• Thursday , 25 April 2019

Do Universal Human Rights Exist?

The idea of universal human rights is an intangible ideal, a philosophical concept, the high water mark of what living in a free and democratic society should be. But, due to social contracts, mores, customs, traditions, laws and many other variables, the application of these rights vary from state to state, country to country. An example would be Article 22 of the Cairo Declaration which says:

Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.

Shari’ah is defined as:

Rules and regulations governing the lives of Muslims, derived in principal from the Quran and Hadith.

Therefore, human rights are applicable only if they are not contrary to the teachings laid out in the Quran and Hadith. As Article 22 above states, everyone should have the right to express his opinion freely, but in the Quran it states:

They have certainly disbelieved who say, “Allah is the third of three.” And there is no god except one God. And if they do not desist from what they are saying, there will surely afflict the disbelievers among them a painful punishment.

The above passage from the Quran is one of many and has been the force behind the enacting of blasphemy laws all over the Islamic world. In Pakistan for example, section 298 of the Criminal Code states:

Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.

This is an example of how Shari’ah overrules the application of human rights within the Muslim world. The application of Article 22 to certain members of certain societies within this world is restricted.

This overruling of Article 22 of the Cairo Declaration by Shari’ah is not unique. Articles 2, 7, 12, 16, 19, 23 and 24 also mandate a strict adherence to and overruling of Shari’ah. Article 25 actually states:

The Islamic Shari’ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration

So what does this mean?

In Australia we have a democratic form of government with elected officials who are representatives of the people within their constituency. This essentially means that if enough people get behind an idea, for example, same sex couples, women’s rights, and indigenous rights and so on, that the normative feelings toward these things can change over time, and subsequently archaic laws regarding these things will change too. An example of this in Australia is the 1967 referendum to the Australian Constitution to have Aboriginal people included in the census. I would say it is moving “forward”, some would say “backwards”, but at least it is moving, and this is my point. Shari’ah is a system which is grounded back in Bronze Age Saudi Arabia.

What is wrong with Shari’ah?

Shari’ah is a set of rules derived from the Quran which is believed to be the absolute word of god. Therefore, it is possible to justify any action which is in the Quran simply by interpretation. This is the problem with most religions, the words themselves can be misconstrued and taken out of context and used to justify any seemingly abhorrent action. The fact that is the absolute word of god means that it cannot be changed or revised like the Christian book. This grounding in the past is the reason that it would be hard for the normative collective to change within those countries. The fact is that even though the Cairo Declaration was written it would be incredibly difficult to try to align our “western” morals and human rights to Islamic culture because the ultimate appellate is Shari’ah.

What do I mean by normative?

Normative subjectivism is the subjective viewpoint on any matter based upon the surroundings, culture or society you align yourself with. I do not believe that there is an objective standard of right and wrong, there is no definitive single source we can look to for the answer to life, the universe and everything. There may well be consensus on certain things like genocide, bestiality or infanticide for example, however there is a strong argument that Inuit tribes used to commit infanticide on female infants for reasons of survival.

Also, god actually calls for it in the bible, where it says about the Amalekites:

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

I would argue that Christian scholars would say that this is an OK action, because god commanded it, therefore it would not be OK to not do it. Also, there are historical reasons for infanticide, whether it is anthropological, evolutionary or for survival. I’m just trying to illustrate that an action that seems abhorrent to us might have some real meaning or justification in certain time periods and/or certain cultures around the world. Slavery is a good historical example of how the normative subjective opinion on a topic could change over time and cross cultures. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and many other very well respected and honoured people kept slaves. Were they morally repugnant people? No, they were simply doing what was considered normal for people in their time and their culture. A big mistake is to look upon these historical events, or cultural perspectives with western, contemporary eyes.

A more contemporary example of this is the euthanasia of newborn babies if they are severely disabled or enduring severe pain and suffering with no chance of recovery. Peter Singer says:

When the life of an infant will be so miserable as not to be worth living, from the internal perspective of the being who will lead that life, both the ‘prior existence’ and the ‘total’ version of utilitarianism entail that, if there are no ‘extrinsic’ reasons for keeping the infant alive – like the feelings of the parents – it is better that the child should be helped to die without further suffering.

