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Human Rights & Religion

Does God Believe in Human Rights?: Essays on Religion and Human Rights by Nazila Ghanea, Alan Stephens, and Raphael Walden (Studies in Religion, Secular Beliefs and Human Rights: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers / Brill Academic)

Where can religions find sources of legitimacy for human rights? How do, and how should, religious leaders and communities respond to human rights as defined in modern International Law? When religious precepts contradict human rights standards - for example in relation to freedom of expression or in relation to punishments - which should trump the other, and why? Can human rights and religious teachings be interpreted in a manner which brings reconciliation closer? Do the modern concept and system of human rights undermine the very vision of society that religions aim to impart? Is a reference to God in the discussion of human rights misplaced? Do human fallibilities with respect to interpretation, judicial reasoning and the understanding of human oneness and dignity provide the key to the undeniable and sometimes devastating conflicts that have arisen between, and within, religions and the human rights movement?

In this volume, academics and lawyers tackle these most difficult questions head-on, with candour and creativity, and the collection is rendered unique by the further contributions of a remarkable range of other professionals, including senior religious leaders and representatives, journalists, diplomats and civil servants, both national and international. Most notably, the contributors do not shy away from the boldest question of all - summed up in the book's title.

The thoroughly edited and revised papers which make up this collection were originally prepared for a ground-breaking conference organised by the Clemens Nathan Research Centre, the University of London Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Martinus Nijhoff/Brill.

Contents: Preface page; Foreword; Introduction Malcolm Evans;
Section One RELIGIOUS PERSPECTIVES: Christian Perspectives
1 The Complimentarity between Secular and Religious Perspectives of Human Rights Richard Harries;
2 Religious Truths and Human Coexistence Roger Ruston;
3 Religion in a Democratic Society: Safeguarding Freedom, Acknowledging Identity, Valuing Partnership Michael Ipgrave; A Muslim Perspective
4 Conflicting Values or Misplaced Interpretations? Examining the Inevitability of a Clash between ‘Religions’ and ‘Human Rights’ Javaid Rehman; Jewish Perspectives
5 Religion and Human Rights with Special Reference to Judaism Normon Solomon;
6 Religion and Human Rights: Redressing the Balance Avrom Sherr;
7 Human Rights and Its Destruction of Right and Wrong Melanie Phillips; A Bahá’í Perspective
8 A More Constructive Encounter: A Bahá’í View of Religion and Human Rights John Barnabas Leith;
9 ‘Human Rights’, ‘Religion’ and the ‘Secular’: Variant Configurations of Religion(s), State(s) and Society(ies) Paul Weller;
10 Freedom of Religion and Belief in the Light of Recent Challenges: Needs, Clashes and Solutions Dennis de Jong;
11 T riumphalism and Respect for Diversity Conor Gearty;
12 ‘Phobias’ and ‘Isms’: Recognition of Difference or the Slippery Slope of Particularisms? Nazila Ghanea;
13 Inciting Religious Hatred: Balancing Free Speech and Religious Sensibilities in a Multi-Faith Society Peter Cumper;
14 Theoretical and Institutional Framework: The Soft Spot where Human Rights End and God Begins Frederik Harhoff;


Excerpt from Editors Foreword: The Genesis of this collection is in a colloquium of the same name held on 28 February 2005 by the Clemens Nathan Research Centre, the University of London Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. Presenters at the conference were invited to `tackle head-on the question of whether there is an irreconcilable conflict between religious principles, teachings and laws and international and regional human-rights systems that have developed in the period since 1945. Where there is such a conflict, who should give ground? Should religions always be expected to find ways to interpret their teachings so as to conform to the current human-rights system? Or should existing human-rights standards allow for sufficient flexibility to take on board religious sensitivities?' Presenters largely rose to this challenge, and their responses and observations are shared with you in the chapters that follow.


The essays in this collection are revised versions of the papers that were delivered at that conference…The following is a brief summary of the essays included in this volume.


1. Richard Harries, 'The Complimentarity between Secular and Religious Perspectives of Human Rights'

Despite numerous suspicions surrounding the relationship between religion and human rights, Harries challenges the notion that human rights is fundamentally a secular concept. He does this through a historical assessment. He argues, from a Christian perspective, that rights are grounded in the dignity of human beings – all of whom enjoy free will. Since God made human beings in his own image, He too respects the worth and dignity of humanity. Human rights is therefore necessary to protect the value of each person. The basis of human rights from this perspective is thus rooted in human dignity. Human rights is necessary because human dignity is too often denied in practice.

