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  • Muslim Voices in the Human Rights Debate 1
  • Heiner Bielefeldt (bio)

I. Introduction

The main purpose of this article is to display a plurality of Muslim positions in the area of human rights. Like other religions or cultures, Islam is a complex reality harboring various, and frequently conflicting, interpretations about its inherent normative demands. Such diverse interpretations also emerge in the field of human rights. As the title of this article suggests, there is not one binding Islamic position but rather a great variety of “Muslim voices” offering different views about whether and how the idea of human rights and Islamic normative requirements fit together. 2

This article can, at the same time, be read as an exploration of the relationship between the universal claims of human rights on the one hand and the traditional values rooted in a particular culture on the other. It seems beyond question that many tensions between traditional Islamic norms and international human rights standards exist. No one can predict whether and how they will be settled in the future. However, because all cultures [End Page 587] and religions are open to various interpretations and evolutions, the frequently perceived antagonism between universal human rights and cultural identity appears at least questionable.

In order to overcome this perceived antagonism, one must clarify the concept of human rights. Therefore, I begin my analysis by suggesting an understanding of human rights that refers primarily to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, at the same time, is potentially open to a variety of different cultural interpretations. I then move on to an identification of the main areas of conflict between the Islamic normative tradition and human rights. The third section focuses on the different positions Muslims take today to deal with these conflicts. I conclude with a short retrospective on my main arguments followed by some remarks about the complexity of the human rights debate.

Ii. What Are Human Rights?

A. Basic Elements of Human Rights

Human rights constitute political and legal standards. That is, they require political and legal implementation through national, regional, and international institutions including, if possible, effective monitoring mechanisms. I would like to emphasize this political and legal aspect of human rights, in order to make sure that their scope is limited. Unlike Islam and other religions, which claim to shape the whole lives of their adherents, human rights do not represent an all-encompassing “weltanschauung” or way of life, nor do they provide a yardstick by which to evaluate cultures and religions in general. Human rights are not necessarily the highest manifestation of ethical spirit in human history either, because they are not intended to replace, for instance, Christian demands of love, Islamic solidarity, or the Buddhist ethic of compassion. Rather, they concentrate on political justice by setting up some basic normative standards. 3

However, in spite of their limited scope, human rights might have a significant influence on the self-perception of societies and cultural or religious communities in a way that extends beyond law and politics. This [End Page 588] is because they rely on a commitment to the mutual recognition of human beings in their inalienable dignity. This idea of human dignity has roots in various cultures and religions. It includes the claim that all human beings should be entitled to equal respect, a claim which, in the modern era, has become politically binding in terms of equal rights of freedom. Freedom and equality thus constitute the emancipatory content of human rights. This emancipatory demand finds expression in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states in Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” 4

Article 1 suggests another aspect of human rights—their claim to universality. They are cosmopolitan rights, as it were. In its preamble, the Universal Declaration emphasizes the global importance of human rights as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” and as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” 5 Recently the World Conference on Human Rights confirmed that “the universal nature...

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pp. 587-617
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