American Muslims, Human Rights, and the Challenge of September 11, 2001
By Imam Zaid Shakir
Human rights regimes constitute one of the critical aspects of modern international political life. Like many other contemporary political phenomena, the idea of human rights originated in the secular political milieu of the modern West. Although Islam has historically been characterized by viable teachings, which have helped to insure the protection of basic human rights, it has yet to produce a human rights regime, which mirrors that of the modern West. With the growth of Islam in America, certain conditions have combined to produce an understanding of Islam which creates a strong human rights imperative. Foremost amongst these conditions is the minority composition of the Muslim community.
Traditional concerns of ethnic and religious minorities, especially strong among African American Muslims, lead to many Muslims viewing Islam as a system that will provide relief from the harsh realities of political under-representation, discrimination, race-based prejudice, economic stagnation, and other real or perceived maladies.
These concerns, combined with the strong human rights imperative of Islamic movements based in the Muslim world, movements which are combating in many instances brutally repressive states, create a very strong human rights discourse among those advancing the Islamic call in America. That call, beginning in earnest with the missionaries of the Ahmadiyya movement in the 1920s, focused on contrasting the worst failings of American societies, such as racism and racial discrimination, with an idealized and simplistic view of the Islamic Shari’ah. Malcolm X was able to synthesize the many currents informing that discourse into a fully developed human rights agenda.
With the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the prevailing Muslim human rights discourse has been called into question, as the idealized view of Islam has been undermined by acts of wanton, inhumane violence, allegedly committed in its name. Critics point to those tragic events and similar acts as indicators of Islam’s inability to accommodate a system of modern human rights. To effectively respond to the challenges presented by these allegations, Muslims will have to radically reform the way that we understand and conceptualize human rights.
The philosophical basis on which we build any proposed human rights regime will have to be clearly and rigorously articulated. Vague, ambiguous, or meaningless generalities will have to be clarified by appropriate legal and technical language. We will have to cease avoiding the discussion of critical issues by hiding behind our cultural and religious uniqueness. Existing declarations will have to be accompanied by firm, well defined legal and constitutional guarantees which allow us to extend, in meaningful ways, existing theoretical guarantees to those groups which most frequently experience human rights abuses in our lands –specifically: women, and ethnic, racial, as well as religious minorities. While acknowledging the shortcomings in contemporary Islamic human rights schemes, we must also recognize that Islam contains the necessary foundation for the construction of a viable, modern system of human rights. If we are able to discover and build on that foundation, we will be able to meaningfully discuss human rights, even in the changed post September 11, 2001 political climate.
The tragic events of September 11, 2001, have called into question many fundamental Islamic principles, values, and beliefs. The ensuing discourse in many critical areas reveals the weakness of Muslims in making meaningful and substantive contributions towards a clear understanding of the Islamic position on a number of critical issues. The purpose of this paper is to examine one of those issues, human rights, in an effort to identify:
1. How human rights are defined in the Western and Islamic intellectual traditions;
2. Why human rights issues are of central importance to Islamic propagation efforts in North America;
3. What are the implications of the tragic events of September 11, 2001 for prevailing Muslim views of human rights.
This paper is not designed to respond the attacks of those authors who assail the philosophy, conceptualization, formulation, and application of human rights policy among Muslims. Such a response would be quite lengthy, and owing to the complexity of the project, would probably raise as many questions as it resolved. Nor is it an attempt to call attention to the increasingly problematic indifference of the United States government towards respecting the civil liberties and other basic rights of its Muslim and Arab citizens. We do hope that this paper will help American Muslims identify and better understand some of the relevant issues shaping our thought and action in the critical area of human rights. Hopefully, that enhanced understanding will help lead to the creation of a vibrant, sober, relevant Islamic call in this country.
Part One: Defining Human Rights
A review of the relevant literature reveals a wealth of definitions for human rights. Some of these definitions are quite brief, others quite elaborate.1 However, few of these definitions deviate far from the principles delineated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), issued by the UN General Assembly in 1948. That landmark document emphasizes, among other things: The right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to freedom of thought, speech, and communication of information and ideas; freedom of assembly and religion; the right to government through free elections; the right to free movement within the state and free exit from it; the right to asylum in another state; the right to nationality; freedom from arbitrary arrest and interference with the privacy of home and family; and the prohibition of slavery and torture.