This religious perspective, Harries suggests, complements the secular perspective on human rights – which calls for valuing human beings in themselves and for themselves. Whilst through the ages some Christians have called for the need to sacrifice or waive rights, Harries challenges this position. Though a person may feel the compassion or charity to waive his own rights, he argues, one cannot waive the rights of others without the risk of reinforcing politically oppressive rule.

Human rights constitutes a dynamic historical process that is legally enshrined. However, rights are also grounded in values and in a moral perspective. Just as human rights are evolving, the full implications of our moral values need to be worked out over time too. In this way, moral insights grounded in a religious perspective come to be realised and turned into law. Harries gives a number of examples of where religion has played such a role in promoting the rights of the most vulnerable not out of charity but as a basic and necessary requirement of justice.


2. Roger Ruston, 'Religious Truths and Human Coexistence'

Ruston argues that the tensions between the secular regime of human rights and the conduct of particular religious traditions puts both states and religious bodies to the test and requires reflection and response. Ruston, drawing on the Catholic tradition, puts forward the hypothesis that human rights can only be fully understood as originating from a theological perspective of human beings as creatures of God. This is the position of natural justice, that of our common humanity, of being created in the image of God and being part of a global common good. This position also holds that we have obligations or duties towards those outside our own religious tradition because of our common humanity. He argues that Catholicism and other religious traditions uphold an irreducible minimum of duties and respect we owe to other persons that cannot be overridden even by any supposed divine commands seeming to suggest otherwise. If all religious believers accepted this as the true understanding of their religious belief, it would have profound implications. Ruston acknowledges that the particularist claims of religions often obscure this 'truth: Nevertheless he holds that the biblical position of what he refers to as a 'basic equality' would prove almost impossible to support from a secular perspective. The natural law tradition is examined through a number of historical examples, from Thomas Aquinas to Bartolomé de Las Casas and finally John Locke. All three believed that we owe natural duties of benevolence towards other human beings, and that this benevolence is in the nature of true religion. These positions, Ruston argues, also support the overriding duty of the State to prevent the denial of human rights; they further imply, controversially perhaps, that civil authority has the duty to intervene in the conduct of religious bodies that deny basic natural rights to its members. In this way, the secular discourse of human rights can be seen as actually having grown from within a Christian religious tradition in response to reflection on God's presence in the world.


3. Michael Ipgrave, 'Religion in a Democratic Society: Safeguarding Freedom, Acknowledging Identity, Valuing Partnership'

Ipgrave discusses the issues raised by the existence of religious communities within the framework of plural, democratic and secular society. He singles out three issues. First is the safeguarding of religious freedom in public life. Whilst in principle human rights law distinguishes between the forum internum, in which religious freedom is absolute, and the forum externum, where it may sometimes be subject to derogation, in practice, Ipgrave argues, derogation from the latter may impinge on the former both in public life and within religious communities. On the one hand, there is the pressure for aspects of religious life to be privatised; on the other, religious beliefs are made public in assessing candidates for public office. The second issue is recognition of religious identity as a constitutive strand of self-understanding and hence of citizenship. This is particularly significant where members of religious communities feel vulnerable and disadvantaged. Whilst there is the temptation to extend legislation in the field of racial discrimination to cater also for religious discrimination, Ipgrave identifies a number of criteria by which the two identities should be recognised as being different. Thirdly and finally, he discusses forms of partnership between religious communities and public authorities. He explores the forms this has taken in the UK and problematises these various relationships, focusing particularly on consultation and service delivery.


4. Javaid Rehman, 'Conflicting Values or Misplaced Interpretations? Examining the Inevitability of a Clash between "Religions" and "Human Rights"'

Despite the widely held position that a clash between religion and human rights is inevitable, Rehman argues for the critical role of interpretation both of religion and human rights. With sensitive interpretation, he argues, there are numerous possibilities of a rapprochement between religions and human rights. He explores these possibilities using the example of Islam and the way Sharia can be used to support rights. He counters positions that believe Islam to be a religion of violence and aggression, whilst acknowledging the need to understand problematic concepts such as jihad and the status of minorities. He does so within the historical context of revelation, with consideration of all relevant verses in the Qur'an and also the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. A range of possible interpretations can be given to key Islamic concepts, a fact that insular, myopic and archaic views of the Sharia try to inhibit. Both human rights law and religious law are malleable, and allow for sympathetic readings such that they support one another. Rehman argues that interpretations of the Sharia that fully support modern human rights law are both necessary and timely.


