Scholars Grapple with Islam and Human Rights

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Scholars Grapple with Islam and Human Rights

( - Dozens of academics, policy-makers and others are meeting in Malaysia this week to discuss "human rights in Islam" at a time when Muslims' tolerance levels have come under scrutiny as a result of the Mohammed cartoon ruckus.

Many Muslim scholars promote an "Islamic view" of human rights, even though their countries -- as U.N. member states -- are expected to support the objectives of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

In 1990, the world's Islamic countries signed a document called the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, which asserts that all rights and freedoms must be subject to Islamic law (shari'a).

Since the furor over the satirical Mohammed cartoons erupted, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a grouping of more than 50 Muslim states, has led calls for defamation of religion and "prophets" to be outlawed.

The row has highlighted different perceptions of free speech, and human rights in general, in the Islamic and Western worlds.

Participants at the meeting in Kuala Lumpur have been discussing these issues, and some suggested that it was time Muslims were more open about the inconsistencies between the two worldviews on rights.

If [human rights] are contradictory with Islamic law, we have to say 'no,' " said Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, a minister in the department of the Malaysian prime minister.

"We must be open about it and we can't just sweep it under the carpet. We must explain and find [a] solution," he told reporters after the meeting's opening.

"Some people in the West don't understand the Islamic way," Nazri said. "In their view, human rights are unlimited, but when certain human rights are not consistent with the tenets of Islam, we must explain why we say 'no.' "

(Two months ago, Nazri caused a stir when he said non-Muslims who make comments that are viewed as insulting Islam will be charged and jailed under Malaysia's sedition laws.

"We do not want to take away your rights but religion is an important matter, especially to Muslims," Malaysia's Star newspaper quoted him as saying in March, in comments directed at the country's sizeable non-Muslim minority.)

At this week's gathering, Nazri said Malaysia supported the OIC's efforts towards creating a rights standard such as the Cairo Declaration. He argued that such a document was not incompatible with existing rights mechanisms at the U.N., but would "complement" them.

Another participant, Prof. Masykuri Abdillah of Indonesia's Syariff Hidayatullah Islamic University, acknowledged that "it is true that there are certain Islamic percepts that are not compatible with universal human rights."

But he added that, in many instances, the "lack of political will" was to blame for violations.

Others also attributed human rights abuses in Muslim lands to autocratic governments rather than problems inherent to Islam.

"Many [countries] are generally poor in their record of religious tolerance and human rights because of the absence of democracy in the midst of the primacy of authoritarianism and dictatorship," said Prof. Azyumardi Azra, rector of the same Indonesian Islamic university.

Dr Mashood Baderin of the University of the West of England argued that although the Islamic and universal approaches to human rights may be different in theory, they were "not vehemently incompatible."

Islam and human rights shared the aim of enhancing human welfare, he said.

On the subject of the media, Nasir Tamara Tamimi, former editor of an Indonesian daily, said press freedom brought with it the need for "press responsibility."

He also said Muslims relied too much on Western-based media organizations, adding that Islamic media groups like Al-Jazeera were needed to provide "balance."

The meeting has drawn more than 40 scholars and others from mostly Muslim countries.

Organizers include Malaysia's attorney-general, an Africa-Asian legal forum -- and the government of Saudi Arabia, a country whose human rights record is among those in the Islamic world most frequently criticized by rights monitors in the West.

Saudi Arabia also was the only Muslim country at the U.N. to abstain when the General Assembly passed the UDHR in 1948. Others to abstain were Soviet bloc members and South Africa, then under white minority rule.

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