The history of human rights, albeit fragmented, is a long and often honourable expression of religious and civic endeavour. The scriptures of most religions refer to the ways in which we should treat our fellow man, from the Bible in antiquity to the broadly liberal Baha'i scriptures written in Persian and Arabic in the late nineteenth century. Religious precepts have served to protect human beings from arbitrary mistreatment in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths.
Modern human rights declarations and legislation developed in a secular context, above all as an expression of democratic values, and informed by Judaeo-Christian ethics. The earliest formulations of secular human rights legislation are to be found in the 1789 French Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the 1791 US Constitution, the first 10 amendments of which form the Bill of Rights.
It was not until after the Second World War, however, that an even wider formulation of human rights came into being. Like the French and American declarations, these fresh formulas had much to do with the notion of individual rights: rights that were lodged in the political and legislative strategies of modern democratic states. Prior to that, rights tended to be located in communities, with individuals being subject to the laws and pressures of the tribe – as in the limitation of rights for Jews and Christians within Muslim societies, or for Jews in Europe, notably in ghettoes. This new construction of rights -- through religious or ethnic identity -- has, for some decades now, found expression in democratic states in "multiculturalism".
The Swiss academic Elham Manea has identified this new denial of individual human rights as "essentialist multiculturalism", in her book Women and Shari'a Law. This "Essentialist Multiculturalism" is defined by the notion that individuals must be understood through their culture, not as independent citizens.
According to Manea:
I use essentialist to describe this paradigm because of the prism through which it sees the world. It:
- Insists that a group of people have inherent unchanging characteristics because of their very religion or culture.
- Ignores that any group is constructed through various political, social and religious factors.
- Maintains that a person is first and foremost a religious entity and part of another religious whole.
- Fails to see the complex different layers of identity
- Fails to see the dynamic nature of culture, religion, society and, certainly identity.
- Fears imposing what it perceives as 'Western' values on the 'other' and legitimizes in the process grave human rights violations. Because it considers international standards of human rights to be 'Western' Values not applicable to other societies or groups living in Western societies, it ingeniously plays to the hand of authoritarian governments and Islamic fundamentalists, who use similar discourse to legitimise their shameful record of human rights violations.
- Ignores the developments and struggles taking place in Islamic countries to change family laws that discriminate against women and children; to demand states that are representative of all their citizens, and to insist on respect of freedom of expression, freedom of/from religion, and separation of religion and state. Because it considers these demands as universalistic, it dismisses them as not authentic enough. In other words, it designates itself as the arbitrator on who should speak on behalf of 'Muslims'; and 'Minorities'. [Manea, pp. 9-10]
The last one seems to mean that because these attributes apply to all people, they cannot be authentic enough for specific communities.
Manea's reference to "international standards of human rights" is particularly pertinent to democracy, a system through which it has been possible to extend rights to all individuals. The abolition of slavery, the extension of suffrage to women, and the entire civil rights movement all represent landmarks in the path towards universal rights.
The main document of that movement is, many of us might agree, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an international instrument created to spread the democratic values of individualism to the world as a whole. Adopted by the United Nations at the end of 1948 and expanded as the International Bill of Human Rights, the UDHR has brought into existence a raft of organizations and legislation working to enforce the rights to which it claims all people are entitled. Of those organizations, the most influential is the UN Human Rights Council, a 47-member inter-governmental body that includes, or has included among its member states, some of the countries that most abuse human rights.
Pictured: Eleanor Roosevelt holding a Universal Declaration of Human Rights poster in Spanish, in 1949. (Image source: United Nations/Flickr)
Although the UNHRC may have done much to improve the situation for some human rights internationally, something perverse has taken place. The UNHCR itself has also become a prime motivator and enforcer of the rejection of human rights -- not only for many individuals, such as children being trained to be terrorists, but also for a single country, Israel. Much of that animus seems to have originated in the Arab and wider Muslim worlds. This is surely odd if we consider that Israel has one of the best human rights records and -- while not giving Russia, China, North Korea or Cuba a pass -- that many Arab and Muslim states (Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan among others) have been among the most conspicuous violators.
