Universal Versus Islamic Human Rights: A Clash of Cultures or a Clash with a Construct?

This article examines the recent trend proposing that Islam and Islamic culture mandate a distinctive approach to human rights. It offers critical assessments of selected civil and political rights in two recent products of this trend: (1) the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, issued by the Organization of the Islamic Conference and endorsed by Iran and Saudi Arabia; and (2) the rights provisions in the Saudi Arabian Basic Law promulgated in 1992. These legislative initiatives will be examined in conjunction with constructs of an Islamic culture necessarily at odds with international human rights norms. These constructs have been put forward not only by Westerners influenced by Orientalist stereotypes or attracted to a cultural relativist approach to rights questions, but also by spokespersons for Muslim countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have been in the forefront of the campaign to persuade international opinion that Islam mandates a distinctive approach to rights issues. The constructs of Islamic rights that have been offered by Muslims who reject the universality of civil and political rights – set forth in the International Bill of Human Rights – will be contrasted with the views of Muslims who advocate the universality of human rights and who are inclined to view governmental rights policies as deriving from political, and not cultural, considerations. An examination going beyond the official rhetoric about Islamic human rights reveals that there is no real consensus on the part of Muslims that their religion mandates a culturally distinctive approach to rights or that it precludes the adoption of international human rights norms. In fact, the relationship of Islamic culture to the positions that Muslims inside and outside governments are currently articulating on human rights is neither a simple nor a direct one, and the range of Muslims’ attitudes on human rights defies Orientalist stereotypes and facile generalizations about a supposedly monolithic Islamic culture.