The relationship between religion, democracy and human rights.

by Dave Lane.

Over recent years – especially since 9/11 – there has been much more discussion worldwide about the interaction and conductivity between religion, democracy and human rights than in preceding periods. This interest has occurred not only because of world events but is also due to ever increasing global informational technology and increases in migration patterns – although other factors are also involved.

One major factor in the religious discussion seems to be “whose law should take precedence, Gods law or some other governing body’s law”. This seemingly “simple” question would seem to lie at the root of many of the worldwide discussions currently taking place on the subject and manifests itself whether one is talking about women’s rights, democracy, who should lead a religion, who should interpret holy books, who should formulate laws - and a plethora of other similar questions and topics.

Even the words “democracy” and “human rights” have differing interpretations dependent on who is doing the “interpreting” of the words and the social context of the interpreters. Even within a single context, parties can differ in people’s interpretation of both scriptures and the law. Examples of this could include people like Karl Barth & Dietrich Bonnhoeffer when discussing National Socialism in the 1930’s (Herbert 2001 p37), Saudis and Tunisians discussing human rights in Islam – or even Anglicans discussing female ordination in the Church of England.

The difficulties in studying the relationships between religion, democracy & human rights abound all over the world. People within all major religions disagree on various points, cannot agree on different interpretations of scriptures and fail to see eye to eye on the minutiae of interpretations even when they agree on the basic tenants of the same religion.

In the Christian world – where some of us may claim to have both religion, democracy AND human rights – some would also counter claim that there is little democracy or human rights within much of Western religion. Women are allowed to play only a marginal role within Christianity, their “rights” to officiate within that body are severely curtailed by their sex. Judaism could be viewed in a similar light. Sonja Eggerickx (Eggerickx S, 2007, p 3) comments that a women’s role in Judaism is prescribed through a series of purity prescription which severely limits their role to fully function within a Jewish society.

It can also be said that perhaps Islam presents special difficulties in that although the Quran teaches that “men and women are equal before God”, this equality does not seem so apparent in day to day life (education, divorce, entry to certain mosques etc). Hinduism is no different! In the past Hindu females were forbidden to read the Vedas, very few were allowed to join in spiritual debates, none could officiate at religious ceremonies and in many ways females were treated differently from males. The dowry system originated from when women were thought to be a burden and so fathers offered husbands a dowry to compensate. Although some Hindu sexist differentiations have been reduced, they have not been totally removed.

Within all major world religions at one time or another women have been considered as inferior or subservient to men – a clear case of “non-democratic” behaviour and against basic “Western” perceived ideas of human rights. Whilst many of these practices have been changed or have evolved over time this does not mean that they have totally disappeared.

The perceived international concept of human rights was formulated in 1948 under the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (UDHR). Many aspects of this declaration were on the surface compatible with many of the teachings of most world religions. This is not however the way it has been perceived within certain religions perhaps especially by some who interpret Islamic teachings. Ayatollah Khomeini stated “What they call human rights is nothing but a collection of corrupt rules …… to destroy all true religions” with Ayatollah Moussave-Khomenehi putting it even more bluntly – “When we want to find out what is right and wrong we do not go to the United Nations, we go to the Holy Koran” (Kamgouian A (2003 p13)

Within the Islamic world, there are many differences in the way human rights are viewed. Whilst some Muslims fully accept the UDHR interpretation of these rights, others – usually the more “fundamental” Muslims – cannot agree to it totally and in the early 1980’s they formulated a Muslim version called the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR) which in turn was followed by yet another interpretation, the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights (CDHR) in 1990. Although all three human rights documents appear superficially very similar, the Islamic versions interpret some concepts in the light of Muslim beliefs and the overall meanings are changed. Mayer (Mayer A (1995) comments (in relation to female rights) that the concept of dignity has been replaced for those of rights and dignity and these are not likely to provide legal grounds for challenging ingrained patterns of discrimination.

Islamic law is based on the Sharia – contained in both the Quaran and the Haddiths. Unfortunately there are five different Islamic schools of thought on exactly what constitutes “Sharia”. The four orthodox Sunni
Versions are all different in some respects and the fifth, the Shi’ite version differs in many respects. In different Islamic cultures and countries the sharia laws differ vastly from each other – from the liberally interpreted laws of Indonesia and Bangladesh to the totally conservative interpretations of Saudi Arabia.

Although some Islamic interpretations of human rights may veer more towards “Gods Law” as opposed to legal frameworks of rights and freedoms one cannot ignore the fact that in the Western world in the past, similar views were held. It was not so long ago that in Europe the Church was ordering the deaths by burning for heresy, witchcraft or for acting against the Church. Since that period we in the West have experienced the Reformation and the period of Enlightenment along with the industrial and scientific revolutions. In the Islamic world there have been less such reformations and the recent modernity and global commercialism have forced some in the Islamic world to review their concepts on what has previously been held as Gods unchanging laws.

