Saturday, May 13, 2017

Voices of Reason and Hope in the Cacophony over Religion, Human Rights and Politics

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Pope Francis and Prince Zeid Raad al-Hussein of Jordan, the UN high commissioner for human rights, are voices of reason and hope in the cacophony surrounding issues of religion, human rights and politics.  Donald Trump and his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, are foils to Pope Francis and Prince Zeid with their advocacy of political expediency, or realpolitik.

The central issue is reconciling human rights with religion and politics, and Pope Francis and Prince Zeid are trying to do just that—the Pope from a religious perspective and Prince Zeid from a political perspective.  Both are fighting uphill battles against religious fundamentalists and the radical right populist demagogues they are supporting around the world.

In contrast to his predecessor, Pope Benedict, Pope Francis has initiated personal encounters with authoritarian Muslim leaders like Erdogan of Turkey and el-Sissi of Egypt and urged them to comply with fundamental human rights.  Prince Zeid has emphasized how the ideal of human rights is also politically expedient, “as the best antidote against extremism.” 

Human rights in this context are those political freedoms and rights provided in the U.S. Constitution and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) provides another variety of human rights that are based on economic benefits rather than political freedom. 

The U.S. is a party to the ICCPR but not the ICESCR.  The ICCPR provides libertarian rights that can be enforced by international law, while the ICESCR defines political aspirations for economic entitlements rather than political freedom.  Such entitlements cannot be uniformly defined and enforced since they depend on the varying capabilities of nations to provide them.

With rights come responsibilities, and justice requires that individual rights are balanced with the collective obligation to provide for the common good.  Religion plays a pivotal role in balancing these conflicting objectives, but there is a problem: All ancient religions taught the moral obligation to provide for the common good, but none addressed individual rights. 

It was not until after the Enlightenment of the 18th century that democracy and human rights became political and religious priorities in libertarian democracies, but in many Islamic nations human rights have remained subordinate to immutable Islamic Law known as Shari’a, as provided in the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights of 1990.

Equal justice under law requires that human rights are not constrained by religious law, and that individual rights are balanced with providing for the common good.  That creates a two-fold problem: In the U.S. individual rights have been emphasized at the expense of providing for the common good, while the opposite is the norm in Islamic nations where Shari’a prevails.

Promoting human rights overseas is an ideal of U.S. foreign policy, but it has been compromised by moral ambiguity and political expediency.  That has been evident in the way the U.S. has ignored flagrant violations of human rights to accommodate its allies.
Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors—including those neighbors of other races and religions—as they love themselves as a common word of faith; but they have failed to apply that moral imperative to their politics.  Americans love their individual rights, but don’t promote them for those beyond their borders.

Safi Kaskas has noted that a common word is not enough to bring peace between Christians and Muslims, but he is hopeful that the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration in Morocco and conferences this year at Al-Azhar University in Egypt coupled with the visit of Pope Francis can reverse dangerous religious polarization and promote human rights in Islamic nations.

Muslim scholars differ on human rights, and Prince Zeid’s activist promotion of human rights “has been criticized in the region for airing its dirty laundry.  [But] Zeid made the case that there is a link between a country’s respect for human rights and its political stability—a link that explains how dictatorships have come undone in the Middle East over the past several years.”        

Pope Francis and Prince Zeid are ambassadors of Christianity and Islam in a world plagued by religious and political extremism and violence.  They exemplify how the love of God and neighbor is a shared value of Jews, Christians and Muslims that can promote human rights and a politics of reconciliation in a world that seems hell-bent on its own destruction.

Notes and commentary on related topics:

On the initiatives of Pope Francis, see Francis and Benedict: two popes, two divergent approached to Islam at

On Safi Kaskas’ call for Christian and Muslim leaders to address religious grievances and promote human rights, see  On the Marrakesh Declaration of 2016, see  On the Al-Azhar Declaration on Citizenship and Coexistence of March 2017, see

On the U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016, see

On how geopolitical realignments and the rise of popular nationalism [including the election of Donald Trump] have unleashed a global backlash against human rights, see

The Preamble to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam of 1990 provides that human rights are …an integral part of the Islamic religion and that no one shall have the right as a matter of principle to abolish them either in whole or in part or to violate or ignore them as they are divine commands, which are contained in the Revealed Books of Allah; and Article 24 provides specifically what the Preamble implies: All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’a.  Article 25 provides: The Islamic Shari’a is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration.  See Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy, at page 7, notes 22 and 23, posted as a Resource at

On the diversity of opinions among Muslim scholars on human rights under Shari’a, see Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy, at pages 9-16, posted as a Resource at

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

On balancing individual rights with providing for the common good, see

On how religious fundamentalism and secularism shape politics and human rights, 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 religion and a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, see

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