5. Norman Solomon, 'Religion and Human Rights with Special Reference to Judaism'

Solomon digs below the assertion that religion is against human rights. It is the followers of religion interpreting a holy text through an authoritative teacher, then applying it through judges that implement decisions that are accepted by the religious community, that brings about the context for religion having a negative impact on human rights. However, the religious community concerned will assert that these interpretations and laws have been divinely guided and are absolute, and therefore need to be distinguished from mere human law. This gives rise to the dilemmas of authority and of rights. Solomon explores these dilemmas in relation to the Jewish tradition. The dilemma of authority is that if the ultimate authority in religion is God, then what should be the relationship with legitimate government? And in the case of rights, which source of authority is to be obeyed? The rights Solomon explores are those of life, in relation to the Biblical sanction of capital punishment; liberty, in relation to slaves; thought, speech and conscience in relation to blasphemers, idolaters and other believers; and the equality of women with men and equality before the law – that we may be equal before God but we are not necessarily equal before the law. In all these potential clashes with human rights, Solomon's question is who should give way to whom? He asks to what extent disagreements about these issues between the Jewish tradition and modern human rights cause real difficulty today. He concludes that it is the attachment of believers to tradition and doctrine rather than people that ultimately causes clashes, not religion or God.


6. Avrom Sherr, 'Religion and Human Rights: Redressing the Balance'

Sherr outlines the strong similarities between types of religious obligations and human rights in the sense that both comprise sets of ideals that are constantly developing and being interpreted in relation to particular contexts. This can make religious beliefs and human rights competitors in terms of their regulatory systems, which moves Sherr to his key question of whether there are any themes or rules developing which can help us identify whether religions should trump human rights, or vice versa, in particular situations. He examines this question within a Jewish framework.

The questions of slavery, murder and women's rights form part of this examination from within a religious framework. From within a human rights framework, the question is to what extent human rights is culturally contextual and to what extent it is culturally imperialistic. To what extent can human rights accommodate culture and religion and in which situations should human rights prevail over the practice of particular religious traditions? Sherr teases out some thought-provoking questions and puts forward the need for a balancing of rights. He concludes that at present there is not enough jurisprudence examining tensions between religious practice and human rights to allow us to draw out rules for deciding which should trump the other, but some themes assisting in the making of such decisions are emerging.


7. Melanie Phillips, 'Human Rights and Its Destruction of Right and Wrong'

Phillips asserts that modern human rights are in direct conflict with religion and are replacing Judeo-Christian values with godless secular values that are destroying society. The fundamental distinction between human rights and religions such as Judaism and Christianity is that these are religions of duties, duties to God and to man, because humanity is made in the image of God. Duties are prior to rights; so, for example, human freedom is predicated on constraints on human behaviour. In contrast, human rights has put freedoms first and created a culture of entitlement. Human rights, to Phillips, is anti-democratic in its attempts to overrule different cultures that are rooted in religious principles. This puts the vision of the society implicit in human rights and that envisioned by religious cultures fundamentally at odds with one another. To Phillips, the precondition for the flourishing of society is that we all accept that we have duties to each other, as opposed to being set up against one another as different victim groups demanding duty-less rights, which is the human rights position according to this author. Human rights has become a demand for freedom from all authority that might constrain the liberty of the individual and an engine for a culture of extreme individualism. In its promotion of equal entitlements, human rights has effectively destroyed discrimination between all moral judgements and between right and wrong, leading to what Phillips terms 'identicality' rather than equality. She concludes that religion emphasises duties, not rights, and is actually crucial to securing rights to life and liberty, whereas secular human rights culture is actually threatening them.


