ANTOINE MESSARRA
 
   
   
   
   
     
   
 
     
 




المصادر الدينية لحقوق الانسان: اشكالية ونماذج في التكامل والانسجام

 

“Flowers from a broad garden”, is how Ahmad Muhammad Abd-Allah described the thrity-odd researchers, activists and other professionals who gathered at the Royal Crown Hotel in Cairo in early June. They met from June 1-6, 2000, for a conference on “The Religious Sources for Human Rights: Harmony and Complementarity between Religion and Human Rights”. This conference, organized by MECC's Justice, Peace and Human Rights program, brought the attendees together to share ideas on the relationship of religion and human rights, to review field studies that demonstrate possible harmonies between the two, and to think about how to deepen this harmony.

There are positive examples of respect for human rights in Arab society, especially in the areas directly bearing on religion (including religious freedom and personal status laws), but there have been overlooked both by researchers and the media. There seems to be an appetite for negative examples – for stories of violence and conflict.

The workshop focused on what Vivian Fu'âd described as “small steps but effective ones” towards expressing the Arab integrity of a culture of human rights. These rights are not imported, said Alexa Abi Habib, nor foreign to Arab culture. They are manifested, not in abstract discussions, but in concrete things. It is these things that move the hearts of the people, strengthening their commitment and giving them models that they can follow.

 

Religious Values

Several lectures and discussions focused upon defining those religious values that promote human rights; and upon those obstacles placed in their way.

Sâmih Fawzi defined the most prominent Christian values: “liberation of the human being from all types of slavery, fear and poverty; resistance to oppression (while loving the oppressor); commitment to and down-to-earth participation in a sense of filial identity with all human beings and constant dialogue”.

Ahmad Mansur's presentation on Islam ran against the tide of more widelyheld interpretations. Islam, he said, upholds “the absolute human right to religious freedom. A person is free to deny religious faith after having been a believer, or to believe after one has been an out-spoken atheist”. Human beings come in many varieties. Those who follow Islam know that pluralism is mind-expanding and provides the grist for spiritual maturity. Islam also calls for peace in human relations. Responses to aggression must be limited and not overflow into persecution. In general, people should agree to speak to one another in a civil manner.

Hanna Gharys and Sâmih Fawzi led the discussions of the obstacles people face when putting human rights into practice. In the course of history, religious institutions get tangled up in a web of interests, whether they are vying for political influence, absorbing folk traditions, or following blind doctrinal alleys in their theology and jurisprudence. People “fail to distinguish between religion, religious thought and the practice of religion”, mistaking time-conditioned expressions of religion with the essence of religon itself. In addition, the human character itself seems “by innate nature prone to fanaticism”; it has a hard time dealing with “the ambiguity that arises when people must balance the relative with the absolute”.

One expression of this basic human flaw is the popular currency of negative stereotypes concerning the religions other people pratice. One participant told of a university professor who, for the first time in his life, entered a Christian cathedral in Cairo and said in amazement. “I envisioned something quite different!” If even the best educated need their eyes opened, what can one expect from the rest of society? “It is this atmophere of ignorance that is ignited and explodes into violence at a moment's notice”, noted one participant.

Simple ignorance, though, is not the sole motivation for sectarian division. Some writers “intentionally work at causing division. They exacerbate problems by innuendo, publish fabricated stories and accusations, and never get around to discussing the real problems". These writers direct themselves to the poor, cynically using them as “the real fuel to inflame conflict”.

This encouragement of conflict can also be found in colleges of education, some of which have been taken over by religious extremists. They actively encourage stereotypical ideas and promote the use of parroted slogans. An inspector, confronted by a classroom of children chanting one such slogan, asked the teacher, “Who told you to teach your students this chant?” The teacher was taken aback – no one had ever questioned the practice before.

 

Religion and the Secular Authorities

There was a great deal of discussion about the relationship between religion and secular government. Although religion can (and should) be the basic impetus behind an improvement in human rights, one needs an authority that can implement those rights. That authority, the conference concluded, is best placed in a council of fairly elected deputies whose legislation is upheld by an independent judiciary. Furthermore, this authority can only restrain or compel behavior based on positive laws passed by the assembly. If the assembly has not legislated on a particular matter, the executive arm of the government must not restrain people's behavior related to that matter.

