Starting at the top: why rights groups need to engage religious leaders

Considering the current political climate in India and Pakistan, Nida Kirmani’s recent arguments about the risks of bringing religion into human rights cannot be brushed aside lightly. These two countries are prime examples of the very real dangers of mixing politics with religion.

In 1992, for example, Hindu fanatics destroyed a 16th Century mosque in Uttar Pradesh due to a belief that the Mughal emperor Babar desecrated the temple of Lord Ram when he built a mosque there. Riots across India ensued, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been a significant player in Indian politics ever since. Similarly, in Pakistan, former President Zia-ul-Haq’s “Islamization” policy and the Hudood laws with regard to divorce of Muslim women were both calculated political ploys to stay in power. 

Kirmani argues that we should keep human rights squarely in the secular sphere, at least partly because mixing rights with religion would spark resistance from conservative religious quarters. But what makes this stance problematic is the fact that most conservative leaders are highly likely to oppose certain human rights in the name of Islam, religion, tradition, and/or culture. To truly find resonance in these countries, it is necessary to connect rights issues to the beliefs of the people, and even to find justification for those rights in their existing traditions.  In reality, however, negotiating through multiple religious and theological polemics is rarely a fruitful exercise. What, then, is the alternative?

The practical way out of this dilemma is to start from the top down, with religious leaders. The human rights movement must win over influential conservatives and clerics, and then allow traditional leaders to bring the people on board. Meanwhile, human rights advocates should encourage conservatives to explore the connections between human rights and the moral grounds for them as provided in religion. 

After all, the human rights debate as it has evolved in Europe and North America, starting with Martin Luther’s Protestant Revolution, is part of the political and cultural history of the West, and both advocates and opponents of rights have used the intellectual weapons of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. For rights to have true influence in other regions, it is necessary for Asian and African societies to also frame the human rights debate through their own intellectual and cultural traditions.

Without this cultural resonance, the human rights movement in these societies is doomed to fail. Modern human rights simply cannot win over thousands of years of tradition, and trying to do so will only put conservatives on the defensive. Perhaps human rights could muscle their way in, with the economic and technological clout of western donors, and then there would be no need to reach out to religious elites. But the damage inflicted by this approach would always leave any victory of the rights lobby in question.

Marie Juul Petersen underscored this perspective when she argued that knowledge of cultural interpretations is essential to the rights movement. She reveals the religious underpinnings of Muslim aid organizations in countries like Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, noting that Muslim non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often do not view aid as a right in the broader context of human rights as it has evolved in the Western discourse. Rather, aid is seen as a moral obligation – a gift from the well-off to the less fortunate. This is only one of many examples of why conceptual clarity is essential for human rights to take root in societies of the global South.

There seems to be an unconscious presumption in the minds of western rights advocates that Asian and African societies will remain culturally and morally backward if they do not embrace the rights culture as framed by Europe and North America, and by implication, western Christianity. Yet many rights advocates now acknowledge that individual rights may have to give way to social obligations, where the vulnerable sections of society cannot fend for themselves. This intellectual tangle, as well as fears in developing nations about western predation, must be sorted out. Asian and African societies need to discover the rights issue for themselves, in their own traditions. By doing so, they will contribute to an expansion and better global understanding of what human rights really mean.