The main point to emphasize here is that in raising this question, we are not taking Islam as either fully supportive or inherently antagonistic to human rights. Instead, this program perceives this relationship not only as contingent on an interactive web of internal and external factors and forces, but also open to engagement and challenge.
Like other major religious and cultural traditions, Islam provides a basis for upholding human rights and dignity, through its own account of what it means to be human. But these dimensions of the traditions should be seen as open to critical reflection and reformulation among the believers themselves, because of the inherent and permanent diversity of the tradition itself. In other words, there are not only similarities and variations in perceptions and practices of human rights and dignity among Muslims and Islamic societies, but also possibilities of change in this regard.
The human rights framework is commonly perceived as a universal secular vision of humanity, and a call for the urgency and necessity of protecting the innate rights of all human beings everywhere in the world. This perception is largely due to the fact that the present articulation of the human rights framework arose out of the experiences of Western societies since the eighteenth century, especially as part of the struggle to protect individuals against the power of the state. As the same model of European nation-state has become ‘universalized’ through colonialism, and remains the dominant form of political organization throughout the world, the human rights framework that has evolved in response to that reality is now equally relevant everywhere. However, the question is how can the human rights framework claim to be universally valid and applicable without taking into account the permanent and profound cultural and religious diversity of human societies around the world.
It is in response to this challenging question that we are focusing here on ‘negotiating’ the complex and contingent relationship between Islam and human rights. Some strategic aspects of this process can be described as follows.
Some elements of Islam, like that of many other major religions, are not readily consistent with the key human rights principle of non-discrimination. Islamic political thinkers have inherited a vision of the social good, as expressed in Shari’a, which is commonly believed to be divinely ordained. This apparent incompatibility is emphasized by a perception of the human rights framework as necessarily and exclusively based on a secular universal vision of humanity. The tension between religion and human rights is particularly pronounced in the Islamic world because of the strong role of Islam in public and private life, even in countries that formally claim to be secular.
• The international human rights system and movement have tried to make these norms binding under international law. But since there is no reliable international mechanism for enforcing human rights standards against the will of national governments, human rights advocates continue to face the question of how to motivate the general populations of nation-states to pressure their own government to ratify and enforce human rights treaties. Since these governments are likely to resist such efforts, the promotion of human rights must develop effective responses to the counter-arguments ruling elite are likely to use, such as reliance on religious and religious traditions to reject the universal binding force and application of international human rights norms.
• Western powers have used Western concepts of human rights as a pretext for the colonial and post-colonial domination and exploitation of the Islamic world. As a result, the human rights paradigm is widely perceived in those societies as a Western effort to impose its values at the expense of traditional Islamic values.
The aim of the Islam and Human Rights program is to explore and seek to reconcile these and other tensions in the relationship, theoretical and conceptual, as well as political and practical. One of the main elements of this strategic approach is to seek to provide genuine credibility to the human rights paradigm among Muslims and their societies, to persuade the general public to accept these rights as integral to their own religious and cultural traditions, rather than a ‘Western’ imposition. In other words, this program seeks to help Muslims to accept and promote and protect human rights from an Islamic perspective.
In this endeavor, it is vital to recognize both what is universal and specific in Islam, both within the tradition itself and in relation to other traditions. On the one hand, it would be drastically misleading to view a major religious tradition like Islam as either monolithic or essentially identical to other religious or secular visions of human rights or dignity. It would be equally incorrect, however, to view Islam as totally lacking any degree of inner unity, or completely different and incompatible with other value-systems, religious or non-religious. Avoiding either extreme, we stress a balanced approach that respects and recognizes the significance and meaning of Islam in its diverse contexts, while seeking a productive engagement between Islam and the human rights framework.
Finally, the program is designed to put sound scholarship at the service of practical efforts to promote human rights in Islamic societies. We believe that a mutually beneficial relationship between academic and advocacy efforts is essential to promoting and protecting human rights in Muslim societies, or, indeed, in any society. Our program and this website seek to reflect this philosophy and commitment, which we call Scholarship for Social Change.