This declaration was followed by the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), in 1966. In the same year, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), was also drafted. These arrangements, collectively known as the International Bill of Human Rights, were reaffirmed in the Helsinki Accords of 1975, and buttressed by the threat of international sanctions against offending nations. When we examine these and other international agreements governing human rights, we find a closely related set of ideas, which collectively delineate a system of fundamental or inalienable, universally accepted rights. These rights are not strictly political, as the UDHR mentions: The right to work, to protection against unemployment, and to join trade unions; the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being; the right to education; and the right to rest and leisure.
In summary, we can say that human rights are the inalienable social, economic and political rights, which accrue to human beings by virtue of their belonging to the human family. Defining human rights from an Islamic perspective is a bit more problematic. The reason for this is that there is no exact equivalent for the English term, “human rights,” in the traditional Islamic lexicon. The frequently used Arabic term, al-Huquq al-Insaniyya, is simply a literal Arabic translation for the modern term. However, our understanding of the modern term, when looked at from the abstract particulars which comprise its definition, gives us insight into what Islam says in this critical area. For example, if we consider the word “right” (Haqq), we find an array of concepts in Islam, which cover the range of rights mentioned in the UDHR. If we begin with the right to life, Islam clearly and unequivocally guarantees that right. The Qur’an states, Do not unjustly take the life which Allah has sanctified. [Qur’an 6:151] Similarly, in the context of discussing the consequences of the first murder in human history, For that reason [Cain murdering Abel], we ordained for the Children of Israel that whoever kills a human being for other than murder, or spreading corruption on Earth, it is as if he has killed all of humanity. And whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved all of humanity. [Qur’an 5:32]
It should be noted in this regard, as the first verse points out, Islam doesn’t view humanity as a mere biological advancement of lower life forms. Were this the case, there would be little fundamental distinction between human and animal rights, other than those arising from the advancement and complexity of the human mind. However, Islam views human life as a biological reality, which has been sanctified by a special quality that has been instilled into the human being –the spirit (Ruh).2 The Qur’an relates, …then He fashioned him [the human being] and breathed into him of His spirit. [Qur’an 32:9] It is interesting to note that this spiritual quality is shared by all human beings, and precedes our division into nations, tribes, and religious collectivities. An illustration of this unifying spiritual bond can be gained from considering a brief exchange, which occurred between the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him), and a group of his companions (May Allah be pleased with them). Once a funeral procession passed in front of the Prophet (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) and a group of his companions. The Prophet (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) reverently stood up. One of his companions mentioned that the deceased was a Jew, to which the Prophet (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) responded, “Is he not a human soul?” Possession of this shared spiritual quality is one of the ways our Creator has ennobled the human being. Allah says in this regard, We have truly ennobled the human being…[Qur’an 17:70] This ennoblement articulates itself in many different ways, all of which serve to highlight the ascendancy of the spiritual and intellectual faculties in man. It provides one of the basis for forbidding anything, which would belittle, debase, or demean the human being, and its implications extend far beyond the mere preservation of his life. It guarantees his rights before birth, by forbidding abortion, except in certain well-defined instances; and after death, it guarantees the right of the body to be properly washed, shrouded, and buried. It also forbids the intentional mutilation of a cadaver, even in times of war, and forbids insulting or verbally abusing the dead, even deceased non-Muslims. While these latter points may be deemed trivial to some, they help create a healthy attitude towards humanity, an attitude that must be present if acknowledged rights are to be actually extended to their possessors.
