- Human Rights and the Challenge of Foundations
Are commonly given foundations for human rights convincing (or even needed)? And can the religiously minded accept such foundations if they do not flow out of a religion (presumably their religion)? These questions are a recurring undercurrent in critical thought on human rights that finds vague underpinnings such as "the conscience of mankind" unsatisfying, and finds equally unsatisfying utilitarian notions of human rights as the simple expression of the legal consent of states without need for further elaboration. The demand that human rights require a more explicit foundation may be misleading in a troubling manner. Is the spread of human rights really dependent on a specific foundation, religious or otherwise? It may well be, instead, that such a focus moves attention away from the pluralistic impulses and immediate claims that are actually behind human rights global spread, as a review of literature from a variety of disciplines dealing with human rights can help us understand.
An apt starting point in this regard is Abdulaziz Sachedina's Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights, which poses the questions noted above quite directly. As human rights have become more central to political discourse around the globe, work on human rights foundations has been a focus of literature in an expanding range of academic disciplines. It follows that, as disciplines such as religious studies (Sachedina's home), law, history, sociology, and international relations increasingly focus on human rights, each brings their own particular framings to these questions. Human rights and human rights-informed events [End Page 498] are clearly ripe for being explored from multiple disciplinary perspectives. It is less clear, however, if these disciplines are sufficiently exploring each other: we may have explorations of human rights from the perspectives of multiple disciplines, but is there a need for more explicitly interdisciplinary work? Questions of human rights foundations and the role of religion, in particular, would seem to lend themselves to interdisciplinary possibilities. This is, however, the first notable lack in Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights. Its disciplinary focus on religion as a possible foundation for human rights leads to a disconnect from exciting academic work being done on human rights in other fields. This work could give greater dimension to discussions of what allows human rights to make impacts.
Sachedina argues that common justifications for human rights are, simply put, not persuasive: human rights need to be placed on a firmer foundation if they are to continue spreading. Sachedina goes further to claim that this is because human rights have moved away from the sort of religious justifications that gave them what he says were their original impulse. Sachedina's solution, therefore, is that there must be a return to these sorts of foundations, particularly if human rights are to gain legitimacy in parts of the world where they are most contested. Most specifically, therefore, his book attempts to articulate how it is that Islam can serve as precisely the sort of religious foundation he maintains human rights needs.
In other words, Sachedina's book is seemingly mistitled. Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights has less to do with the...