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Islam, Democracy and Human Rights – Dr. Shirin Ebadi’s Address at Syracuse University
Dr. Shirin Ebadi’s Address at Syracuse University May 10, 2004
Dear Dean Arterian, Dear Dean Wolf, Distinguished Professors and Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to be with you today at Syracuse University. Universities are a place for dialogue and the frank exchange of opinions. Thus, I seek your permission today to address one of the key questions of our era, the relationship between religion and democracy.
As you are all well aware, philosophers and thinkers have long debated this question. In this debate, there are those who maintain that a human being is a creation of God and has only duties in his/her relations with the creator. Currently, some proponents of this view are in control of certain states or lead radical movements with transnational reach. In the position of power, such political elements might acknowledge that a person has rights in his or her relations to other persons, but they do not recognize individual rights in relationship to their own authority. According to this perspective, the preference of a majority cannot be the standard of legitimacy since the choice of the majority can violate God’s laws. Hence, they argue, God sent his prophets to correct the wrong doings of the people and guide them toward the righteous path. Followers of this viewpoint do not tolerate any opinions divergent from their own and end up envisioning the world through the eyes of our predecessors, insisting all along that our contemporary problems may be solved by utilizing the intellect of the yesteryears. They even reject the right of popularly elected representatives to enact the kind of legislation that does not meet their approval. In their minds, the legitimacy of a parliament is limited merely to rendering divine rules into civic laws. Period. In other words, the parliament does not have the right to legislate independently of divine ordinances.
A few centuries ago the European Renaissance lessened this perceived incompatibility between democracy and religion, while continually strengthening democracy. Yet in the Eastern world and in Muslim countries in particular, the thorny relationship between religion and democracy is yet to follow the European blueprint. It is nevertheless the case today that the tangled and complicated relationship between state and religion is fueling fiery political disputes in the Middle East and resistance to democracy in the region is, at least in part, due to the contention that Islam is incompatible with human rights.
Obviously, this “Islam” is only what the state defines it to be, i.e., its own ideology, completely discarding the interpretations of other Muslims as to what constitutes Shari`a (or divine law). In reality, what we have ended up with in these countries is “state religion” rather than a “religious state.” These guardians of state religion, who arrogate to themselves the exclusive authority to interpret the will or intentions of God, brand whoever opposes them as an infidel or deviant. Using this rather convenient ploy, these demagogic politicians force their political opponents into silence, robbing the populace of their spirit to resist. After all, ordinary people are more willing to fight mortal rulers than to differ with the religion of their ancestors.
In contrast to these governments, Islamic reformers and religious intellectuals, regardless of their nationality, are a potential united front. The formation of this multi-national coalition, backed by valid jurisprudential interpretations, seeking guidance from the spirit of the holy Quran, and resolving to resist oppressive regimes heralds the emancipation of Muslims. This unified front has no name, no leader, no central headquarters or branches, and yet it is ingrained in the minds and sensibilities of every enlightened Muslim, who while safeguarding their ancestral faith, also happen to respect democracy, do not tolerate rule by fiat, and refuse to follow the misguided proclamations of religious authorities.Islam, in its essence, is a religion of equality. The Prophet Muhammad used to say that the elite of his own tribe have no priority over other believers. After his triumphant return to Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad established an Islamic state and ruled as the political leader and law giver for a number of years. He asked both Muslims and non-Muslims to swear allegiance to the new faith, a practice akin to voting in our present day and age. Some people did not swear allegiance but managed to live freely within the boundaries of the Islamic world.
In reality, then, lack of democratization in the Islamic world does not emanate from the essence of Islam. Rather, it is due to the unwillingness for numerous reasons of Islamic states to embrace an interpretation of Islam that is compatible with human rights, preserves individual and social freedoms, and advocates democratic statecraft. For these reasons, the dominant culture in Muslim societies, including the political culture, is in need of overhaul and reform ? in order to empower people to understand social realities with open eyes and to write laws that are both compatible with the spirit of Islam and address the needs of our era.
The most important step for this cultural evolution is to teach the inclusiveness of Islamic faith. Muslims need to learn about the dynamic spirit of Islam and to recognize that one could be a faithful Muslim and accept modernity at the same time. We need to learn that we can remain Muslims while embracing the principles of human rights and democracy, and more significantly, while implementing them.