Over the years, however, it is Israel -- not the dictatorships or fundamentalist regimes around it -- that has been singled out for criticism by the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. In its 70th session, 2015-2016, the UN General Assembly passed a single resolution
s each condemning the human rights situation in Iran, Syria and North Korea. Alongside these, it passed no fewer than 20 resolutions singling out Israel.
What are a few reasons for this disparity? If one takes the admirable resolution on human rights abuses in Iran, one can see there were 76 votes in favour, but a larger figure for the combined 'no' and 'abstain' votes: 103 in total. The 'yes' votes tended to come from Western nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland and Italy; the 'no' votes, were from majority Sunni Muslim countries or ones (such as India) with large Muslim minorities; fifteen abstentions were from Muslim majority states, including several (such as Saudi Arabia), which consider Iran their enemy.
Now take one of the resolutions directed against Israel. Resolution 70/141 , on "The right of the Palestinian people to self-determination", received far more plenary votes than the single one directed against Iran (177 as against 76). Many of these came from the EU, but it is important to note that one of the countries that proposed it was Egypt, "On behalf of the States Members of the United Nations that are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation" -- that is to say, a bloc of 57, just under one third of the overall "yes" vote, and backed by such stalwarts of human rights as North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and "the state of Palestine".
This outcome is far from coincidental. Behind that bloc vote (and its many supporters) lurks the uncomfortable fact that there are several quite different charters of human rights in the world.
The other charters of human rights are to be found exclusively in the Muslim world. Some are presented in national constitutions such as those of Iran or Afghanistan; others in official documents that reflect a trans-national Islamic identity, expressing the principles of the umma, the international body of all Muslims construed as a unified community. On the surface, most of these charters appear to endorse much the same raft of human rights as the International Bill. In reality, however, they do not. On close examination, they do exactly the opposite -- and for a very simple reason. Every single right they claim to offer (in imitation of the wording of the UDHR and its companion charters) is made subject to the provisions of Islamic shari'a law. Anything that falls within shari'a is a human right; anything that does not fall within shari'a is not a human right. This provision makes a world of difference.
Professor Ann Elizabeth Mayer's classic study, Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics, is a painstaking study of the many Islamic Human Rights charters, in both English translations and Arabic or Persian originals. They expose serious concerns about the impact of Islam and Islamic law in both the Muslim world and increasingly in the West. The contradictions she has found between original texts on the other, is invaluable.
Mayer examines seven major Islamic declarations, including:
- The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR, 1981)
- The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1993)
Again and again, claims that Islamic values support Western human rights standards are contradicted by the texts and statements of Muslim jurists and diplomats. Here, for example, is a statement by the former Iranian representative to the United Nations, Sa'id Raja'i-Khorasani, presented before the UN General Assembly on December 7, 1984:
The new political order [in Iran] was... in full accordance and harmony with the deepest moral and religious convictions of the people and therefore most representative of the traditional, cultural, moral and religious beliefs of Iranian society. It recognized no authority... apart from Islamic law... conventions, declarations or decisions of international organizations, which were contrary to Islam, had no validity in the Islamic Republic of Iran.... The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which represented secular understanding of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, could not be implemented by Muslims and did not accord with the system of values recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran; his country would therefore not hesitate to violate its provisions. (Emphasis added.)
Reza Afshari, a professor of history at Pace University, New York, has documented
"how the Islamic Republic of Iran has used cultural and religious relativism to circumvent the UN Human Rights Council's attempts to inspect and report on the regime's human rights abuses, including the harassment, imprisonment, and torture of journalists and activists; and the repression of religious minorities, sexual minorities, and women. Iran has regularly denied and countered the accusations of
byUnited Nations human rights monitors by defending its acts as authentic 'cultural practices'".
According to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, "What they [Westerners] call human rights is nothing but a collection of corrupt rules worked out by Zionists to destroy all true religions". Iran's current Supreme Leader, 'Ali Khamene'i, while serving as president of the republic, was even stronger in his refutation of human rights:
"When we want to find out what is right and what is wrong, we do not go to the United Nations; we go to the Holy Koran. For us the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is nothing but a collection of mumbo-jumbo by disciples of Satan". 
