Human Rights in Muslim Understanding

by Christine Schirrmacher

When Christians are persecuted for their faith in Muslim countries, or when Muslims convert to Christianity and are threatened with the death penalty,the Western press accuses the Islamic state of human rights violations. At the same time, most Islamic states have ratified declarations such as the United Nations l948 General Declaration of Human Rights. How can they justify this contradiction?

In recent decades, various Islamic organisations have themselves formulated declarations of human rights. They have one basic difference to those of Western statements, however. Because they give priority to the Koran and to the Shari'a (Islamic law), human rights can only be guaranteed in these countries under the conditions imposed by these two authorities and their regulations.

Article 24 of the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights, for example,states that "All rights and freedoms mentioned in this statement are subject to the Islamic Shari'a," and Article 25 adds, "The Islamic Shari'a is the only source for the interpretation or explanation of each individual article of this statement." This emphasizes the "historic role of the Islamic Umma [Muslim society or community], which was created by God as the best nation, which has brought humanity a universal and well-balanced civilisation, in which harmony between life here on earth and the hereafter exists, and in which knowledge accompanies faith."

What does the priority of the Koran and the Shari'a mean for human rights discussions? These two authorities insure that in Islamic states, human rights only exist within the limitation set by the religious values of Islamic revelation and are guaranteed only within the framework determined by the Koran and Islamic law. The secularized Westerner, molded by the Enlightenment and accustomed to separation of church and state, has difficulties understanding that a country could determine its standards for political and social life, for private and public affairs, by the standards of religion.

Civil Rights for Muslims and Non-Muslims

Islamic culture has never known any sort of separation of religion and state, nor of politics and religion, while in the Old Testament, a certain division of authority between the king and the high priest did exist. In Islam, Muhammad had unified both aspects in his own person, being simultaneously religious and political leader of the first Islamic community. His immediate successors, the caliphs, also carried out both offices.

In the Islamic states, Islam is the state religion, to which all citizens are assumed to belong, and which is considered to be the "principle on which the state is built. The state is bearer of a religious idea and is, therefore, itself a religious institution...It is responsible for the worship of God, for religious training and for the spreading of the faith." For this reason, the law must distinguish between the civil rights of Muslims, who can fully enjoy legal protection because they prove their loyalty to the state by their adherence to its religion, and the rights of non-Muslims, who, as "traitors," forfeit their right to state protection because of their ‘unbelief'. In these countries, Muslims always have more rights than non-Muslims. A non-Muslim can usually not inherit from a Muslim, for example.

Freedom of Religion for Non-Muslims

To be a Muslim means to be a citizen imbued with all legal rights, whereas to become an unbeliever is to commit high treason, for Islam is an "essential element of the basic order of the state." When a Muslim repudiates his faith, he rebels against that order and endangers the security and the "stability of the society to which he belongs."

When Islamic law is interpreted in its strictest sense, this ‘watchman'function of the state over its citizens' religion makes it impossible for human rights to be given priority over Islamic law when a Muslim gives up his faith, in spite of human rights declarations.

Although the constitutions of many Islamic countries provide for freedom in exercising religious beliefs, non-Muslims almost always have great difficulties in practicing their faith. Muslims who have become Christians may even lose their lives. Still, Islamic countries claim to be tolerant and to guarantee freedom of religion.

A few other faiths, such as Judaism and Christianity, are allowed a certain right to exist, so that their members are not required to convert to Islam, even if they live in an predominantly Islamic area, but they are never equal to Muslims before the law. They remain "second-class citizens" with limited legal rights and are subject to the Islamic state, which defines the limits of their religious freedoms very strictly.

Non-Muslims are forbidden to insult or disparage Islam, the Koran, or the prophet Muhammad, which automatically occurs in Christian evangelisation, according to Muslim opinion. In Moroccan law, for example, repudiation of Islam is still considered to be a crime worthy of death, whereas the Muslim has the right to proselytize others.

When Muslims convert to Christianity-Apostasy and the Death Penalty in Islam

Does a Muslim have the right to desert Islam and turn to Christianity? Is faith a private matter or do the state and its organs have the responsibility to monitor and control it? Christianity and Islam view this question quite differently.

In our ‘enlightened' Western world with its separation of church and state,the personal belief of the individual is one of the most private areas of life-so much so that many are unwilling to even share the details of their faith.

The Islamic view is quite different: faith and religion are basically public affairs subject to the control of the state, although the measure of the control varies from country to country.