'Whosoever Sees An Evil' - Muslim Americans' Human Rights Advocacy
Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion (Spring 2020), Forthcoming
26 Pages Posted: 10 Jan 2020 Last revised: 25 Feb 2020
Date Written: December 20, 2019
When Islam and human rights are discussed together, the conversation quickly turns into an abstract, dichotomous debate as to whether the two are compatible. A common line of argumentation proffers Islamic law is fundamentally antithetical to universal human rights norms, while an opposing view rebuts that post-World War II human rights laws are created by former colonialist powers as the latest iteration of Western nations’ imposition of their religious, social, and political order on the global south and east.
Further de-legitimizing human rights law is selective enforcement that exempts European and American persons — the most glaring example being the torture of thousands of Muslim detainees in the Global War on Terror. For these critics, purported universal human rights norms are nothing more than a ruse to punish African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latin American state leaders who fail to obey Western states’ hegemonic interests.
Notwithstanding reasonable suspicions of the asymmetrical power animating the international human rights legal regime, the idea that all humans have some fundamental natural rights traverses cultures, religions, and time. Thus, any good faith debates on the compatibility of Islamic law and human rights should not be as concerned with whether Islamic law mirrors Western law — for that would indeed be legal and cultural imperialism — but rather examine the commonalities between Islamic human rights norms and post-WWII Western human rights norms.
While acknowledging the importance of theoretical discussions, this article takes a different approach. Moving beyond an analysis of what is written in religious and legal texts or debated by Islamic scholars, I examine how Islam inspires lay Muslims to defend and advocate for human rights. To that end, I explore how Muslims advocate for human and civil rights — as a result of rather than despite — their Islamic beliefs and Muslim identity. Accordingly, this article focuses on Muslims in the United States as a case study for how commitments to human rights manifest in the lived experiences of Muslims.
Muslim activists in the United States are putting their Islamic faith into action through cross-racial and interfaith rights advocacy. Their collective action for nearly two decades brings into sharp relief the argument that the political environment, not solely religion, facilitates protection of human rights. Whether it is in Muslim-majority democratic countries such as Indonesia and Tunisia or Christian-majority countries such as South Africa, the United States, and some European nations, Muslims living in pluralistic democratic societies defend human rights because of their faith. In doing so, these Muslims demonstrate that authoritarian and politically repressive regimes of most Muslim-majority countries — most of whom are supported by Western states — are more determinative of human rights abuses than the religious beliefs of citizens in Muslim-majority countries.
Keywords: Islam, Human Rights, Advocacy, Black Lives Matter, Women's March, Islamic Law, Muslim Americans
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