Best-selling sociologist Ivan Illich wrote a short classic on energy problems fifty years ago, where he analyzed and proposed what he called “Energy and Equity”. By this he hoped that the earth’s energy resources would be distributed evenly and fairly among all of civilization. Barring long-sought breakthroughs in the engineering of nuclear fusion power (promising unlimited energy for everyone), this dream has not come close to being fulfilled. We now have the same problem in the fair protection of human rights for the entire human race.
It is easier to discuss “levelling of the playing field” in access to energy quanta, usually described as “access to resources”, that is so tragically deprived to poor people everywhere. However, there are no “quanta” of human rights that can be objectified. Instead, the United Nations is attempting to universalize its secular definition of human rights by imposing it on everyone.
Muslims in particular, feel reluctant to take part substantively in this effort, since their understanding of human rights differs considerably from that of cultures dominated by secular, humanist ideologies that refuse to take religious revelation into account.
Even the concept of “sin”, so long central to the pre-protestant Christian communities, has been diluted beyond recognition in modern times, among those who also happen to have the majority access to resources.
The central dilemma of the Muslim pursuit is how to reconcile human rights derived from a legitimate process of Divine Revelation, with those agnostic formulations represented by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (UDHR).
The challenge of our task is raised by the question of how human rights based on God-given law can face the secular challenge as the current foundation for expressing those rights. Secular thinkers represent the majority of economic wealth on the planet, while religious thinkers represent the majority of human cultures.
There are several strategies that Malaysia should follow, in leadership of the minority of other young nations, including and particularly the member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) who are severely challenged by United Nations interpretations of human rights issues.
At the recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session held in Geneva on 24th October 2013, it was clear that many countries were pressuring Malaysia to ratify certain international human rights treaties; including the ones that allow for unbridled freedom of religion (such as Article 18 of ICCPR on freedom of religion). There were also calls by at least 6 countries for Malaysia to abolish her anti-sodomy laws (including section 377A of the Penal Code and the various Shariah enactments); this eventually and ultimately aiming at allowing same-sex marriage.
There were demands for Malaysia to allow the spread of Shiah teachings. There were also attempts to meddle in our domestic judiciary system through calls to urge the Malaysian government to reverse its decision of prohibiting the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims. According to his secular view, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, Heiner Bielefeldt, has urged the Malaysian government to reverse its decision and said that “Freedom of religion or belief is a right of human beings, not a right of the State. It cannot be the business of the State to shape or reshape religious traditions, nor can the State claim any binding authority in the interpretation of religious sources or in the definition of the tenets of faith.”
Indeed, Western countries are willing to go to the extent of overriding the sovereignty of nations in propagating ‘universal standards’ of human rights achievements. The controversial demands as mentioned above were among the six controversial issues included in the COMANGO’s 11th March 2013 report, which became the lobbying resource and basis for the Malaysian UPR in October 2013. With Malaysia’s final adoption taking place in less than a month (on 20th March 2014), the six demands remain controversial and COMANGO has yet to give specific response to MuslimUPRo’s assertion that those demands were against the Federal Constitution and national sovereignty, and particularly the religion of Islam. But we must not stop at just highlighting their unreasonable ‘human rights’ demands. What is beyond is the struggle is to bring about a formidable agenda on Muslim rights to the mainstream discourse. And Malaysia’s Muslim non-governmental organizations must lead this initiative.
Our first aim must re-emphasize the concept of usage in the English language, in which meaning is derived from the way terms are actually used and understood to mean at the time of writing. By this standard, nothing in the existing UDHR can possibly be taken to support, for example unbridled freedom of religion, disrespect of shariah and its institution, disregard of cultural, historical and religious realities of a country in implementing human rights principles, same-sex marriages, trans-gender medical procedures (“sex change operations”), or any of the other practices implied by the acronym “LGBT” (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-sexual), and the various unreasonable demands for human rights that risk undermining the country’s sovereignty.
For example, in respect of the LGBT debate, the Muslim agenda must contend that almost all human ethnic and culture groupings at the time of the writing of the UDHR, understood the term “family” to mean the normal, heterosexual basis of the nuclear family. Deviations from this norm were never intended to be included in the usage of the terms of the Declaration.
Muslims must also articulate that the process of revelation by which the Islamic religion have become known to human beings is a legitimate cognitive operation of the human brain, not one to be described by western psychiatrists as “schizophrenic” or otherwise unbalanced. Doctors, historians, and social scientists can be organized into advocacy programs for both the OIC and the UN to suggest the scientific bases for an equitable human rights global policy.
Thirdly, as a long term initiative, Muslims must organize, and support scholarly research and writings, as well as media discussion of the need for a better basis of Human Rights Witness than the UDHR, which is not nearly broad enough to cover the majority of the human race who neither recognize nor agree with the secular dissociation of human rights from religious revelation, no matter how much mind-based humanistic “wisdom” may be said to be brought to bear.
Finally, there must also be formidable working relationship with Malaysian embassies worldwide to leverage upon the strength and ability of contemporary Muslim scholars on human rights issues affecting Malaysia. For example, Muslim human rights advocates must place themselves to give scholarly inputs and advocacy to the Malaysian Embassy in Saudi Arabia, which is a major and strategic partner of the OIC Secretariat and working closely with OIC’s Permanent Independent Commission of Human Rights established since 2011.
Globally, the bigger challenge now taking place is the threat of human rights as the “new secular religion” as articulated by Anthony Julius in his remarkable 2010 book, “The Trials of the Diaspora“. Our struggle must go beyond COMANGO’s demands. More people will soon realize their retrograde agenda and reject them. But the bigger agenda of articulating a strong Muslim rights agenda must stay within our focus. And it is time for Malaysia to seize the future leadership of the human spirit in its multitudinous activities in this world, which is the only possible precursor for the Afterlife for all of us.
Azril Mohd Amin – is a lawyer and now leads the delegation of Muslim non-governmental organizations in the UPR (MuslimUPRo) in Geneva, Switzerland.