This relationship between religion and state was endorsed in a statement by six Muslim religious leaders dated January 2, 1989. Shaykh Amad Mutawallî as-Sha'râwî, reading the statement, noted that “In (Islamic) law, maintaining public discipline is the right of the ruler or his deputy. Not in the prophetic era, nor in the days of the (Prophet's) companions, nor in the days of those who came after them has one group claimed the right to exercise public discipline and enforce the law without the ruler giving his legal permission."

As discussion turned to the more concrete matters of actual government actions, various participants noted the decisions of the Egyptian government to restore to Christian religious organizations control of their religious endowments, and to devolve authority over repair of religious structures to local authorities. Both of these decisions are seen as easing earlier restrictions.

 

Positive Models

Several positive models of the relationship between religion and human rights were presented to the conference. The struggle by a coalition of women's rights activists, the town council and a number of religious leaders in the village of Dayr-Burshâ ( Upper Egypt ) to bring an end to female circumcision was one model. The work of the Ibn-Khaldûn Center, developing printed and audio-visual materials on the role of Copts in Egyptian culture and history, and its effort to introduce balanced materials on Egypt 's pluralistic heritage into public school is another. The project's goals go beyond encouraging mutual understanding; it intends to build an open-minded culture. “In order to enrich one's own culture one must interact with other cultures”, says Sâmih Fawzî.

Still another model is an effort by one Christian religious center to host Muslim children and overcome their suspicions that the food there was ritually unclean or even poisoned. “We try, in a broad sense, to inculcate a sense of citizenship”, says Hassan Siyâm. In another instance, the Cairo Center for Human Rights has published some thirteen books on religion and human rights. These boods present objectively balanced views on both ideas and practices.

Other models presented, included the work of “The Southern Group” on dialogue and culturel; Sister Johanna Subhî Salîb's work among the garbage collectors of Cairo; “The Child of Tomorrow” program that seeks to expose children to the larger community beyond the boundaries of their schools; instances of Christians and Muslims working to build and repair each other's houses of worship; and the experience of a group of Coptic youth studying with a Muslim group and the issues that emerged from that experience.

 

Plans for the Future

Having gone through this exercise, the group then debated how they, and other religious folk of good will, could work to move this relationship between religion and human rights forward.

In a modern world where the “clash between religion and politics” seems to be on the rise, said Ahmad Muhammad ‘Abdallâh, we must not be content with the progress we have made to date. Degenerate expressions dressed up in religious garb, must be unveiled for what they are, and believers must be made to see that their defence of human rights (particularly those rights directly related to religion) is an integral part of their religious responsibility.

On the other hand, care must be taken not to be too strident. In relating to the government, religious groups should use effective rather than violent means of opposition, and must avoid the pitfall of using religion as a tool to bolster one side or another in a political contest.

Johanna Subhî Salîb and Sâmih Fawzî spoke of the “new ways” religiously committed persons must adopt. They must subject emotional arguments to cool logical scruting and reject the infringement of politics on religion. Ahmand Mansûr added that as middle eastern society moves toward democracy, a weighty reponsibility is laid upon educated people. It is these people, Sâmih Fawzî, added who control education and the cultural agenda, and who can convince others to change.

But can popular culture truly be influenced in a new direction? Althought the problem seems overwhelming, one must remember that “society” is not something that exists apart from individuals. Every person at the conference is a part of society's broad spectrum. Individual effort becomes a societal trend when all people consider themselves individually to be a foundation and a nucleus, when they believe in themselves and in their commitments. These individuals must work to nurture “an alternative culture" in those institutions that shape society – the family and the school, and especially the media which touch the poor who are outside the educational establishment. “The idea is not to create “good citizens” slavishly bound to the system. The ideal citizen is one who is concerned, involved and responsible.

Religious education should be a part of this new culture. It is tragic that, at the present time, some students are still asked to leave the room when other students' religion is being taught. This emphasizes the idea that others' religions are mysterious and perhaps a little frightening. A system that exposes children to others' religious beliefs without aggressively proselytizing them would go a long way toward creating an environment where partners in religious dialogue can speak freely and frankly.

“We need materials that come out of our own heritage, which are worth using, and which can be published and made widely available”, noted one participant. These materials must include information about human rights in a simple and easily accessible form. There must also be some mechanism put in place to monitor the use of these materials and assess their impact upon the practice of human rights in society. Some participants suggested compiling a simple glossary of common terms used when dealing with basic issues of citizenship, pluralism, and so on.

 
 
 

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