I agree with Mr Singer, this statement makes perfect sense to me. However, what is it that makes Peter Singer right and the Catholic lobby wrong? Why does it seem right to me yet it is illegal in Australia in most cases? The same principal must be asked of human rights. What makes “us” right and “them” wrong?

The Golden Rule

There is a version of the golden rule in almost every religion and culture. This principal still falls over with regards to normative ethics because what happens when a society condones a type of behaviour for themselves that we find distasteful? Surely if a society feels it is justified, under Shari’ah or some other doctrine, to commit genital mutilation of children like the Jews or Muslims and it is backed by the consensus, then it is in fact OK to do so under the golden rule. After all, if a Jewish man has had a bris, performed one on his son and grandson then surely if it is OK for him then it should be OK for all young boys. I think it is a wicked act, to saw off the end of a newborn baby boy’s penis as a covenant with god, rather than some dire medical reason, but who is right and who is wrong in this scenario?

The Reasonable Person

The concept of “reasonableness” is a very important factor in the application of the law. The objective standard of reasonableness is used to ascertain the rightness or wrongness of an action under the law. For example, if a court was trying to gain information on the objective intention of an action it might evoke the reasonable person test. The concept of reasonableness might be the closest argument we have to an objective standard; however I would still argue that this is normative in respect of what is considered reasonable to the people making the decision. What might seem reasonable to me, for example euthanasia, might not seem reasonable to others.

Fear, Pain and Suffering

An objective argument for the application of international human rights would be based upon the feelings of fear, pain and suffering. The feel of these human feelings can be universally applied in a negative context. Fear, had some great survival applications but I would still consider it a negative feeling. No one would arbitrarily want to be subjected to unchosen or unnecessary fear, pain or suffering. Perhaps, if we are to start applying human rights universally then we could use these feelings as a starting point with which to build upon.

The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI)

As previously mentioned, the Cairo Declaration is an outline of human rights within the Islamic world which was adopted in August 1990 by the 19th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers of the 45 Organisation of the Islamic Conference countries. It was drafted as a result of Iran’s concern that the UDHR was a secular interpretation of the Judaeo/Christian tradition which could not be upheld by Muslims. Also, as previously stated, the CDHRI is undermined by the Islamic Shari’ah, of which the CDHRI says;

All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to Islamic Shari’ah

How does this effect international human rights?

As a devout and practicing atheist and humanist I have to make the claim that any policy or doctrine which has a supernatural foundation is fundamentally flawed. It is flawed because it starts at the end, with a conclusion, and armed with a bibliography of one book, works backwards trying to make all the arguments against their position fit with the conclusion. An example of this would be the young earth creationist notion that the universe is only 6000 years old. I am omitting the rafts of arguments for and against this position in this paper but young earth creationists believe the earth is around 6000 years old based upon their interpretation of Genesis. Another example would be the old earth creationists who argue that the bible passages that say “God created the earth in 6 days” actually did not mean earth days, but in fact meant “heaven days” which could actually be billions of our earth years long. Any group of people who are willing to ignore massive and mounting scientific evidence of an old earth and evolution by natural selection; or are also are happy to rewrite the laws of the universe in Orwellian proportions in favour of unprovable stories, have a fundamentally flawed argument, full stop.

I want to argue that Islam is worse than the Christian doctrine! The Christian story was written by normal regular men, it is an interpretation of events that are alleged to have happened over hundreds of years, and some times even written hundreds of years after Christ is supposed to have died. As such, the book has been open to interpretation and within reason it has evolved with the times, somewhat, with regard to certain things like female clergy or sexual intercourse. The Quran is argued to be the exact word of god, perhaps written by followers of Muhammad and for the most part written in the first person, as gods’ exact words. Also, Muhammad was the prophet ordained by god as his messenger on earth, tales of his adventures are found in the Hadith. For example, Sahih Bukhari, Book 58 states;

Khadija died three years before the Prophet departed to Medina. He stayed there for two years or so and then he married ‘Aisha when she was a girl of six years of age, and he consumed that marriage when she was nine years old.

