By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr.
Democracy, Human Rights, and Islam are not inherently incompatible. In purview of all other arguments related to human rights legitimacy, one holds unquestionable merit; “We cannot exclude the poorest of the poor from the universality of the rich” (Tharoor 2000). This speaks to the geopolitics of exclusion and how developing countries (particularly including those possessing Islamic traditions) were historically denied the right to develop and their economic rights, especially, were violated by colonialism. Further these countries were excluded from sharing in the international wealth afforded them by the right to a common heritage. Civil, political, and even social rights were denied retrospectively by these same colonial conquests through forced involvement in wars and other distractions to advancement.
Democracy and Legitimacy
Authority essentially rests in a majority consensus or the hands of a few or one. Democracy is a philosophical principle that expresses a form of government that promotes equality and where authority or sovereign power is in the hands of the people. “In ancient Greece, democracy (“by the common people”) involved decision-making on policy and legislation by citizens in a popular assembly” (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2013). This stands in direct contrast to communism or dictatorship forms of government found in some states. Democracy is arguably a universal value, but coercive attempts at international-democratization have produced violations to the same rights they intended to protect. Therefore, democracy is resisted by some states. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines political legitimacy as, “a virtue of political institutions and of the decisions—about laws, policies, and candidates for political office—made within them” (2013). There are descriptive and normative concepts of legitimacy, different sources and functions, and some feel democracy is not necessary for political legitimacy. Moreover, some hold that the outcomes that are brought about by democracy is the best way to measure political legitimacy. To that note, human rights violations have occurred in both democratic and non-democratic societies leaving the idea of legitimacy in a state of gridlock when considering outcomes.
The Vienna Declaration (adopted in 1993) clarifies, “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.” Diana Ayton-Shenker strategically references this declaration to demonstrate how civil, political, social, cultural, and economic rights cannot be divided. She states, “One cannot pick and choose which rights to promote and protect. They are all of equal value and apply to everyone” (Ayton-Shenker 2005).The Vienna Declaration flexibly acknowledges the cultural and religious backgrounds of States without offering a scapegoat for violations. A state’s desire (not right, as member states have no legal exemption from obligation) to exclude itself from the definition of ‘all peoples and all nations’ (as stated in the UDHR Preamble) does not allow it the right to violate a ‘common standard’ arrived at by an international consensus. Therefore cultural relativity offers little, better yet, no defense to any violator. It is important to note that cultural rights are not extended to the point of infringing on other human rights protected by international law.
That traditional cultures are recognized, offers opportunity to further illuminate compatibility and commonality of international values and concerns. Ayton-Shenker intelligently concludes, “Recognition and appreciation of particular cultural contexts would serve to facilitate, rather than reduce, human rights respect and observance” (Ayton-Shenker 2005). The western focus on the individual and Islamic focus on the group are fundamentally interdependent as groups are comprised of individuals. In The Role of Faith in Cross-Cultural Conflict Resolution Abdul Said and Nathan Funk conclude, “The discovery of commonality, in turn, makes reconciliation possible, through the re-identification and reaffirmation of the core spiritual precepts upon which our religious narratives, images and values have been built. In the process, we may also derive common responses to shared human suffering” (Said and Funk 2001).
Hope for Tomorrow
I believe that Islam is capable of moving beyond the traditional injustices they are guilty of (dishonoring women and so forth) in much the same way Westerners have made attempts (though not always progress) at righting their past wrongs in religious and non-religious, governmental and non-governmental, organizations. Islam is capable of producing more than radical terrorist regimes in as much as Christianity is capable of producing more than Ku Klux Klan regimes. As both sides protagonize the other’s story, they typically revert to analysis of extremes strengthening the ‘other’ construct and legitimizing adversity. Said and Funk amplify this notion by stating,
- “Implicitly or explicitly, the ‘other’ is depicted as a threatening monolith. The result is that Muslim and Western analysts have placed such strong emphasis on extremist tendencies among their purported adversaries that a ‘clash of symbols’ has begun to emerge, in which the most superficial and eye-catching aspects of the ‘other’ are highlighted at the expense of shared and convergent values” (Said and Funk 2001).
Doubly challenging is an interest in comparing human rights records from one period to another. In the Bible, the Pharisees appeared righteous standing next to the woman caught in adultery. However, they appeared as double-minded, partial, religious and superfluous hypocrites standing next to Jesus. The same is true with the comparative history of States. To that note, John Strawson vocalizes, “The building of a human rights current which can draw on the experiences and contributions of all cultures without privileging any is an important intellectual and practical investment in the current period” (Strawson 1997).
No Excuse of Tradition
Although human rights are culturally relative they should not be relegated to the domain of traditional governance. That is, traditions change over time and current and future respect for evolving or revolutionary human rights perspectives should not be ignored because past injustices were normalized by tradition. For instance, the legal tradition of sovereign impunity should not force future generations to be subjected to fear or acts of genocide simply because it was allowed or legally tolerated in the past. Diana Ayton-Shenker proffers, “By rejecting or disregarding their legal obligation to promote and protect universal human rights, States advocating cultural relativism could raise their own cultural norms and particularities above international law and standards” (Ayton-Shenker 2005). In this scenario, accountability would be disturbed undoubtedly.
Ayton-Shenker, Diana. (1995). “The Challenge of Human Rights and Cultural Diversity”. United Nations Department of Public Information. http://www.un.org/rights/dpi1627e.htm (accessed December 3, 2013).
Funk, Abdul A. Said and Nathan C. Programs. September 2001. http://www.gmu.edu/programs/icar/pcs/ASNC83PCS.htm (accessed December 3, 2013).
Inter-Parliamentary Union . About Democracy. 2013. http://www.ipu.org/dem-e/idd/about-dem.htm#ten (accessed December 3, 2013).
Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Entries. April 29, 2013. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/legitimacy/ (accessed December 3, 2013).
Strawson, John. 1997. “A Western question to the Middle East: `Is there a human rights discourse in Islam?’.” Arab Studies Quarterly 19, no. 1: 31. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost(accessed December 3, 2013).
Tharoor, Shashi. 1999/2000. “Are Human Rights Universal?” World Policy Journal. World Policy Institute.Vol. 14 no. 4. http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html (accessed December 3, 2013).