The connection between human rights and faith

  • Subtitle: Human Rights . . . Here & There
Written by  Posted Date: August 13, 2012
b_150_0_16777215_00___images_stories_01-CANADIANLawyer_Columnists_sonyanigam.jpgJean Vanier, the Catholic priest and founder of l’Arche, wrote in Community and Growth: “The fundamental questions of humanity are always around love and hate, guilt and forgiveness, peace and war, truth and lies (or illusions), the meaning of life and death, and belief in God.”

While many faith-based organizations embrace the promotion of human rights in a variety of areas, non-faith-based human rights organizations rarely discuss the issue of faith outside of the specific subject of religious freedom and the intolerance of some religious groups towards the LGBT community and women’s rights, including questions of birth control and abortion.

The reluctance is beyond shyness. It is more of a skepticism. And yet, so many tremendous leaders have been grounded in faith. So, what is this connection? Is it important for us to understand a person’s choice to act out their faith? For those of us who are seemingly indifferent to religion, can we leave ourselves open to hearing the logic of the connection, as expressed in their own words, without tuning out? You can test your tolerance to religious language by reading about three quite different faith-based efforts.

Mohandas K. Ghandi, also known as Mahatma (great soul) Ghandi, was a founding leader of the Indian independence movement against the British Raj. His basic approach was non-violent civil disobedience. His techniques and their success have been an inspiration for countless human rights activists.

Ghandi was a deeply religious man. In 1925, he writes in the introduction to his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth: “But it is not my purpose to attempt a real autobiography. I simply want to tell the story of my numerous experiments with truth, and as my life consists of nothing but those experiments, I believe, or at any rate flatter myself with the belief, that a connected account of all these experiments will not be without benefit to the reader.”

Ghandi was a very humble man, who was embarrassed by the adoration he received and did not believe that his political accomplishments amounted to much. He continues: “But I should certainly like to narrate my experiments in the spiritual field which are known only to myself, and from which I derived such power as I possess for working in the political field.”

Ghandi was on a quest for God or Truth, which he saw as the same thing. He used the Hindu law of ahimsa, or non-violence, to advance his work. The only way to be truly non-violent is through a process of self-purification, that is, the removal of self-identification or ego in all aspects of life including thought, speech, and action.

Through self-purification one attains the ability to remove barriers between one’s self and others. Ghandi found that his ability to remove barriers between himself and others by removing his self-interest from a given problem was contagious, and allowed him to move forward with advancing whatever project he was working on.

KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives is an example of a coalition of Christian churches and organizations that deliberate on issues of common concern and advocate for social justice. As noted on its web site: “Responding to Christ by engaging in social transformation, KAIROS empowers the people of God and is empowered by them to live out their faith in action for justice and peace, joining with those of goodwill in Canada and around the world.”

Members include over 10 different Canadian church organizations: the Anglican, Christian Reformed, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian and United churches, as well as the Canadian Catholic Organization for Peace and Development, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Canadian Religious Conference, Mennonite Central Committee of Canada, Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

In a recent post on its web site, executive director Jennifer Henry reflects: “We sat in a circle. Lucy from Palestine, Claudia from Colombia, Jill from Penelakut First Nation, members of KAIROS Saskatoon, Regina, and Swift Current, and many others from church and community.”

The topic was women of courage — women human rights defenders who promote and protect rights in different contexts — but the common strand was faith in action.

Claudia said it well: “I had a choice to live a normal life or to care about the lives of others in my community. Choosing to care meant choosing to act and that makes all the difference.

“There is no passivity to loving. The love of your neighbour taught in Christian communities from the earliest age is a powerful call to action. If we love our neighbour, whether our neighbour in Penelakut First Nation or our neighbour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we are drawn so deeply into their struggle that we cannot be restrained from speaking and acting for their wellbeing, for the abundant life to which we all are invited. And acting for justice, in the traditional understanding of the pastoral circle, invites us into deeper reflection: we know God and each other that much better through acts of justice.”

Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian non-governmental organization, was founded by a group of women who asked themselves the question “If God is just as Islam is just why do laws and policies made in the name of Islam create injustice?” The purpose of the NGO is to search for solutions to the problem of discrimination against Muslim women in the name of Islam.

The organization was created in 1987 and began with a group of women including lawyers, academics, journalists, analysts, and activists who came together to study the problems associated with the implementation of the new Islamic Family Laws that were enacted in 1984 and came into force in 1987.

They began with a workshop aimed at law reform and then quickly realized that in order to combat violence and oppression in their homes they needed to challenge the pervasive predominant interpretation of the Qur’an that reinforced male dominance and female inferiority.

“Through the expertise of mufassirah [an expert in tafsir, ‘interpretation’] Amina Wadud, the group engaged actively in a model of Qur’anic hermeneutics that examined the socio-historical context of Revelation as a whole, and that of particular Qur’anic verses. The group examined the language of the Text and its syntactical and grammatical structure, and it looked at the Text as a whole to understand its worldview. This combined methodology allowed an exciting interface to emerge between theology and interpretation on one hand, and daily realities of Muslim women within the contemporary socio-legal context on the other.” (SIS web site, Aug. 9, 2012)

At a Carter Center meeting in 2007, SIS’s executive director Zainah Anwar reportedly explained: “I was brought up as a Muslim and brought up to believe that God is just and Islam is just. . . . Rejecting our religion in order to become a feminist is just not a choice — we want to be feminists, and we want to be Muslim as well. We want to locate our search for justice, for liberation within our tradition, within our belief.”

Recently, SIS won an application for judicial review of a decision of a Malaysian home ministry ban of its 2005 book, Muslim Women and the Challenges of Islamic Extremism. The book, a compilation of essays based on its research, had been circulating for two years before the ban was imposed. The Court of Appeals decision is seen as an important precedent for freedom of expression in Malaysia.

Although religious intolerance has been and continues to be a source of conflict, division and war, for some faith can also be a source of inspiration and positive action that can benefit many. Even though I did not receive any religious instruction as a child, and perhaps because much of religion is carried in culture, I find it easiest to relate to Ghandi’s reasoning. Ideas of responding to Christ and interpreting texts are a real stretch for me. But since each advancement in human rights is dependent upon the culture and history related to a specific location, as well as the interplay of a wide variety of local, regional, and international factors, the presence, reasoning and credibility of faith-based groups can have an important role to play in expanding the understanding of human dignity and related collective responsibilities in relation to human rights.

Conversations can only start at the point where people are at a given point in time.

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Sonya Nigam

Sonya Nigam is Director, Office of Human Rights at the University of Ottawa. She can be reached at snigam@uottawa.ca

Column: Human Rights . . . Here & There

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