We have ennobled the Children of Adam.
To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.
The idea of human rights evolved in parallel with the rise of the nation-state in nineteenth-century Europe. For our purposes, we can define the state as a merger between a group of people sharing a common characteristic—such as language, tribe, a sense of shared history, or the perception of a common destiny—and a demarcated territory. Owing to the heterogeneity of the population of most geographical regions that became a state, an immediate problem, still evident today, arose: because most states contain more than one national group, the most populous one comprises a majority while smaller groups become minorities, creating a tension as the majority usually seeks to impose its language, history, religion, or culture on the minorities, sometimes with genocidal vigor.1 Western human rights were conceived as an effort to resolve that tension by conferring upon racial, religious, and national minorities rights deemed to accrue to every human being by virtue of a shared humanity.
Some consider it folly to speak of human rights as universal because of their European origin, history, and philosophical foundations. Yet the culmination of Western human rights thought, codified in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), does just that. Is there something deficient in the UDHR due to its origin? And what might a corrective rooted in Islamic teachings look like? Such a corrective might be seen as more legitimate by Muslims while still addressing the same concerns that motivated the creation of European human rights laws and regimes. We can begin by looking to the past and how the challenge of ethnic and religious minorities was addressed in the Islamic tradition.
We live in an age when the past, to use a common idiom, is “a foreign country”—the implication being that history has little to teach us. The twentieth-century historian and social critic Christopher Lasch identified this problem succinctly:
A society that has made “nostalgia” a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today. Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present.2
Besides “having trivialized the past,” we face other modern trends that also result in the failure of Western states to effectively address the challenge of ethnic and religious minorities, including the rise of white nationalism in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other de facto Western multicultural states and the attractiveness of potentially divisive ideologies, such as critical race theory,3 to racial minorities in those states. If international human rights instruments, such as the UDHR, sought to protect minority populations, our current failures should prompt us to consider that perhaps an alternative ethical vision from the past—or some elements of one—may prove more effective toward this goal. Historically, minorities in Muslim-majority societies rarely experienced significant problems, despite anomalous examples of systematic intolerance and, in rare instances, organized violence.