8. John Barnabas Leith, 'A More Constructive Encounter: A Baha'i View of Religion and Human Rights'

In this chapter, John Barnabas Leith elaborates the clear theological foun¬dations and commitment of the Baha'i Faith to universal human-rights values. He draws on both the Mai sacred writings and the practice of the Baha'i International Community, a UN non-governmental organisation, in support of his position. Baha'i sacred writings are centrally concerned with questions of good governance and judicial, social and economic justice. This is rooted, at least in part, in the concern that all individuals should be allowed to develop their qualities and capacities for their own good and the good of society as a whole. It is further developed, Leith argues, in the principle of the oneness of humankind which lies at the core of Baha'i teachings. This has wide-ranging implications for societal justice, from the abandonment of prejudice to the embracing of diversity. Each and every human being, in Baha'i perspective, is worthy of moral protection and the holder of inalienable human rights; each human being is a trust of the whole of humankind. These principles are explored further in relation to the freedom of all individuals to investigate reality for themselves, the freedom of religion and belief, human dignity, and in the development of a peaceful and united global civilisation. These principles are then examined in relation to a number of Baha'i human rights activities – particularly the defence of the human rights of the Baha'is in Iran.

9. Paul Weller, "Human Rights", "Religion" and the "Secular": Variant Configurations of Religion(s), State(s) and Society(ies)'

Both religion and human rights have a plurality of meanings associated with them whether in theory or practice. Furthermore, the relationships between them are many and various. Many religions have been reluctant to extend religious freedom to others, but some have come to the position of pragmatically accepting its desirability. Many religions have questions concerning the rights–duties tension in human rights. Many have also prioritised those human rights that they accept as deriving from religion over those that do not – for example regarding gender roles and sexual orientation. The nostalgia of some religions for an age in which they were dominant socially and politically is problematic to Weller, as such dominance has often threatened human rights.

Weller's central argument is that a critical understanding of and engagement with the `secular' is central to the question of the relationship between religion and human rights. Some claim that the secular spirit enables religious coexistence; however, secularism – like religion – has expressed itself in a number of different historical forms and should also be situated within the context of the debate about religion and human rights. Weller examines a range of different kinds of secular states; the constitutional, legal and practical consequences that follow from each of these models; and the implications of each of these for the relationship between religion and human rights. Weller then identifies four basic patterns of the secular, citing as examples the USA, France, the Netherlands and India. All in all he argues that in examining the relationships between religions and human rights, we should not neglect the question of the relationship between secular models and human rights. Secularism emerged in many social contexts as a reaction to particular dominant national religions, and some of these models are now worthy of contemporary review. In conclusion, Weller's point is that the secular dimension is a highly pertinent, but often invisible, dimension to the discussion about religion and human rights and is thus worthy of greater consideration.


10. Dennis de Jong, 'Freedom of Religion and Belief in the Light of Recent Challenges: Needs, Clashes and Solutions'

Dennis de Jong begins his chapter with an examination of the context wherein religion finds itself: secularisation, decolonisation, the relationship between religion and state identity, and the impacts of cultural globalisation. All of these impact the role of religion in society. Can human rights itself be reduced to an aspect of cultural harmonisation? De Jong answers in the negative and expands on how the relationship between international human rights law and religions or beliefs is a complicated one, serving sometimes to advance them and at other times to limit them — for example, by liberating religious minorities or restricting religious practice. Human-rights law upholds non-discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, requires free access to information about competing religions or beliefs, forbids coercion in matters of religion or belief, allows the right of individuals to convert to another religion or belief, and prohibits religiously inspired violence. Human rights further upholds non-discrimination on the basis of sex, which sometimes runs counter to religious positions or practice, and it forbids incitement to religious or other hatred. De Jong suggests that governments need to recognise the importance of religion or belief in meeting people's spiritual needs, adopt a non-discriminatory approach to religions or beliefs, strike a balance between the rights of the adherents of clashing beliefs (in part by promoting dialogue between them), and promote debate on the interpretations that can emerge from different readings of religious precepts. These methods, de Jong believes, would allow governments not only to avoid undue restrictions on religion or belief — and clashes between religions, beliefs and human rights — but to actually recognise the significance of religions or beliefs for their societies.

11. Conor Gearty, 'Triumphalism and Respect for Diversity'

Gearty draws a parallel between the claims of universality of human rights and religion, a claim that sometimes becomes a universalist triumphalism that contains elements of cultural imperialism. However, religion and belief both share some deference, but not a surrender, to the local. Another commonality is that both, at their core, share a commitment to the dignity of the individual and of others. To Gearty, human rights requires one to imagine the situation of individuals beyond one's own sphere and empathise with it — a requirement and compassion that is almost religious.

