Islam and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations

Austin Dacey, Colin Koproske

December 10, 2008, marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is much to celebrate but even more to fight for, as Islamic states have repeatedly resisted human-rights inspections and proposed Islam-specific rights schemes that place unacceptable limits on fundamental human freedoms. The Center for Inquiry has issued a position paper, authored by Austin Dacey and Colin Koproske, calling on the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) worldwide to respond to this movement. The following is an excerpt from that paper, titled “Religion and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations.” To read this paper in its entirety, visit the Center for Inquiry at the United Nations homepage at www.centerforinquiry.net/UN.

—The Editors


Sixty years have passed since the issuance of the world’s first and greatest statement in favor of universal human rights, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). Today both the document and the institution put in place to protect its ideals (what has, since 2006, been called the U.N. 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. The meager opposition to this subversion is suppressed, as “religious matters” are increasingly forbidden from discussion in U.N. chambers. Western powers have either failed to stand up for the UDHR or have withdrawn from the human rights discussion altogether. In what follows, we will trace the development of these worrying trends.

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 at 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. It 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 beyond the limits 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 who 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).

In 1984, Iran’s U.N. representative, Said Raja’i Khorasani, said the following amid allegations of human rights violations:

[Iran] recognized no authority . . . apart from Islamic law . . . conventions, declarations and resolutions or decisions of international organizations, which were contrary to Islam, had no validity in the Islamic Republic of Iran. . . . The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which represented secular understanding of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, could not be implemented by Muslims and did not accord with the system of values recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran; [t]his country would therefore not hesitate to violate its provisions.

In the complete version of this document, we critique the argument, expressed by Khorasani, that human rights do not apply beyond the borders of Judeo-Christian societies. At this point, it suffices to say that by the mid-1980s, a strong current of Islamic exceptionalism had established staunch opposition to the UDHR and the U.N. human rights agenda.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), created in 1969, would take up the mantle of Islamic solidarity established by the Islamic Council and Muslim World League; it is now the preeminent Islamic institution, with fifty-seven member states and a powerful presence in global politics. Even with such a large membership, the OIC has a clear political posture; tasked with “liberating Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa from Zionist occupation,” strengthening “Islamic solidarity among Member States,” coordinating action to “safeguard the Holy Places,” and supporting “the struggle of all Muslim people to safeguard their dignity, independence and national rights,” this organization is built for conflict with the non-Muslim world.

The OIC’s most significant entrance onto the field of human rights came in 1990, with the adoption of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. This document, affirmed by all fifty-seven member states and considered canon to this day, used much of the language from the 1981 UIDHR, this time making it clear (even in English) that “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic shari’ah,” and that “The Islamic shari’ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration” (Articles 24 and 25). In place of religious freedom, its authors issue what is in effect a prohibition against conversion from Islam: “Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of compulsion on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion or to atheism.” Article 22, the Cairo Declaration’s “free speech” provision, clearly suggests that it is Islam, not the individual, that deserves protection:

  1. 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.
  2. Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic shari’ah.
  3. Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical
    values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.

Surprisingly, the Cairo Declaration has received little attention from the international community. One reason for this lack of coverage is the continued suppression of criticism by members of the OIC, in conjunction with the so-called nonaligned states and powerful allies in the cause of weakening the U.N.’s human rights apparatus: Russia, China, and Cuba. Every year since 1999, a member of the OIC has proposed a resolution in the Human Rights Council (formerly the Human Rights Commission) called “Combating the Defamation of Religions,” which decries the outbreak of “Islamophobia” across the globe and calls for greater efforts to curb defamation, discrimination, or hate speech against Muslims or the Islamic faith. This resolution has passed each year with nearly unanimous support.

On June 16, 2008, the Islamic lobby showed its power when representatives from Egypt and Pakistan silenced David Littman, who was speaking for the World Union for Progressive Judaism, during a statement to the Human Rights Council about women’s rights and shari’ah law. Within twenty-two seconds, Littman was interrupted by a point of order from the Egyptian representative—the first of sixteen such interruptions. The representative and his Pakistani ally insisted that “Islam will not be crucified in this Council” and argued that any discussion of Islamic shari’ah was irrelevant and inappropriate.

After a forty-minute break, the presiding Council president, Doru Romulus Costea of Romania, announced that “The Council is not prepared to discuss religious questions and we don’t have to do so. Declarations must avoid judgments or evaluation about religion.” Such a statement institutes nothing less than a blasphemy taboo in the Human Rights Council. Members and speakers are effectively prohibited from speaking about the issuance of fatwas, the stoning of women for adultery, or the execution of apostates as it relates to Islam.

A month later, at a U.S. congressional panel on religious freedom, former U.S. State Department human rights expert Susan Bunn Livingstone suggested that proponents of such limitations on criticism “are trying to internationalize the concept of blasphemy. . . . They are using this discourse of ‘defamation’ to carve out any attention we would bring to a country. Abstractions like states and ideologies are seen as more important than individuals. This is a moral failure.” The silencing of Littman’s criticism takes place against a background of broader cultural clashes. From death threats and assassinations to lawsuits and op-eds, aggressive defenders of Islam have sought retribution against those who would disparage its name.