In most Islamic states it is held that all law comes only from God and no humans (including leaders) can create any laws which contravene those of God. God’s laws can only be interpreted by scholars, mullahs, ayatollahs and other religious authorities. Some states take this to such extremes (Saudi is a prime example) that the Quaran is deemed to be the written word to which all laws of the land must conform and divine authority is placed above the will of the people. This could be perceived as being totally incompatible with the very concept of “democracy” as we know it in the West.

One could argue that the lack of true democracy in Islam may, over some time spans, also have been true for some Christian countries also. Schwortlander & Bielefeldt (1994) commented on this theme when they wrote that although religious liberty is traditionally unknown to Islam, it does not belong (also) to the traditional values of the Christian Church either. There are obvious real differences in the social institutions and historical backgrounds of Islam & Christianity. The Sharia was formed over a period of time when the Islamic world lacked any public institutions whereas in the West the church WAS in itself an institution. Islam itself is viewed AS “society” with all modern institutions being subservient and answerable to it.

Due to historical experiences with the West (colonisation, invasion etc) Islam is perhaps reluctant and suspicious of dictates which it perceives as being purely Western-orientated ideas which do not take into account any other traditions (Weeeramantry, 1988 p 168). There is thus a distinct difference in the way “human rights” are interpreted between groups of people in the world which seems to be dependent upon the strength (or lack of strength) of the religious beliefs and convictions of those involved. Ann Sofie Roald (2001) encapsulated this idea (when she was writing about women’s rights) when she described two oppositional cultural patterns, “Arab cultural base pattern” and “Western cultural base pattern” which she defined as the “patriarchal” versus the “equality” pattern. The contents of the UDHR & UIDHR have echoes of these two patterns.

In today’s world, religions have never been static and change some ideas and beliefs in the light of the reinterpreting of ancient scriptures. In Christianity, women are now being ordained and are playing a greater role in some churches. In Hinduism, male and female relationships within religion are slowly changing, again with women playing a greater role in some religious duties and affairs. Judaism questions itself and religious changes occur – exemplified by the recent publication of “The Torah, a women’s commentary” in which Jewish scholars re-evaluate the books feminine side and offers the first comprehensive analysis of the texts from a female point of view (The Times, April 5th, 2008, p 44).

There are attempts in the Muslim world to liberalise Islamic traditions (Weeramantry 1988, An-Na’im 1998, Talbi etc) and as a result there are many different interpretations of the Sharia around the Muslim world. Muslims in general do not appear to deny human rights as such, although they may “challenge its foundations, or its provenance, or the content given it by specific groups (Dwyer 1991, p 192). The UDHR basic ideas are upheld, but are reinterpreted in the light of local cultural norms in order to remain relevant. This illustrates the difficulties in reconciling the differing forms of religion with the ideas of democracy and human rights. Different bodies interpret and reinterpret their understandings of these ideas in the light of local cultural traditions and beliefs and on occasions there can even be basic disagreements on how to read some sacred texts. This applies to all the major religions.

It is apparent that religion, democracy and human rights are interlinked and different religions (and groups within each religion) interpret all three factors in different ways. Although these differences manifest themselves in many forms, the overriding impression is that many differences are linked to the patriarchal nature of the major religions. Whether this male oriented “leadership” is born out of the religion or originates in the social cultures from where the religion originated is open to debate. What is not open to debate however is that most world religious beliefs do appear to result in differing interpretations of democracy and of human rights.

An-Na’im A A (1998) “Sharia & basic human rights concerns”, in C Curzmann (ed) Liberal Islam: a sourcebook, Oxford, Oxford University Press pp 222-38

Dwyer K (1991) “Arab voices: the human rights debate in the Middle East”, London, Routledge.

Eggerickx S (2007), “Traditional Treatment of Women”, from International Humanist News p3

Herbert D, (2001) “Religion & the Great Transformation in Poland and East Germany”. From Religion & Social Tranformations, Aldershot: Ashgate/Milton Keynes: The Open University, p37.

Kamgouian A (2003) “Defending Human Rights in Islamic countries” from International Humanist News August 2003 edition p 15. The Ayatollahs quotes can also be found in many other books, journals and websites.

Mayer A (1995) “Islam & Human Rights” London, Pinter

Roald, A S (2001) “Women in Islam”, London & New York, Routledge.

Schwortlander J & Bielefeldt (1994) “Christians & Muslims facing the challenge of Human Rights”, Bonn, Deutch Kommission Justinia et Pax.

Weeramantry (1988), “”Islamic Jurisprudence, an International Perspective”, Basingstoke & London, Macmillan.