If such education was to become prevalent among Muslims, the custodians of religious states would be compelled to respect the rights of their own people and would be prevented from imposing their personal beliefs on the masses while calling it divine order. We are now witnessing how a number of Islamic governments silence any idea they do not like, branding any criticism against them as “apostasy” and “blasphemy.” These governments regard themselves as God’s representatives on earth. Naturally, then, any criticism of their actions or beliefs is mislabeled a critique of Islam per se. This is a rather convenient excuse to silence freedom-seekers and intimidate Muslims?accusing them of not having firm religious convictions and being wishy-washy in matters of faith. In this ambiance, freedom-seeking Muslims, who are only criticizing the wrong-doings of their rulers, suddenly find themselves caught in a web of accusations, fearing the charge of apostasy, and thus refraining from any type of protest.
Alas, authoritarian regimes manage to hide behind the shield of Islam and continue to oppress their citizens. Muslim intellectuals should try to connect with the Muslim masses, through any means and methods available, and familiarize people with the dynamic spirit of Islam. These intellectuals should subsequently expose the false claims of the despotic rulers in such a way that mass audiences can understand and relate to their words and ideas. We should bear in mind that criticizing the policies of self-proclaimed Islamic states will not be effective and will not resonate with the majority of the public unless the critics can point out how the actions of the ruling elite has deviated from or violated the core foundations of Islam.
We need to make Muslims aware that Islamic states, or for that matter Islamic groups, do not have the key to paradise, and that taking action in the name of Islam does not necessarily make that act “Islamic.” Only when this mode of thinking becomes prevalent will we see the emergence of moderate Islamic movements rather than terrorist organizations. This seems to be the solution for more than a billion Muslims, one-sixth of the world’s population, who are simultaneously interested in remaining loyal to their faith as well as being worthy of living in better conditions.Democracy and human rights are the common needs of all cultures and societies. Respecting life, property and human dignity is praiseworthy in all cultures and religions. By the same token, terror, violence, torture, and humiliation of human beings is considered unbecoming in any society or religion. Those who, in the name of cultural relativism, refrain from implementing democracy and human rights are reactionary tyrants who disguise their dictatorial nature behind a cultural mask to violate the rights of their citizens.
Whether we like it or not, the general phenomena of globalization includes the globalization of war and peace. You need not be involved in a war to recognize suddenly that its repercussions affect you as well. Consequently, if we desire a peaceful world, we have to struggle for it, both in our own nations and elsewhere. We have to encourage the development of global perspectives and broaden our concern for peace and human rights beyond the borders of our own societies. As we are witnessing these days, you who live in America cannot remain indifferent to violations of human rights in Afghanistan and Palestine. We are all passengers on the deck of a single ship that is sailing toward a more peaceful and civilized harbor. We have to be aware that damage to one part of the vessel can endanger the rest of it. The destiny of any human being has become intertwined with that of all others. One cannot wish to enjoy the advantages of the world while depriving others. We should consider others as partners in the destiny we wish for ourselves. Let us be kind to one another while constantly reminding ourselves that kindness is the only commodity that does not diminish as you spend it.
Those who seek their gains in the flames of war find it advantageous to misrepresent Islam. They gather support for war on the basis of the claim that Middle Eastern, especially Islamic culture is incompatible with Western civilization. They use the blameful acts of individual Muslims or groups of Muslims as reflective of Islam. Islam is not a religion of violence and terror. The killing of any human being in the name of Islam is an abuse of Islam. Do not attribute evil deeds committed by individuals or groups to the whole of Islam – just as we did not attribute the evils of the Bosnian war to Christianity, a religion whose message of peace and reconciliation was born by Jesus Christ. In the same manner, the Government of Israel’s rejection of numerous UN resolutions and the events taking place in that corner of the globe should never be equated with Judaism. We still remember that Moses was a messenger of God who stood up for justice.
We must distinguish between humanity’s own mistakes and the religions and cultures to which we belong. Cultures are not in conflict with each other, but have much in common. Let us speak about shared values, not of differences. Let us not justify war. No one will emerge victorious from such horrors.
With hopes of love and affection for you and all the citizens of the world. Thank you.