Religion, secularism, and human rights: responses to Heiner Bielefeldt and Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour

Heiner Bielefeldt Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour
4 November 2002

The Debate:
Is the secular idea of human rights compatible with a religious basis for social order? Read Heiner Bielefeldt and Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour's article.

First audience member: I have been living for a number of years in the Sudan. There is a civil war going on between Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the government. They are trying to work out an agreement, but it seems to falter on the distinction between religion and the state – din wa dawla. The government insists that a secular state is not possible. The rebel movement insists that it does not want to live under a government that imposes Islamic sharia on the people.

There are many Muslims who are thinking seriously about how to accept religious minorities with equal human rights within an Islamic system. Professor Bahmanpour, you said that if it were left to Muslims themselves, they would work out a proper system. But from what I have read, it would seem that many Islamic countries find it very difficult to fully accept the rights of minorities.

For Professor Bielefeldt, I am extremely surprised at your optimism when it comes to politics! You are a historian, a philosopher of religion, and your background would suggest that you are fully aware of the defects in social justice accompanying most so-called democracies. There, the lives of rich people are worth much more and are much more dignified than the lives of other people. If there are twelve Americans killed in the US Embassy in Kenya, those are the important ones, not the three hundred Africans who died. Economics and the national interest is often much more important than human rights. The oil in Sudan has put a stop to all the talk about human rights.

Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour: I don’t think many Muslims would agree with the way things are being managed in the Sudan. We might be more inclined to agree with the Christian minorities, and to see the Sudanese government as oppressing them. But this is a different issue theoretically from what we were discussing: that is, the possibility for Muslims to arrive at a position of political secularism as Professor Bielefeldt described it, and is it possible for Muslims to reconcile basic standards of universal human rights with their articles of faith in sharia?

I say basic standards, because some of them are still very controversial – for example, contraception. This might be seen by many people as a form of murder; they will ask, what is the difference between a child being killed just after it is born, and a child being deprived of the chance of life? The current human rights tenets are not always indisputable, and they could be disputed from many angles, including the Islamic perspective.

From tolerance to religious liberty

Heiner Bielefeldt: I don’t know if I am an optimistic or a pessimistic person. But I am a political person, and I try to make politics work and take up opportunities when they arise. The idea of human rights gives us an opportunity to challenge the dismal realities you describe; that different sorts of people count differently, that the lives of US citizens or Western Europeans seem to count more than the lives of Africans or people in Afghanistan. Human rights are a way of addressing these inequalities.

They even give us an opportunity to challenge the existing human rights politics of states. And that is why it is very important to say that human rights are not just a matter of state politics, but also of non-governmental organisation (NGO) politics. We must have independent monitoring organisations such as Amnesty International, for instance, which open up the space for addressing these terrible realities.

On the Sudan, I would like to take the opportunity, as a philosopher, to introduce another distinction: between tolerance and religious liberty. The reality within the Sudan is very intolerant with regard to religious minorities. Some moderate Muslims argue for a more tolerant behaviour within an Islamic framework. And they can support this by drawing on a tradition of Islamic tolerance, which we can certainly appreciate from an historical point of view. Islamic societies have, over large periods of time, been more tolerant than European societies with regard to minorities.

However, religious liberty is not a matter of tolerance only; it requires respect on an equal footing, and having the status of a citizen independent of religious adherence. And that is why we must move beyond sharia as the basis of state order. There might be other ways of preserving sharia as part of the personal identity and the way of life of a Muslim. Sharia is not just law – it is the Islamic way of life. It may even become an important part of communitarian life. I don’t know what the future will hold for sharia (MSB: Neither do I!), and personally, I believe that there will be a future. But from the standpoint of religious liberty, even a more liberal interpretation of sharia would not suffice as a state law.

Second audience member: I think the first gentleman was not speaking about the Sudan today, but some time ago when he was last there, because the question of state and religion in the Sudan has already been solved!

According to the Machakos Agreement which was signed a month ago between the government and the SPLA, it has been decided that the south will be totally excluded from the imposition of sharia and Islamic law, and will instead be part of a federal state that combines north and south, but with different legal dispensations which accord to the majority of the population in each.