What has the Human Rights Council done about this? On March 28, 2008, the Council actually undermined its own ability to protect free speech. An amendment to a resolution on freedom of expression (passed 27 to 15 with three abstentions) now requires the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to “report on instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination.” Instead of traveling the world in search of instances in which free speech is unjustly limited, the Rapporteur will now do just the opposite, in an effort to police “abusive” speech. The protector has become the oppressor. The Council failed to note that Muslims (and all citizens) are already protected against discrimination and defamatory speech by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and reasonable limits to free speech were already referred to in the preamble to the March 28 resolution. Further, concerns for freedom of religion are already reported by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion.

With such protections already in place, this amendment’s only effect is the undermining of what little ability the HRC has to safeguard free expression around the world.

While the HRC has been preoccupied with the fight against “Islamophobia,” OIC member states have avoided confrontation by touting the compatibility of the Cairo Declaration and the UDHR, explaining that it simply adapts the letter and intent of the UDHR to the unique cultural context of Islam. In 2002, Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the U.N., appeased Islamic states in a speech to the OIC in which she confirmed that “No one can deny that at its core Islam is entirely consonant with the principles of fundamental human rights, including human dignity, tolerance, solidarity and equality. . . . And no one can deny the acceptance of the universality of human rights by Islamic States.”

Unfortunately, an effort to point out the differences between Islamic and universal human rights by Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) was silenced by Islamic representatives in predictable fashion. Even as Islamic states continually tout the prominence and exceptional quality of Islam in their conceptions of human rights, they successfully sell their commitment to universality and muffle the cries of critics all over the world.

The United States, which has held only observer status in the HRC, quietly withdrew from the Council entirely on June 6, 2008. A State Department spokesman complained that the Council “has really turned into a forum that seems to be almost solely focused on bashing Israel” and announced that the United States would only engage with the Council on matters of national security or compelling national interest. While we share the administration’s concern about the notable politicization of the HRC, its complete disengagement from the world’s most influential human rights body is worrying.

Why is this activity in the HRC so important? The yearly resolutions “Combating the Defamation of Religion” and the wider movement toward a formal Islamic charter on both international law and human rights may have a wider impact than many expect. International covenants and agreements are intended to be introduced into the municipal law of the states that endorse them. The UDHR, for example, has been a positive force primarily by virtue of its influence on the human rights norms of countless states since its inception. The new norms governing the discussion and defamation of religion, as well as the unraveling of human rights universality, could very well have the same effect.

The debate between universal and culturally specific human rights schemes is not merely a intellectual hobby of academics and diplomats—it has real consequences in state government. Just as members of the OIC have pushed through legal loopholes in order to escape international human rights standards, many Islamic states (and the Western multiculturalists who support their cultural sovereignty) have used relativist rhetoric as a foundation for marrying religion and politics in the Islamic world. This concession to Islamist philosophy, we argue, is not a show of cultural respect or the most prudent first step on the bridge to modernity. Instead, explicitly “Islamic” states—like “Islamic rights”—fail to respect the basic necessities of conscience and expression and tend to suppress dissent.

In light of the creation of rival Islamic conceptions of human rights and the widespread suppression of dissent within Islamic states and throughout the international community, the Center for Inquiry calls for immediate action. The universal human rights agreed to by all United Nations members need philosophical and political defense, and the tools established to maintain those rights (i.e., the Human Rights Council and related offices) need reexamination.

In April 2009, the U.N. will host a world conference on racism. Under the guise of protecting racial minorities, this event is likely to produce additional resolutions limiting free speech where it treads on cultural or religious sensitivities. A draft declaration written in Abuja, Nigeria, in preparation for the 2009 conference calls upon states to avoid “inflexibly clinging to free speech in defiance of the sensitivities existing in a society and with absolute disregard for religious feelings.” Like many of the HRC “racism” and “religious freedom” resolutions passed in recent years, this declaration focuses primarily on “Islamophobia,” seeking to paint all critical discussion of Islam, Islamic states, or Islamic organizations as racist and potentially violent. The trend of enshrining special protection for Islam (or more accurately, protection for rulers of Islamic states and their particular interpretations of Islam) is now pervasive. Will those who value human rights and free expression gather the will to resist this trend?

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey is an associate editor for Free Inquiry and a representative to the United Nations for the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of the book A Secular Conscience (Prometheus Books, 2007).

Colin Koproske

Colin Koproske was an intern at the Center for Inquiry in Summer 2006 and is the president of the Secular Alliance at the University of Southern California.


December 10, 2008, marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is much to celebrate but even more to fight for, as Islamic states have repeatedly resisted human-rights inspections and proposed Islam-specific rights schemes that place unacceptable limits on fundamental human freedoms. The Center for Inquiry has issued a position paper, …

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