If we examine other critical areas identified by the UDHR for protection as inalienable rights, we can see that Islam presents a very positive framework for the safeguarding of those rights. In the controversial area of religious freedom, where Islam is identified by many in the West as a religion which was spread by forced conversion, we find that Islam has never advocated the forced acceptance of its creed, in fact, the Qur’an unequivocally rejects this idea, Let there be no compulsion in [accepting] Religion, truth clearly distinguishes itself from error. [Qur’an 2:256] Allah further warns His Prophet (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon Him) against forced conversions, If your Lord had willed, everyone on Earth would have believed [in this message]; will you then compel people to believe? [Qur’an 10:99] In this context, every human being is free to participate in the unrestricted worship of his Lord. As for those who refuse to do so according to the standards established by Islam, they are free to worship as they please. During the Ottoman epoch, this freedom evolved into sophisticated system of minority rights known as the Millet System. Bernard Lewis comments on that system: Surely, the Ottomans did not offer equal rights to their subjects –a meaningless anachronism in the context of that time and place. They did however offer a degree of tolerance without precedence or parallel in Christian Europe. Each community –the Ottoman term was Millet- was allowed the free practice of its religion. More remarkably, they had their own communal organizations, subject to the authority of their own religious chiefs, controlling their own education and social life, and enforcing their own laws, to the extent that they did not conflict with the basic laws of the Empire. Similarly positive Islamic positions can be found in the areas of personal liberties, within the parameters provided by the Islamic legal code. We will return to a brief discussion of those parameters, and their implications for an Islamic human rights regime. However, it isn’t the purpose of this paper to engage in an exhaustive treatment of this particular subject. Stating that, we don’t propose that Islamic formulations in this regard are an exact replica of contemporary Western constitutional guarantees governing human rights policy. Muslims and non-Muslims alike, when examining the issue of human rights within an Islamic legal or philosophical framework, should realize that human rights regimes, as we know them, are a contemporary political phenomenon, which have no ancient parallel. However, we are prepared to defend the thesis that Islam has historically presented a framework for protecting basic human rights, and that it presents a system of jurisprudential principles that allow for the creation of a viable modern human rights regime, totally consistent with the letter and spirit of Islam.
Part Two: The Relevance of Human Rights for Islam in America
Islam in America has historically been characterized by a strong advocacy of human rights and social justice issues. This is so because it has been associated with people who would be identified as ethnic minorities. The first significant Muslim population in this country, the enslaved believers of African origin, would certainly fit that description. The various Islamic movements, which arose amongst their descendents, appeared in a social and political context characterized by severe oppression. That socio-political context shaped the way Islam was understood by the people embracing it. It was a religion, in of all its variant understandings, which was seen as a source of liberation, justice, and redemption. When the ethnic composition of the Muslim community began to change due to immigration in the 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s, the minority composition of the Muslim community remained. These newly arriving non-European immigrant Muslims were generally upwardly mobile, however, their brown and olive complexions, along with their accents, and the vestiges of their original cultures, served to reinforce the reality of their minority status. This fact, combined with the fact that the most religiously active among them were affiliated with Islamic movements in the Muslim World, movements whose agenda were dominated by strong human rights and social justice concerns, affected the nature of the Islamic call in this country, keeping human rights concerns to the fore. Illustrative of this human rights imperative is the stated mission of the Ahmadiyya Movement when it began active propagation in America. Mufti Muhammad Sadiq, the first significant Ahmadi missionary to America, consciously called to a multicultural view of Islam, which challenged the entrenched racism prevalent in early 20th Century American society. This message presented Islam as a just social force, capable of extending to the racial minorities of this country their full human rights. However, there were strong anti-white overtones of the Ahmadi message, shaped by Mufti Muhammad Sadiq’s personal experience, and the widespread persecution of people of Indian descent (so-called Hindoos) in America, which dampened the broader appeal of the Ahmadi message. Those overtones were subsequently replaced by the overtly racist proclamations of the Nation of Islam, which declared whites to be devils. In the formulation of the Nation of Islam, Islam came to be viewed as a means for the restoration of the lost pre-eminence of the “Asiatic” Blackman. This restoration would be effected by a just religion, Islam, which addressed the social, economic and psychological vestiges of American race-based slavery. In other words, Islam was the agent that would grant the Muslims their usurped human rights.
The pivotal figure who was able to synthesize these various formulations into a tangible, well-defined human rights agenda was Malcolm X. By continuing to emphasize the failure of American society to effectively work to eliminate the vestiges of slavery, he was an implicit advocate of the justice-driven agenda of the Nation of Islam, even after departing from that movement. His brutal criticism of the racist nature of American society, which he often contrasted with the perceived racial harmony of Islam, highlighted by his famous letter from Mecca in which he envisioned Islam as a possible cure for this country’s inherent racism, was the continuation of the original multi-cultural message of the Ahmadiyya Movement. Finally, his evolving thinking on the true nature of the struggle of the African American people, and his situating that struggle in the context of the Third World human rights struggle, reflected the human rights imperative which figured so prominently in the call of Middle Eastern groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and the Indian Subcontinent’s Jamaati Islami, groups which had a strong influence on the founders of this country’s Muslim Students Association (MSA) in 1963.