I would also like to emphasise an important aspect of the sharia. The sharia is not meant to be imposed on non-Muslims, even those who live under Islamic states or Muslim jurisdiction. It has never been imposed on non-Muslims, throughout the history of Muslim empires. While Muslims in Spain were facing two options, either Christianity or death, non-Muslims in Muslim empires were not executed, nor did they even have the sharia imposed on them.

HB: You say that Islamic sharia was never imposed on non-Muslims, but what about a person who later on in his life decided that he might change his faith? The question of the converts, or as they were traditionally referred to the apostates, is of crucial importance.

MSB: Can I intervene here? What is the law governing apostates in Christianity? Isn’t it the same as what you are commenting on with regard to Islam?

HB: Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, said that every person is free to adopt faith, and that they should not be forced to believe, but that once a person has adopted the Christian faith, there is no way out. If you go freely as a monk into a monastery, you are not free to go out. That is indeed the traditional concept of Christianity as well.

I don’t see any differences, except for the fact that the Christian rules no longer have the status of state law in predominantly Christian countries. This is really of crucial importance. The basic concepts are quite close, it seems to me, such as the frequently cited Koranic verse 256, ‘No compulsion in questions of religion’.

Religious liberty, on the other hand, means that people should have the option to convert. This is something quite new and it is an explicit part of Article 19 of the United Nations (UN) Declaration of Human Rights. This is why Saudi Arabia opposed it in 1948.

Third audience member: Aquinas says adopt a faith, but you can’t leave it. Does that mean any faith?

HB: No, in that regard, Aquinas was less tolerant than Islamic rulers of that period. What Islamic societies brought about in the Middle Ages was a sort of tamed pluralism. OK, it didn’t amount perhaps to the equal footing of citizens. But we shouldn’t attempt to apply anachronistic concepts when we are assessing society in the Middle Ages, because this idea that citizens should have equal rights is something that came along much later. Nevertheless my point stands: religious liberty is different from tolerance.

Religion and the ‘clash of civilisations’

Fourth audience member: Professor Bielefeldt talks about political secularism as being other than a post-religious creed. You made me wonder if you were confusing the issue, by creating two distinct definitions of secularism. Is it not possible that secularism always involves a suspension of belief within the realm of thought, which any religious person would find difficult to accept? Therefore, the issue is not that Islamic societies do or do not accept this concept of political secularism. The issue is the inevitable putting aside of religious conviction when it comes to our mutual debate as citizens in a secular society. I put aside my faith while I am talking to you….

HB: I don’t think that there is any need to connect political secularism with such an idea of non-belief. Of course, there are non-believers in many of our Western societies. But the fact is that Christian theologians, after lengthy periods of reluctance and resistance, were able to subscribe to this idea. It does not require one to put one’s personal faith to one side, nor to withdraw from the political sphere as a religious person. But it does require that no state coercion should be used in order to practise one’s own faith.

This can make sense from a religious standpoint. So religious traditions have the possibility of appreciating the modern idea of religious liberty as something that gives new force to theological reasoning. I mentioned that I am wary of any idea of authenticity. But this idea of religious liberty might indeed be seen as leading to more ‘authentic’ forms of personal faith, once we agree that force should not be applied. If political secularism is, as I argue, simply the consequence of religious liberty taken systematically – then it would be absurd to claim that the loss of faith is the precondition for setting up such a system.

Ahmed Mustafa: So far, talking about justice, we are missing an important dimension. One of God’s names is ‘The Supreme Justice’. So, we need to ask, what is the meaning of justice in a universal dimension? In the Koran, there is one story where God is speaking, not to Mohammed, but to one of the very early Muslim kings – David, a political figure. God says: ‘Oh David, we have appointed you a Vice-Gerend (or khalifa) on Earth. Judge therefore with justice and never deviate from the principle of equity.’

In the same part of the text later on, two litigants come to David in the sanctuary where he used to pray. They said: ‘Don’t be afraid, we are two brothers, and could you please judge between us. My brother has ninety-nine ewes, and I have one ewe. He says that I must give him my single ewe to be added to his ninety-nine. Can you judge between us?’  David immediately replies: ‘Your brother has wronged you by claiming your ewe as his.’