Beyond these commonalities, however, are the challenges both, but especially religion, have with post-modernism. Both have to not only deal with difference but engender a respect for difference. Human rights is concerned with creating a society in which everyone is given the chance to personally flourish. Religion needs to better accommodate such a respect of diversity.


12. Nazila Ghanea, —Phobias" and "Isms": Recognition of Difference or the Slippery Slope of Particularisms?'

Ghanea questions the utility of the typology of language that has emerged in the UN for the racial and religious discrimination suffered by various groups — Christianophobia and Islamophobia being added to the existing category of anti-Semitism. She argues that these are not special rights uncovering new areas where human rights violations were going unnoticed.

The way these terms are being used is actually divisive and particu¬laristic, distracting attention away from the wider scourge of religious or racial hatred and discrimination. They would be much better identified together rather than separated at the international level, in order not to dilute the fight against hate and discrimination. Separation downgrades this wider concern into a sectarian matter and dismembers the possibility of a unified mobilisation of the international community against it. At the regional or national levels, however, separate identification may serve the sharper purpose of being able to bring about legislation and policies to tackle them effectively.

Existing international instruments already deal with racial and religious hatred, hate speech, incitement and non-discrimination; these are clearly sufficient in accounting for the hatreds of Islamophobia, Christianophobia and anti-Semitism.

Ghanea concludes that this separation of language is not victim-centred; the creation of these new 'global victims' does not serve to alleviate their plight. It detracts from the fact that these areas of discrimination are already well catered for at the level of principle at the international level. Attention needs to be given, instead, to ensuring enjoyment of freedom from discrimination and hatred.


13. Peter Cumper, 'Inciting Religious Hatred: Balancing Free Speech and Religious Sensibilities in a Multi-Faith Society'

Cumper examines where the line should be drawn regarding freedom of expression from the perspective of religious communities with regard to criticism, offence and provoking hatred. Attacks on religious figures and beliefs can provoke outrage, unrest and violence, as a number of cases have demonstrated. So how, for example, should the rights of artists to offend faith groups be balanced against the rights of faith groups to be protected from such attacks? Cumper believes that human rights norms offer little guidance, as they recognise both freedom of expression and of religion. He explores this issue from within a UK context, with regard to the attempt to bring about new legislation on incitement to religious hatred, which runs the risk of eroding freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is clearly not an absolute right, but how will the proposed Racial and Religious Hatred Bill come to be interpreted once it is brought into law? Problems surround how broadly or narrowly religious hatred will come to be defined, how a distinction will be drawn between attacks on faith communities (which will be outlawed) and on religious doctrines (which will not be protected), and how incitement to hatred will be differentiated from legitimate free speech. Cumper questions the position of those who assume that this bill would enhance good community relations, that an analogy can actually be drawn between religion and race in the context of incitement to hatred, and that religious speech itself will be sufficiently safeguarded through the European Convention on Human Rights. Overall, Cumper suggests that this bill will not be as benign as has been suggested by government officials and carries real risks and challenges within it. 

14. Frederik Harhoff, 'Theoretical and Institutional Framework: The Soft Spot where Human Rights End and God Begins'

Frederik Harhoff begins with the position that human rights and religion are interrelated in that they both address the substance of the good life. Religion and human rights have impacted one another normatively, but these norms are subject to different standards of interpretation and apply differently depending on whether they are being considered in the context of one or the other. Taking the position that what human rights and religion share is their normative function, Harhoff then assumes a hierarchy between the two with religion as the overarching framework within which human rights operates within a much narrower legal context. He argues that religious doctrine has played an important role in the development of human rights and has brought to it the charitable impulse and non-consumerist attitude to the demand for rights. In examining what role human rights could play in the development of religion, he argues that the universality of human rights may provide a transformative global framework whereby religions come to be interpreted in a manner consistent with fundamental rights. Nevertheless, he admits that differences remain between the frameworks, interpretation, monitoring and enforcement of norms – depending on whether they are being examined from a religious or human rights perspective. Furthermore, the transformation of a norm from a religious one to a legal one may strongly impact its quality, insofar as it needs particular conditions to make it amenable to practical application. Therefore, the norms and values which appear to be common to religion and human rights, he asserts, exist in a poly-centric environment, whereby they acquire different and possibly even irreconcilable meanings.


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