These various groupings, along with the Dar al-Islam Movement, the Islamic Party of North America, and Sheikh Tawfiq’s Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood,14 which would develop in many urban centers during the 1960s and 1970s as the purveyors of an emerging African American “Sunni” tradition, a tradition consolidated by the conversion of Malcolm X to the orthodox faith, represented in their various agendas, the crystallization of the sort of human rights agenda which Malcolm was hammering out during the last phase of his life. These groups all saw Islam as the key to liberation from the stultifying weight of racial, social, and economic inequality in America. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 further strengthened this human rights imperative.
The revolution was presented by its advocates in America, who were quite influential at the time, as an uprising of the oppressed Muslim masses, the “Mustad’afin,” to secure their usurped rights from the Shah, an oppressive “Taghut.” This message, conveyed strongly and forcefully through the call of the Muslim Students Association: Persian Speaking Group (MSA-PSG), was extremely influential in shaping the human rights imperative in American Islam, not only because of its direct influence, but also because of the vernacular of struggle it introduced into the conceptual universe of many America Muslims, and the way it shaped the message of contending “Sunni” groups. The combined influence of these forces worked to insure that human rights issues were prominent in the call of Islamic organizations and individuals prior to the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
Part Three: The Challenge of September 11, 2001
The tragic events of September 11, 2001 present a clear challenge to the human rights/social justice imperative of Muslims in North America. The reasons for this are many and complex. The apocalyptic nature of the attacks of September 11, 2001, particularly the assault on, and subsequent collapse of the World Trade Center towers, led many observers to question the humaneness of a religion which could encourage such senseless, barbaric slaughter. Islam, the religion identified as providing the motivation for those horrific attacks, was brought into the public spotlight as being, in the view of many of its harshest critics, an anti-intellectual, nihilistic, violent, chauvinistic atavism. The atavistic nature of Islam, in their view, leads to its inability to realistically accommodate the basic elements of modern human rights philosophy. This inability was highlighted by the September 11, 2001 attacks in a number of ways. First of all, the massive and indiscriminant slaughter of civilians belied, in the view of many critics, any claims that Islam respects the right to life. If so, how could so many innocent, unsuspecting souls be so wantonly sacrificed? Secondly, “Islam’s” refusal to allow for the peaceful existence of even remote populations of “infidels,” the faceless dehumanized “other,” calls into question its respect for the rights of non-Muslims within its sociopolitical framework. It also highlights its inability to define that “other” in human terms.
As a link between the accused perpetrators of the attacks, Usama bin Laden, and the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan was developed by both the United States government and news media, the human rights position of Islam was called into further question. The Taliban, by any standards of assessment, presided over a regime that showed little consideration for the norms governing international human rights. Much evidence exists which implicates the Taliban in violating the basic rights of women, ethnic minorities (non-Pashtun), the Shi’ite religious minority, detainees, artists, and others, using in some instances, extremely draconian measures. Many of these violations occurred under the rubric of applying what the regime identified as Islamic law. The news of Taliban excesses, coupled with the shock of the events of September 11, 2001, combined to create tremendous apprehension towards the ability and willingness of Islam to accommodate a meaningful human rights regime. The political climate existing in America in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 has been exploited by certain elements in American society to call into question any humanitarian tendencies being associated with Islam. For example, in the aftermath of the brutal murder of Daniel Pearle, an act whose implications are as chilling as the attacks of September 11, 2001, Mr. Pearle’s bosses at the Wall Street Journal, Peter Kann and Paul Steiger remarked, “His murder is an act of barbarism that makes a mockery of everything that Danny’s kidnappers claimed to believe in.” Responding to those comments, Leon Wieseltier, of the New Republic, stated, “The murder of Daniel Pearle did not make a mockery of what his slaughterers believe. It was the perfect expression, the inevitable consequence, of what his slaughterers believe.” This, and similar indictments of Islam, challenge the ability of American Muslims to effectively speak on human rights issues in obvious ways.
