Conference Reports

Public Forum on "Human Rights, Religion & Secularism"

Date: 25-Mar-2003


Public Forum on "Human Rights, Religion & Secularism"

Developing multiple foundations for Human Rights

Speaker: Prof. Abdullahi An-Naim

January 18, 2003 Armada Hotei, Organized by SIS & JUST


Dr. Abdullahi An Naim is the Professor of Law at Emory University in Atlanta, a Sudanese who fled political persecution in his country.

At the forum, Dr. An Naim argued for the synergy and interdependence of these paradigms: human rights, religion & secularism. He claimed that each of them needed the other two to fulfill its own rationale, to sustain its relevance and validity for its own constituency. He appealed to the reconciliation between religion and secularism so that the implementation of universal human rights would be more effective, and that public policy could benefit from the moral guidance of religion while a pluralistic society could enjoy peace and stability from such a relationship. He also called for an internal transformation within religious traditions of which the process of change must emerge from within a given society and not be imposed from outside. His approach appeared to be both humane and pragmatic.

Highlights of his speech

Key features of three paradigms:

Key features for:

  1. Human rights: universality, intrinsically inclusive of all human beings irrespective of membership in any social group, race, religion or civilization.
  2. Religion: exclusivity of the community of believers, as defined by its own religion religious faith and practice.
  3. Secularism: its ability to safeguard the pluralism of political community

Interdependence of the three paradigms:

Human Rights

1.  Human rights need religion to be the most widely accepted source of moral foundation of political community, and mobilization of believers in particular.

  1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is not universal because it does not preclude religious perspectives as the basis of human rights, which are essentially about human dignity and self-determination, and thus decreases the moral force of the so-called universality of human rights.
  2. The implementation of international human rights norms in any society requires thoughtful and well-informed engagement of religion because of its strong influence on human belief systems and behavior.

2.  Human rights need secularism to protect the integrity of political community in order to be the necessary vehicle for the implementation of these rights in practice.


3.  Religion needs human rights not only to protect the human dignity and rights of believers themselves, but also to ensure the authenticity of religious belief and practice, as well as dynamics development and relevance of religion to its own adherents. Without human rights such as freedom of belief and expression, there will be no possibility of growth and development within the existing doctrine of any religion.

4.  Religion needs secularism to mediate different religious communities within the same political space by organizing the relationship between religion and the state. Religious doctrine is necessarily implicated in the secular, and the secular is perceived by believers to be "governed" by religious doctrine. Therefore any sharp distinction between the religious and secular is misleading.

5.  Human rights and secularism are needed to encourage and facilitate internal transformation within religious traditions in order to overcome religious-based objections or reservations about human rights standards or secular principles.

6.  Legitimating human rights in local cultures and religious traditions is a matter of vital importance for the survivor and future development of the human rights paradigm itself.


7.  Secularism needs human rights for practical normative guidance in the daily protection of people against the abuse of powers of the state.

8.  Secularism by itself is not able to sustain pluralism, neither can it be effective in practice without religious justification for believers. It needs religion to be the most widely accepted source of political community as well as the means for satisfying the spiritual needs of believers within that community. Therefore its ability to play its role in political communities depends on its legitimacy to all segment of the population, including religious believers.

9.  It serves as a principle of public policy to ensure that an authoritarian religious group taking control of the state will not threaten the essential interests of any segment of the population.

    A Religious State

10.  There is a need to challenge the traditional understanding of a religious state.

  1. The notion that secularism is anti-Islam (religion) needs to be rehabilitated.
  2. State cannot sponsor religious doctrine because a religion does not equate to a state. However, religion and politics cannot be separated because people react according to religious conviction.
  3. Both religion and politic can sustain universal human rights by keeping the state out of religion.
  4. Even if there are 100% of Muslims in the state, and all vote for Shari’a, it is still a violation of human rights, because they cannot vote out of it.


11.  It is undeniable that there has been a certain degree of protection for the rights of women and non-Muslims. But Islam cannot protect human rights judged by the UDHR standard because the paradigm is incomprehensible to Muslims, e.g. there is no equal rights for men & women, believers & unbelievers in Shari’a. In addition, the Conservative insist that Shari’a is divine and unchangeable, refuse to recognize and understand the role of human agency.

12.  The notion of an Islamic State with Shari’a as the law of the land is a contradiction in terms.

  1. Due to the diversities of opinion in Islamic law, any enactment of Shari’a principles as law would mean enforcing the political will of those in power, to select some opinions over others, thereby denying believers and others the freedom of choice.
  2. Muslims as individuals have every right to observe Shari’a by choice.
  3. There is neither a historical precedent of an Islamic state to be followed, nor such a state practically possible today. An Islamic State is a conceptually impossibility, historical fallacy and unattainable today.
  4. The implementation of Shari’a is also unreasonable in economic and political terms for the modern nation-state in its global economic and political context.
  5. The actual construction of the law is a human activity, and its results represent the law of God as humanly understood. While the sources of Shari’a – Quran & Sunna – are divine, other sources such as qiyas (analogy) and ijma (consensus) are evidently human. Even the methodology, concept, principles and techniques of Shari’a were developed by jurists.

13.  If Muslims want to live by faith and to make Shari’a applicable to   contemporary life, Shari’a must undergo radical reform. It must be contextualized today.

14.  Arabic/Middle Eastern Islam is the second wave of colonization. Arabism    has entrenched Islam, as most Muslims in the world seem to conceive Arabism over Islam. Such response has allowed Arab imperialism. Therefore the need for an internal transformation is critical for the very survival of religious traditions, as well as for the authenticity of religious experience. Besides the theological dimension, reinterpretation of religious precepts must be understood, in historical sense, specific cultural, political, social & economic context of the community of believers.





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