Because of the fact that the Quran is the word of god, it is unmoveable, unchangeable and final. The only variation is in the definitions of the words and passages between different countries, factions or states. But when something is unambiguous like the Hadith statement above or open to interpretation like the penalty for apostasy being death, the countries which pick up this ball and run with it are essentially locked into that law. They have the divine right on their side and the Shari’ah will always come first to international human rights because they are essentially underwritten by god himself.

The Application of International Human Rights in Islam

As I have hopefully argued, that the main cultural difference between the western idea of human rights and the Islamic idea of human rights is the application of Shari’ah. Shari’ah, like the other two Judaeo/Christian dogmas is flawed because;

It is anchored in the past and is unable, or at least incredibly hard to move with the shifting tides of the normative collective or zeitgeist.

It has no basis for rational argument. “God is good because good is god” or “god is omnipotent and omnipresent” are not arguments, they’re excuses. The use of double talk is a way of not answering important questions that they can’t answer.

It is open to interpretation at all levels.

If international human rights are to be applied to Islam then there needs to be a set of logical human principals at the very foundation, then build upon those principals. The cultural difference drives a wedge between peoples of the world, but perhaps if we were to start understanding what connects us, what makes us the same, what we all have in common, then perhaps we could start to make some advances in applying human rights internationally.

For international human rights to exist, we would have to concentrate on the parts of our human species that connect us. As argued above; fear, pain and suffering is a common thread from which to build a logical argument. We could start with a simple doctrine for international human rights for us and other cultures, like Islam, to build upon and add their own colour within their own communities. Then try to get consensus upon the definitions of the words in the religious books or local laws that oppose these rights. Perhaps, after a while the normative collective could warm to the new definitions or meanings of the words and there might be some consensus on a universal principal of right and wrong.

What if Muhammad was right?

As argued above, I don’t believe in an objective standard of right and wrong. When it comes to the application of international human rights it is impossible to definitively state a set of fixed principals. What might seem normal to the west might seem abhorrent to the Middle East; for example, women having the choice to wear bikinis at the beach. Of course, we look on this argument with western eyes. We see that the right to choose for ones self what to wear if available is considered better than a seemingly archaic and barbaric practice of the burqa. However, if a woman wants to wear a burqa, and is not brainwashed and coerced into believing that this is what she wants (if that is possible to ascertain), if it is something she wants to do as a mark of respect for her god as she seems it is written in her book (if she is allowed to read), then surely it follows that we would not be defending her rights to practice her religion or to wear what she wants to wear by advancing our own western idea of human rights.

Western ideals are predicated on the Christian doctrine, for the most part. The USA refers to herself as a Christian nation; the UK has the Church of England as the official church which is a Christian church. But what makes us believe that our values are any more or less valid than Islamic values. What if Mohammad was right? What if Islam is the only true pure religion? Wouldn’t that make the things that we hold so dear to our way of life, in fact wrong, if they went against the Quran and Hadith and therefore Shari’ah?

As long as morality and culture is derived from, what I would consider, evil books that contradict themselves as well as each other, we are never going to 100% agree on what is to be considered a moral or immoral action. Therefore, without consensus there could be no agreement on what would be considered a human right. There will always be fighting and in-fighting amongst different cultures whose version is slightly different than their neighbours. There will always be confusion as to which definition of the words is the right definition, and therefore confusion in the application of any kind of principal to that definition.

There must be a humanistic, secular primary set of principals from which to work from. As long as there is religion, cherry picking definitions, fundamentalism and cultural mores based upon that religion, there may never be a firm foundation from which to build upon.

If my belief in normative subjectivism has any accuracy at all, then it could be argued that by pushing our own western values on a completely different culture seems wrong. Noam Chomsky said;

The only difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist depends on what side you are on. If we do it, it’s freedom fighting, if they do it, it’s terrorism

The “insurgents” fighting in the Muslim world consider themselves freedom fighters, fighting the coalition terrorists who invaded their country and killed their people.

As long as these things exist and we keep looking past all of the things which connect us rather than things which divide us, I would conclude that there can be no universal human and therefore no universal human rights. And to arrogantly march around the world spreading our own version of what we consider right and wrong based on just another book seems to me to be a mistake.

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