Strong words indeed, words that harbor no illusions about the gulf between radical Islamic values and those of the Judaeo-Christian West.
Even the more formal statements on Islamic human rights bear clear signs of this same disinclination to accept Western values. The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, for example, says much the same thing in more moderate language, first in its foreword:
Islam gave to mankind an ideal code of human rights fourteen centuries ago. These rights aim at conferring honor and dignity on mankind and eliminating exploitation, oppression and injustice.
Human rights in Islam are firmly rooted in the belief that God, and God alone, is the Law Giver and the Source of all human rights. Due to their Divine origin, no ruler, government, assembly or authority can curtail or violate in any way the human rights conferred by God, nor can they be surrendered.
These rights are not those conferred by the UDHR, but rights sanctioned by Islamic law. In the preamble, we are told that "by virtue of their Divine source and sanction these rights can neither be curtailed, abrogated or disregarded by authorities, assemblies or other institutions, nor can they be surrendered or alienated" --no trace of democracy, debate, rational planning, secular tolerance, or human rights there.
The overriding sanctity of Islamic law is reinforced by other charters and statements from individuals. For example, the Pakistani strongman, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who came to power in 1977 through a coup d'état and served as that country's president from 1978 until his death ten years later, imposed shari'a law on the country. He asserted the supremacy of Islamic law thus:
[In Islam] there are no 'human rights' or 'freedoms' admissible to man in the sense in which modern man's thought, belief, and practice understand them: in essence, the believer owes obligation or duties to God if only because he is called upon to obey the Divine Law and such Human Rights as he is made to acknowledge seem to stem from his primary duty to obey God.
Restrictions on the behaviour of individuals, including non-Muslims, are characteristic of Islamic rights charters. According to Mayer:
The underlying thesis in all the Islamic human rights schemes is that the rights afforded in international law are too generous and only become acceptable when they are subjected to Islamic restrictions. Curiously, there is no explicit articulation of the thesis that international law has granted people excessive rights. Because invoking Islam either to eliminate or to narrow rights is such a central and distinctive feature of Islamic human rights schemes, it is also curious that exactly what these Islamic restrictions on rights entail is not precisely delineated. [Mayer, p. 69]
Just how do these restrictions work? Here are some statements from the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, issued by the member states of the Islamic Conference:
Article 6: Woman is equal to man in human dignity, and has rights to enjoy as well as duties to perform...
Article 8: Every human being has the right to enjoy his legal capacity...
Article 11 A: Human beings are born free, and no-one has the right to enslave, humiliate, oppress or exploit them...
Article 18 A: Everyone shall have the right to live in security for himself, his religion, his dependants, his honor and his property.
Article 19 A: All individuals are equal before the law, without distinction between the ruler and the ruled.
On the surface, these and many other passages from the Cairo Declaration seem entirely consistent with the UDHR. Unfortunately, a second look shows quite the opposite. One only need look at the final two articles in Cairo: 24 and 25:
Article 24: All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari'ah.
Article 25: The Islamic Shari'ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration
In Part Two, we shall examine just how this double human rights system impacts on the West.
Dr. Denis MacEoin is a former university lecturer in Islamic Studies and a Distinguished Senior Fellow in the Gatestone Institute.
 Her approach is echoed by Dutch political scientist Machteld Zee in another study Choosing Sharia? Multiculturalism, Islamic Fundamentalism, & Sharia Councils [The Hague, 2016]
 UN General Assembly. Thirty-Ninth Session. Third Committee. Sixty-fifth meeting, held on Friday, December 7, 1984, New York A/C.3/39/SR.65
 Cited Mayer, p. 36
 Quoted, Edward Mortimer, 'Islam and Human Rights', Index on Censorship, 12, October, 1983, p.5.
 Cited A. K. Brohi, 'Islam and Human Rights', PLD Lahore, 28, 1976, p. 151.