If we examine the actual nature American Muslim human rights discourse prior to September 11, 2001, we find that it was based in large part on Muslims contrasting the generalities of the Shari’ah, with the specific shortcomings American society and history in relevant areas of domestic and international policy and practice. This discourse ignored the positive human rights strictures contained in sections of the American constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the UDHR, to which the United States is a signatory. As in other areas, this inadequate approach produced a false sense of moral superiority among Muslims in America. This sense was shattered by the attacks of September 11, 2001, in that many Americans were suddenly pointing to what they viewed as the inadequacy of Islamic human rights regimes, their inadequate philosophical basis, and their failure to guarantee basic human rights protection, especially for women, religious, racial, and ethnic minorities living in Muslim lands.
Responding adequately to these charges will require a radical restructuring of current Islamic human rights discourse, and the regimes that discourse informs. The generalities, which formerly sufficed in that discourse will have to be replaced by concrete, developed policy prescriptions, which stipulate in well-defined, legal terms, how viable human rights protections will be extended to groups identified as systematically suffering from human rights abuses in Muslim realms.
An example of the dangerous and inadequate generalities alluded to above, can be glimpsed from a brief examination of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI). Article 24 of that document states, “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah.” Such a statement is meaningless, considering the vast corpus of subjectively understood literature that could be identified as comprising the Shari’ah, unless the relevant rulings and principles of the Shari’ah are spelled out in exacting detail. While this paper has consciously avoided mention of those features of Islam which would be antithetical to the Western concept of personal liberty, such as the lack of freedom to chose one’s “sexual orientation,” there are major civil liberties issue which must be addressed, in clear and unequivocal terms, if Islam’s human rights discourse is to have any credence. Hiding behind Islam’s cultural, or religious specificity to avoid providing answers to difficult questions will not advance a deeper understanding of our faith amongst enlightened circles in the West. Islam indeed has much to say in the area of human rights. However, much foundational work has to be done before we can speak clearly and authoritatively, especially in the changed post September 11, 2001 political climate.
In Islam and Human Rights, Ann Elizabeth Mayer, whose work has been previously cited, acknowledges, “…the Islamic heritage comprises rationalist and humanistic currents and that it is replete with values that complement modern human rights such as concern for human welfare, justice, tolerance, and equalitarianism. These could provide the basis for constructing a viable synthesis of Islamic principles and international human rights…”. Perhaps the greatest challenge before us in this regard is successfully identifying those rationalist and humanitarian “currents” and riding them to a new, more enlightened shore. Doing this will require, among other things, a bold, but mature assessment of the proper relationship between creed and action in the social and political realms. A serious attempt to engage in a rational application of legal principles to contemporary social and political problems in no way implies adopting the methodology of the Mu’tazila, medieval Muslim legal and theological rationalists. Using ration as the standard to assess the veracity of revelation, and using ration as the basis for discovering meaningful Islamic solutions to pressing social or political problems, in areas where revelation provides no articulated guidance, constitute two entirely different projects. That being said, our attempts at solving novel contemporary socio-political problems must be guided by well-defined methodologies. Applicable methodologies have been expounded on by Muslim scholars of jurisprudential principles, and those who have assessed those methodologies, and the rulings they inform in light of the great overarching objectives of Islamic law. These scholars include the likes of Imam al- Shatibi, author of the groundbreaking work, al-Muwafaqat,23 and Imam ‘Izz al-Din bin ‘Abd al-Salam, author of Qawa’id al-Ahkam,24 and many others. These writings are part of a rich heritage of scholarship and thought, which allowed Muslims to adequately respond to a succession of civilizational challenges throughout our long and illustrious past. If we are able to master that rich heritage, and use the best of it to address the burning issues of our day, we will be able to meaningfully discuss human rights, and the full array of issues that currently vex and perplex us. By so doing, we will be able to step confidently into the future.
"I am a slave. I eat as a slave eats and I sit as a slave sits.", Beloved, sallallahu alyhi wa-sallam.