Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Human Rights and Religion

by Brent Fredrickson

One of the considerations arising out of the topic of Islam in the modern world is that of the clash between human rights and freedom of religion. Members of all religions claim a right to practice their faith as they see fit. But some of the tenets of some religions come into conflict with other rights claimed by people in the modern world, e.g., with the rights of women. Another clash occurs between the rights of one religion and the rights of another. For example, many Islamic scholars contend that there is no right to leave Islam for another religion. Doing so is termed apostasy, considered an "insult to God," and almost always calls for some punishment, often the death penalty. But this position is in clear violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by U.N. General Assembly in 1948.

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Note that this article doesn't just give parents the right to raise their children in the religion of their choice, but provides the clear right of people raised in a religion to leave it. It's this latter right which sets up a direct conflict between a major principle of Islam, the forbidding and the punishing of apostasy and the right of Muslims to leave their religion for another, or for none at all.

What is the appropriate attitude of those of us who are fortunate enough to live in Western democracies to the suppression of rights in some countries in the name of religion and culture? There seem to be two basic approaches to this question, and both of them are frequently voiced.

One answer is that the "imposition" of the "Western" idea of universal human rights on societies which don't want them is a form of cultural imperialism. Who are we, the argument goes, to tell other cultures what sort of rights they must have for their citizens. This view is, of course, a form of cultural relativism.

The other main answer is that there are concepts of human rights which are universal, and which apply to all peoples in all cultures. This is the view which is the basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the U.N. (1).

I agree with the second view, that of the universality of human rights. First of all, I think a good case can be made that those within repressive societies espousing the point of view that the notion of human rights is a parochial, "Western" notion are often among the oppressors in those societies rather than among the oppressed, so we may suspect their motives as being self-serving. In each of the societies to which this "principle" is applied there are people within those societies who disagree with the notion that they should be considered second-class world citizens in that they may be denied the human rights they seek because those who oppress them argue for some sort of cultural autonomy and "protection from the cultural imperialism of human rights." With respect to those in Western societies holding this view, I think the proper response is that if those who are oppressed by the lack of human rights in other societies don't buy this "cultural imperialism" argument, neither should we.

If the societies under consideration are undemocratic and repressive, a serious question arises as to who actually possesses the legitimacy to speak for the society in terms of discounting the rights of the victims of oppression within it. And when those victims cry out for assistance from sympathizers in democracies, are we to deny them assistance on the grounds that to render it would be a form of cultural imperialism, an unwarranted interference in the affairs of another society?

I would like to distinguish two forms of cultural relativism, a strong form and a weak form. I'm oversimplifying somewhat, because there's actually a continuum of views ranging from the strong to the weak. I consider the opposition to the universality of human rights because of considerations of cultural autonomy to be an example of the application of a strong form of cultural relativism, and I believe the strong form is incoherent, i.e., internally inconsistent. If the strong form were valid, then we would be unable to condemn any kind of behavior in another society approved culturally, because the cultural approval would trump our moral disapproval. So strong cultural relativists would have had nothing to say about the behavior of the Nazis in the Third Reich, because, after all, they were just following their own laws and customs, and it's the essence of strong cultural relativism that this is acceptable.

The notion of cultural relativism in its modern form gained currency based on a century or so of investigation of many cultures around the world by anthropologists. They observed that there are many societies functioning well, but that they seemed to have many different norms and customs. The entirely plausible notion became widespread that cultures in different situations faced different sets of problems and solved these problems by means appropriate to their situation. Hence, a norm which had social utility in one society did not guarantee its utility in another in a different situation. One example of the misapplication of a norm in the wrong context was that of missionaries persuading the natives of some tropical islands that they should wear more clothing, and not follow their custom of being "half-naked," as the missionaries saw things. But these islands had daily intense rainfalls, and the result of the excess clothing was that many got sick and died from walking around in wet clothing. A weak form of cultural relativism takes account of the differing social utility of different customs in different situations as they occur in various cultures. A little thought and the application of this principle likely could have avoided many unfortunate consequences of meddling missionaries.

What the anthropologists failed to do, however, was to notice that there were a number of universal principles which were found in all cultures. They made an inappropriate, though understandable at the time, generalization from the variety of customs they observed to the notion that all customs and morals were relative to time and place. (2).

If we accept the universality of human rights, along with the U.N. in its Declaration with all its signatories, then it's entirely appropriate that we call to account societies which deny people the right to change their religion or which oppress women in the name of culture or religion. The notion that human rights are not for everyone is insulting, I believe, to those who live under oppression in countries outside the West.

(1) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be found here: . It's well worth reading, and may be surprising to many, given how many states signed it. Unfortunately, it's far from being universally honored by those countries which gave their signatures and consent to it.

The rights detailed in the Declaration apply to citizens of all member states of the UN, not just to some subset of Western states for which we've reserved the concept, and since they belong to all citizens of all states in the UN, they therefore impose the relevant duties on those states. I'd argue further that they also impose a duty on those who agree with those rights to speak out for them when they're violated.

(2) Human Universals, D. E. Brown, 1991. For details see:

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