Summer 2020

Do Human Rights Have a Secular, Individualistic & Anti-Islamic Bias?

T. Jeremy Gunn

 There is a widely shared belief, both within and outside the Muslim world, that Islamic law cannot be reconciled with the modern human rights regime that developed out of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Many Muslims perceive that the purportedly individualistic, secular, and Western orientation of human rights is alien to Islamic values. Abdulaziz Sachedina and other scholars of Islam have argued that the underlying tenets of the UDHR and its progeny are simply incompatible with Islamic law. In reality, the problem is not an underlying conflict between human rights and Islam, but the mistaken assumption that the modern nation-state is the proper institution for interpreting and enforcing Islamic law.  

T. Jeremy Gunn is University Professor of Law and Political Science at the International University of Rabat in Morocco. He is the author of Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion (2009), A Standard for Repair: The Establishment Clause, Equality, and Natural Rights (1992), and many articles on religion and law.

In 1889, one of England’s most revered and reviled orientalists, Rudyard Kipling, penned “The Ballad of East and West.” It begins with the famous line: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” The ballad describes an encounter near the Khyber Pass between Kamal, an Afghan brigand, and a British soldier. These two opponents symbolize the seemingly unbridgeable rift between East and West, Muslim and Christian, and indigenous peoples and colonial powers. Kipling’s expression has been invoked ever since to point to an intractable divide–cultural, psychological, and sociological–between Orient and Occident. Divides such as that suggested by Kipling have been a staple of modern thought, perhaps most notoriously toward the end of the twentieth century with the publication of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. Huntington argued that “the paramount axis of world politics will be the relations between ‘the West and the Rest.’” Many versions of this divide, including Huntington’s, presume, like Kipling, a “Western” superiority.

Following World War II, and sixty years after Kipling suggested a persistent divide between East and West, many in the international community began to insist that, to the contrary, there are universal values of human rights that transcend cultures, peoples, and civilizations. The first comprehensive articulation of this vision appeared in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). More broadly, the half-decade between 1945 and 1950 saw the adoption of a remarkable collection of human rights treaties, declarations, and activities that expressed a common respect for rights of individual human beings and for the dignity of the individual. Yet despite the importance of other instruments issued during this half-decade, the ultimate expression of human rights as a common value for all mankind appeared in the UDHR. In the words of Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, “the Declaration is the single most important reference point for cross-national discussions of how to order our future together on our increasingly conflict-ridden and interdependent planet.” Human rights law scholar Henry Steiner famously called the UDHR the “spiritual parent and inspiration” for later human rights documents. The UDHR “has inspired more than sixty human rights instruments and legally binding treaties, has been enshrined in the national legislation and constitutions of many newly independent states, has arguably obtained the status of customary international law, and remains one of the most cited human rights documents in the world today.” The promotion of the universality of human rights, as articulated in the UDHR, continued such that by 1993, it had become an article faith of the international community: “the universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question.”

However much the human rights community insists that the universality of human rights is “beyond question,” it nevertheless has been questioned from the outset. In the UDHR drafting debates, Saudi Arabia’s representative, Jamil Baroody, challenged the Western bias of the document:

the authors of the draft [UDHR] had, for the most part, taken into consideration only the standards recognized by western civilization and had ignored more ancient civilizations which were past the experimental stage. . . . It was not for the [drafting] Committee to proclaim the superiority of one civilization over all others or to establish uniform standards for all the countries in the world.

Baroody’s assertion that the UDHR incorporates a Western orientation has remained an enduring criticism not only of the UDHR, but also of the entire international human rights regime. From the beginning, the UDHR has been challenged as having its ideological origins not in a common human quest, but as having emerged from the Enlightenment and European and American declarations of rights. The roots of the UDHR, according to Baroody and others, are found not in the traditions and religions of Asia, the Muslim world, or Africa. Rather, Westerners selected some of their own peculiar values, renamed them “universal,” and thereafter promoted them as if they were the common sentiments and values of mankind. These scholars argue that the underlying Western bias in human rights constitutes a “false universalism.”

Baroody’s complaint in 1948 has indeed been a recurring theme in debates about human rights and the UDHR. In their later history of the UN and human rights, Roger Normand and Sarah Zaidi forthrightly assert that the UDHR is fundamentally Western in its orientation. “There is little room for debating the simple historical fact that the Universal Declaration was based largely on western philosophical models, legal traditions, and geopolitical imperatives.” The standards reflected “a dominant western paradigm of individual rights; practical disputes were resolved quickly and expediently on the basis of U.S. power and, when necessary, the vote.” Tariq Ramadan, who has claimed for himself a position as speaking both for Islamic values in the West and for the values of democracy in the modern world, has argued that the “Declaration of 1948 is indeed the prolongation of rationalist thought which has risen in the West since the Renaissance.” The philosophy of human rights, Ramadan insists, “is culturally marked and belongs to a vast elaboration of analytic thought where all the postulates are significant in the Western history of mentalities. It carries in itself stigmas of the tensions which marked its history.” It would be better, such analysis suggests, for rights charters such as the UDHR to be identified not as universal, but as Western, culturally specific, and not speaking for Muslims. The supposedly universal values of democracy, modernism, secularism, and individualism, it is argued, are neither universal nor neutral.

One of the most famous retorts to Western or universal values, in keeping with the lead of Baroody in 1948, was delivered by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who privileged instead “Asian values”:

Asian societies are unlike Western ones. The fundamental difference between Western concepts of society and government and East Asian concepts . . . is that Eastern societies believe that the individual exists in the context of his family. He is not pristine and separate. The family is part of the extended family, and then friends and the wider society.

From its inception, the UDHR has thus been challenged as being overly individualistic in orientation (rather than oriented toward the family or group), rights-oriented (rather than emphasizing duties and responsibilities), and secular and thereby disconnected from religious and moral foundations. In the spirit of Baroody and Lee, critics argue that better values do not arise from the West’s individualism, egocentricity, rights of free expression, or the freedom of choice, but from the family as the fundamental unit of society, from adherence to traditional roles for men and women, and from respect for the traditions and values of the larger community. 

Nevertheless, when arguing for the differences among Western and non-Western values, Baroody and Lee, like Kipling and Huntington, appear to accept the existence of an enduring and apparently unbridgeable cultural divide between the competing values of the West and the rest, particularly with regard to human rights.

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