Ummah today needs institutions that work with the grassroots in order to empower and mobilize the masses. This is the sort of work that the IHRC has been working on for the last three years, exposing and highlighting atrocities, and helping brothers and sisters on how to respond by making protests, writing letters, lobbying MPs and other institutions, and campaigning to raise awareness. This, alhamdulillah, has resulted in more than a thousand brothers and sisters being freed in Nigeria and over 250 other prisoners being set free in other parts of the world.

The IHRC also works in Britain, addressing the problems faced by the Muslim community, such as the problem of observing hijab in some schools, having a beard for work and praying during work. Such issues may seem insignificant compared to problems faced by our Muslim brothers elsewhere, but the empowerment of the Muslim community in the UK is essential for our rights as Muslims to be respected. We have also campaigned here against the work of anti-Muslim institutions such as the Zionist Federation. Recently we have highlighted the Federation’s use of Brent Town Hall to celebrate the 52nd anniversary of the creation of Israel. Muslims here need to learn about their rights of protest. If we can do this as a community, Allah will give the power of Islam back to us.

I strongly believed that the problem with Muslims in this country and worldwide is that the Islam in us is Islam without strength or izzah. That is why the enemies of Islam are able to plunder, kill and rape Muslims, and deny the most basic rights of Muslims even in Britain today. In short, what we can and must do is not just mobilise ourselves; we need to promote Islam and the justice of Islam as a means of salvation for the whole world.

Massoud Shadjareh is chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, London. This paper was presented at the Kalim Siddiqui Memorial Seminar convened by the ICIT and Crescent International in London on May 7.