Now, the Koran never says to us why the judgement of David is a correct one. It is only when we look for objective knowledge, not the anecdotes of ephemeral cases in the Sudan or anywhere, which make up the subjective lives we all lead, that we can arrive at a universal concept of justice. This is something that can encompass us all.

Sixth audience member: In the beginning of his speech, Professor Bielefeldt mentioned Samuel Huntington. I support Huntington’s thesis. I see civilisation as one of the most important issues in the theory of social justice. Look at the way the gentleman before me just spoke! This is completely alien to me, and completely different from the way that I would ever think of approaching the issue of social justice. He starts from religious texts. I would never do this, because Western society, although it experienced two thousand years of Christianity, does not use the Bible to decide the law. We think differently.

HB: I disagree. There is no such thing as the Islamic justice. It doesn’t exist as a coherently defined entity. Instead, there are various political debates. In a country such as Iran for instance, there are real conflicts going on over these questions, not only as used to be the case in England and Germany as well – but as it still is. We also fight over what justice means. And the Huntington approach doesn’t take the internal conflict seriously. It focuses only on closed entities being opposed to each other. This is not only a one-sided perspective. It is also dangerously authoritarian in its essence. In playing down internal dissidence and contradictions, it puts an exaggerated emphasis on the threat of forces from outside. It is terrible stuff!

Political secularism as reality and idea

Ulrich Sacker (director of London’s Goethe Institute): My theory is that thanks to globalisation, we can no longer be national entities, or independent states, in the sense of islands. Unlike Professor Bielefeldt, I like the concept of identity politics, but I think it is necessary for us to broaden it and to envisage the possibility of each one of us simultaneously having several cultural identities: local, national, cosmopolitan and religious. This is what we must learn, so that you have pressure, but not enforcement from other nations and cultures upon you all the time. This pressure is exerted on Western countries as much as on Islamic countries.

Seventh Voice from the Audience: I would like further clarification on political secularism. You say that theoretically a state does not identify with any religion and it does not discriminate against any other religion. But in reality, can you tell me in which part of the Western world this is true?

HB: Of course, now you have got me! I come from Germany, where, for instance, we do see that even though the state is meant to be neutral in terms of religion and Weltanschauung or world view (this is the formula used by the Federal Constitutional Court) actually there are forms of quasi- and crypto-identification. This will always be the case.

The only way for me to rescue my idea of political secularism is to say that it derives its meaningfulness and its effectiveness, not as a description of a reality in any given society, but as a critical idea. So, for instance, Muslim minorities in Germany invoke this idea of non-identification, in order to promote their own case, saying that it is not just the churches that should be permitted to have religious education in public schools but also Muslims – that there is unfairness! This is, in fact, the function of normative ideas. If you take them as descriptions of reality, you will very rapidly conclude that they are just an illusion – or worse – a sort of deceit.

Instead, secularism should be taken as a normative, critical, prescriptive idea, which nevertheless is already much more than utopian in its nature. It is institutionalised, for example, existing in those checks and balances that can be applied through the law courts. It ensures that we continue to debate about how to set up a fair system with regard to religious and non-religious people. This critical role is indispensable, because the alternative would be to take for granted that there is one dominant religion, and others with subordinate and marginal status.

Human rights – within or beyond Islam?

Eighth audience member: Many Islamic societies are experimenting with political secularism. Turkey is an obvious example of a militantly secularist state. Most of the central Asian republics follow a secular model, and even most Arab countries are not ruled by Islamic systems. They are really run by political secular systems, and have adopted many legal mechanisms from Europe. Once again, we are looking at Islam in a monolithic fashion, which encourages so many errors – which is also why Samuel Huntington’s thesis is so wrong.

HB: I, of course, like your conclusion, but I have to add a few remarks with regard to Turkey, as an example in which the distinction between political secularism and ideological secularism is blurred. The original approach of Kemalism was very much an ideological form of secularism, and still today, Turkey has an institution – the religious ministry, or diyanet – through which the state exercises almost complete control over the entire religious life of the country, promoting not the traditional Kemalist anti-religious creed, but a sort of moderate Sunni Islam as an integration ideology. This is only secularism with many qualifications.

