Islam and the principles of human rights (speech at the ideological conference of the IVČRN initiative, 25. 4. 2015)

Islam and the principles of human rights

It is said of European, or more precisely of Euro-American society and civilisation, that it stands on a foundation of Judaism, the Graeco-Roman world and Christianity. This assertion is true, and its reach goes much deeper than we realise in our everyday lives. Culture and civilisation are not just churches on the town square, wayside crosses in a field and involuntary utterances like “jumping dolly” inherited from our forefathers without even knowing what they mean. (In this particular case, just out of interest, this was an appeal to the Virgin Mary in the village of Skoky near Toužim). It is a way of thinking as well as a value hierarchy; we think of keeping to it as right and proper, without actually being aware of why that is.

The Jewish Old Testament impressed on our civilisation the perception of cause and effect as events unwaveringly associated with each other. Nothing “just happens”. In the end, even God, the mighty Yahweh, is not angry with his people just because he feels like it, but his wrath has its reasons and his punishment is a consequence of the behaviour of his chosen people. Apart from this causal relationship the Jewish tradition has also given us a sense of history, of the passing of time. In contrast to civilisations which came before, whose perception of time was cyclical, the Jews were already moving along a timeline.

The Graeco-Roman world gave us ratio (reason) as its principal legacy. Of all the cultures of the world it was the only one to reject all forms of mysticism and to insist on proof. Even the ancient gods were governed by logic. The result of the ancient way of thinking was Platonism and especially neoPlatonism, which later, and not without pain, worked its way into the way in which the Western, as well as the Orthodox Christian, church perceived reality.

Christianity added to the Jewish sense of time and the reasoning of the ancients something unusual for the time, seen only in Buddhism, the idea of compassion. This however was a collective compassion, not the Buddhist essentially individualistic effort to achieve individual perfection. To an unprecedented extent Christianity opened up the problem of the solidarity of human beings and their responsibility for each other.

For 1900 years Christianity resolved the question of the extent of mutual solidarity, the level of responsibility for each other and the degree of cohesion, when it tried to answer the question of WHO actually are those to whom “Love thy neighbour as thyself” applies? For many centuries the answer was clear: it was Christians alone, and what is more, only Christians of the same persuasion as oneself. One should not forget the capture of Constantinople by the Western Crusaders in 1204, when the crusaders ran along the walls of Theodosian’s Constantinople crying “the only good Orthodox Christian is a dead one”, nor can we overlook the horrors of the Thirty Years War, fought mainly between countries professing Roman Catholicism and those with a majority reformist church population, particularly of Calvinists and Lutherans.

The question of “who is my neighbour” was resolved once and for all for Europeans and North Americans only in the 20th century, through the implementation of the greatest evil ever perpetrated by that Euro-American civilisation, the Jewish and Roma Holocaust. The result of this terrible suffering of millions of people in the concentration camps and tens of millions on the battlefronts was an unambiguous answer:

EVERYONE IS MY NEIGHBOUR.

The outcome of three thousand years of intellectual effort from Genesis via Plato’s Academy, abolished by the Emperor Justinian as late as 529, via the medieval Scholastics up until the boom in a plethora of Christian churches and congregations in the 19th and 20th centuries, is a statement which is very non-religious in its wording, a legal statement. This is how it reads:

Article 1

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2

(1) Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

(2) Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

These are the basic provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10th December 1948. And even if this is a so-called legally non-binding document, its impact is wide-ranging: it is the starting point for all other human rights conventions, which do have a legally binding nature and which appear again and again in a legally sanctionable form.

But this is not just a legal sanction, indeed, strange to say, it is not law at all. What matters is that these human rights conventions resolved that fundamental philosophical and ethical problem that humanity has tried to solve with enormous sacrifice over the last 3000 years: that of who we really are, who are WE – and what the consequences of that are for all of us.

I must repeat that the answer to these questions is that We really does mean All of Us. This is very nicely put in Art. 1 of the Czech Charter of Basic Rights and Freedoms:

All people are free and equal in their dignity and rights. Their fundamental rights and freedoms are inherent, inalienable, non-prescriptible, and irrepealable.

The Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted at the instigation of Winston Churchill as a reaction against the Holocaust which had just occurred and the Second World War, thus lists those rights and freedoms, the enjoyment of which must be guaranteed to their residents, and to their citizens in particular. Few people are aware that these freedoms, guaranteed by the European Convention, are a counterpart to the obligations contained in the Ten Commandments, that is, to the key first codex of the whole of Euro-American civilisation.

The Treaty of Lisbon is the setting in stone of Christian principles transformed into a catalogue of human rights; in its Article 6 it acknowledges that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights dated 7th December 2000 has the same legal force as the Treaty of Lisbon itself. And of course this EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 1 reads:

Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.”

As can be seen, the European Union is founded on Christian principles, on a solution to the philosophical and key existential questions which our forebears asked. We must therefore be very careful about any revision of these values and be circumspect about any kind of concessions.

So far I have written here about the key principles of human rights, but without a single word about Islam. Let us put the question of whether Christian human rights principles, which form the foundation for Europe and thereby the Czech legal framework – regardless of a number of its imperfections, indeed in many cases, stupidities – are compatible with Islam.

Let us not forget that Islam and Islamic law have not gone through that painful struggle, paid for with millions of lives, to recognise the equality of all human beings. Islam has never clung to the idea that it is freedom, and individual freedom at that, which is a necessary condition for creativity and growth. We who have a Christian past behind us have gone through that growth, that recognition; but Islam has not. For the sake of completeness I would emphasise that when today we speak of Christianity and the Christian view of the world, we do not have in mind the idolatry of old ladies with their candles, or even accepting the Christian faith, it is a way of looking at the world around us. In this sense even atheists are products of Christian culture, even if they have set themselves apart from the Christian god.

If then Islam maintains that people are NOT equal, that is, that people have varying status according to their gender and their religion, then of course from our viewpoint this is a step backwards, and in particular a belittling of all the sacrifices which we have made to achieve recognition of the true equality of people. The Islamic view of the individual and his rights are essentially incompatible with the philosophical and legal gains we have achieved.

Conclusion: To recognise Islam and its principles in the way that Muslims are demanding in our countries and in Europe is to accept the idea that not all people are equal. We would be knocking down the cornerstone of our own legal system and the whole of our cultural heritage. And paradoxically we would be recognising the fact that even Muslims are not equal to us in their rights and obligations, and the implication of their own legal system would permit us to behave in a way which would be illegal in the sense of our very own laws.

So if Muslims then demand special treatment and special privileges as we are seeing throughout Europe, they are demolishing the keystones not only of our legal system, but also of their own protection and their own status, on the maintenance of which our side they are depending. In other, less precise words we can say that in propagating Islamic law in Europe Muslims are in effect almost ensuring winning the Darwin prize for several decades to come.

The question arises of how to proceed, what should we really want.

On the one hand it seems that we have an obligation to defend the right of anyone to be different, for example, to be a Muslim. But do we also have the right, nay, the obligation to defend rights we acknowledge and profess against someone who does not acknowledge those rights? Is not the right we promote for others not to acknowledge our own rights that is a denial of our own obligation to protect our own legal system?

However unbelievable it may seem, this question leads us to the necessity of once more dealing with the same, quite key philosophical and legal issue of our civilisation, that of equality. If we acknowledge that Muslims are equal to us, then this acknowledgement implicitly says that we are equal to Muslims. However, if then in their view and conception we are not equal to them – where is the equality? So we come back again to a denial of the whole philosophical and legal system.

We come to a situation where we find that this question is not our question, is not our problem. The struggle which is now playing out and seems to be a struggle between Islam and European culture, or more precisely between Islam and Christianity, is in essence a struggle within Islam itself for its own identity and its own concept of man. Who will be a man for Muslims in the future? Only a Muslim?

Muslims must fight out this struggle for their own identity for themselves. And they must do it outside of Europe. Because Europe, although it is hard to believe, has nothing to do with their problem.

Klára Samková

Posted in English

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