Saturday, November 5, 2016

Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Equal Justice under law is engraved on the U.S. Supreme Court building, and it captures the spirit of our standards of legitimacy (what is right) and justice.  Religions are a primary source of the legal and moral standards of legitimacy that define justice.  Ancient Judaism and Islam defined their standards of legitimacy and justice by divine law, while Jesus summarized them in the moral imperative to love God and neighbor in the greatest commandment.

            In the 18th century the Enlightenment transformed religion and politics in the West with libertarian concepts of justice that included democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.  In the Islamic East, however, Islamic Law (shari’a) continued to prevail with apostasy and blasphemy laws that prohibit the freedoms of religion and speech, and with other discriminatory laws that deny women and non-Muslims equal protection of the law.    

            Since the early 20th century, human rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech have been stated priorities of U.S. foreign policy.  But in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan and Turkey shari’a has prevented enforcement of those fundamental human rights, and their violation has been ignored to avoid political conflict with those allied nations.

            Where shari’a asserts its supremacy over human rights and secular law, it denies justice to minorities and produces a tyranny of the majority.  Promoting the freedoms of religion and speech along with equal justice under law for women and non-Muslims not only promotes justice in Islamic nations, but it also undermines the legitimacy of authoritarian leaders and radical Islamist terrorists who depend upon oppressive forms of shari’a to stifle their opposition.    
            That pragmatic point seems lost on President Obama.  He has rewarded El Sissi’s oppressive military regime in Egypt with U.S. aid and assistance, failed to criticize Erdogan’s repressive policies in Turkey, failed to criticize Saudi Arabia for propagating an extremist form of Islamic fundamentalism (Wahhabism) worldwide, and failed to criticize Islamic nations that use apostasy and blasphemy laws to deny the freedoms of religion and speech.

            This hypocrisy reflects shortsighted political expediency that has taken precedence over U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East and Africa.  When the U.S. does not condemn the violation of human rights and discrimination against women and non-Muslims in Islamic nations, it promotes authoritarian regimes and radical Islamist terrorism whose legitimacy depends on denying political freedom to those who would oppose them.

            Shari’a functions much like a constitution in Islamic nations and defines standards of legitimacy and justice differently than do constitutions in libertarian democracies.  There can be no real justice when shari’a denies fundamental human rights, and U.S. security assistance should not be provided to any nation that denies libertarian human rights.  That standard would mean no U.S. aid for those nations that enforce apostasy or blasphemy laws. 

            The conflict between ancient religious laws and libertarian concepts of justice is not unique to Islam.  Before the Enlightenment, Judaism and Christianity enforced heresy and blasphemy laws.  Since then fundamental human rights have been protected by the constitutions of libertarian democracies and international law under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  The 1990 Cairo Declaration, however, takes exception to the ICCPR, providing that shari’a is the last word on human rights and justice in Islamic cultures.

            But that’s not the end of the story.  Standards of legitimacy, liberty and justice are dynamic, evidenced by the wide diversity of opinion among Islamic scholars on those standards.  Progressive Muslims promote interpretations of shari’a that are consistent with libertarian concepts of human rights and justice, while fundamentalist Muslims, like their Jewish and Christian counterparts, resist any change to their ancient religious doctrines and laws.       

            The greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  The Apostle Paul cited that commandment as a precedent for justice in all religions when he asserted that Jewish Law was fulfilled by the moral imperative to love our neighbors as ourselves (see Romans 13:8-10).  While human rights were unknown in Paul’s ancient times, his precedent for justice requires that today we share the liberty we love for ourselves with our neighbors at home and abroad.

Notes and Related Commentary:


On the need for Islam to accept fundamental human rights and equal protection of the law for all, see

On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see

On religion, human rights and national security, see

On oppresso de liber: Where religion and military power intersect, see

On the causes of religious violence and how to combat them, see

On religious violence and the dilemma of freedom and democracy, see

On the freedoms of religion and speech as essentials of liberty and law, see

On liberty in law: a matter of man’s law, not God’s law, see

On the evolution of religion and politics from oppression to freedom, see

On the differing perspectives of Islamic scholars on concepts of justice, see Religion, Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights, see at pp 10-17.

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