Ninth audience member: I would like to ask both professors why they have seemed to accept that political secularism is a model that is working well in the world. I think that most Muslim countries, and most third world countries, disagree completely with current Western values – as we saw at the recent Earth Summit.

Secularism in the United States is destroying both the Earth’s resources and human values. We, in Muslim countries, do not for one moment believe that the West is doing enough for human rights. Since 11 September, 1200 Arab Muslims have been arrested in the United States, and nobody in the West is asking about their human rights. Muslim people are very offended by what is happening to Muslim people around the world. For example, you kill 120 people in a wedding in Afghanistan and then all you get is an apology.

I do not believe that Professor Bahmanpour really believes that secularism would work in our societies. Western societies have so many problems that simply cannot be solved by this secularism. We need religious values in both Muslim and Western societies, to correct their wrongs.

MSB: I said that political secularism is theoretically conceivable. I'm not talking about Turkey, but about Muslim countries whose people recognise them as Muslim. Ulrich Sacker says that the pressure of difference impacts on all societies. Maybe so. But this pressure is felt as very threatening in Muslim countries. They want to react, to stop what they see as a kind of invasion. They fear that this putting aside of God will come sooner or later to their own countries. Their reaction cannot be foreseen. What happened on 11 September could happen again. The danger is of pushing people to extremes.

It is not the governments who are enforcing sharia in the Muslim countries. It is the people who are demanding that these standards are set. In Pakistan, for example, the government doesn’t know how to do it. They just know that they have to satisfy the yearning of the people for these sorts of values and laws. Sharia may not be the answer. But people are looking for some way of shoring themselves up against the way in which globalisation is being enforced throughout the world.

Because if this trend of globalisation – which some see as Americanisation – continues, then Huntington is right. There is no way to avoid a clash. But why should this kind of globalisation be forced on other people?

HB: I agree with the speaker from the floor that the human rights of Muslims are being violated, not only in the United States, but also in other European countries, who have tightened their security policies after 11 September. However, I disagree when you say that nobody in the West cares. These issues have been taken up by the media and by human rights organisations. Amnesty International has also adopted the cases of people belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood who have been imprisoned by the Egyptian Government – which at least suggests that some of these human rights organisations are trying not to be biased, and refusing to buy into this Samuel Huntington approach of particular values belonging exclusively to various civilisations.

With respect to globalisation, human rights are not confined to civil and political rights. In order for people to be able to make use of their rights, there have to be material resources available. This has been part of the human rights debate since the middle of the nineteenth century. More recently, it is part of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Tenth audience member: I would like to suggest that we are seeing a continuum of opinion here. In the Iranian context, a new book by the journalist Akbar Ganji published on the Internet, does make specific references to human rights; there have been vigorous debates in the Iranian press about the death penalty and stoning; the requirement for women to wear the veil has been questioned (on stage in Berlin) by Yousefi Eshkavari, and by the widow of Ayatollah Taleghani. Given those developments in Iran, perhaps we are seeing exactly what Professor Bielefeldt has set out as desirable. In the UN, an Iranian expert is taking part in the group on arbitrary detention, and an Iranian expert has been involved in the formulation of the International Criminal Court.

HB: Yes, I agree. We do not know how this process will end, but currently Iran is perhaps the most important example of societal transformation, which has resulted from the setting up of a comprehensive Islamic constitution after the 1979 revolution. Now these important questions, about how to reconcile Islamic tradition with human rights have to be debated systematically. There are dissenters, as you mentioned, who bring these points up.

MSB: I have to disagree. All the things these people say are, as you mentioned, already included in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Just saying them doesn’t help much. These values must be enshrined within society, and accepted both by the religious authorities, and the people who follow them. The point is that we don’t know how to implement them, and how to make them compatible with sharia law. This needs long debate, trial and error, and indeed there are many discussions about this among Muslims, including the clergy.

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