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Religion and human rights

ON Tuesday, 28 April 2009, The Star published an article by Dr Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad under the column IKIM’s Views on the question of religion and human rights in Malaysia.  We the undersigned wrote a rebuttal. The Star has chosen not to publish our rebuttal.

We would appreciate the opportunity of presenting a different perspective to that expressed by Wan Azhar in respect of religion and human rights in Malaysia. In so doing, we would stress that these are our personal viewpoints and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation to which we belong.

In the area of supranational laws, there is a move to advance binding sets of principles that will guide nations. By [their] very nature, these principles govern and restrict the conduct of the state.

Malaysia is no stranger to such principles. We are a party to the Geneva Conventions and the Chemical Warfare Convention. These conventions regulate the conduct of warfare by states and are very much part of human rights laws. These laws are intended as a reflection of common decency, which guide civilised nations to the extent that they override or circumscribe a state’s absolute freedom in the conduct of war. Indeed, this is only to be welcomed.

Are these rules new? Hardly. Such rules of war have been in existence for several hundreds of years. For example, when the international community questioned and condemned Israel’s conduct in the Gaza War, we appealed to international human rights and humanitarian laws.

Is this a new religion? Definitely not. Countries that became parties to such international conventions did so out of their moral outrage at [people’s] inhumanity to [others], their deeply held values and profound desire to ensure that common decency and humanitarian principles must prevail even when countries are at their most belligerent temper. The universality of such values is undeniable, and their intended result, peace, is beyond question. Is Wan Azhar saying that this is unacceptable?

But peace is not simply the absence of war. Peace is the enabling of equality and the dignity of human beings. Coming as we do from ancient faith traditions, Hindusim, Islam and Christianity respectively, we see human rights as a positive expression of deeply held religious systems and moral values. Rather than being in contrast and contention with religious systems and moral values, human rights are in fact some of their highest expressions.

A God or godly pantheon responsible for the creation of humanity demands that human beings be accorded and treated with all due dignity and respect without qualification on the basis of race, religion, gender or political or moral philosophy. So human rights are a way of elucidating and enunciating how such expressions should be effected.

Such human rights should be equally applied to all citizens and residents of a country regardless of what the official religion of that country is, or if it has none. In this regard, secularism seeks to apply those basic human rights norms in non-religious terms and language, without preferring religion over non-religion or one religion over another.

Human rights, simply put, is about respecting and upholding the dignity of each and every human being. How does that not accord with religious beliefs? It is a poor and sad human misinterpretation of religion that accords basic rights and fundamental freedoms only to a religion’s own adherents, or to those in agreement with the powers-that-be behind such a religion.

Wan Azhar suggests that concepts of human rights and religion in Malaysia are antagonistic. Let us look at the human rights of Orang Asli in Malaysia. If we take the situation of Orang Asli land rights, we can see that this is patently untrue. All major religions and value systems enjoin their adherents and followers to care for and improve the welfare of those among us who are defenceless, weak, underprivileged, marginalised and effectively disenfranchised. All the major religions would recognise the customary rights of the Orang Asli to their land.

Yet for such a long time, the previous Selangor state governments have chosen to challenge and dispute such rights. The present-day Selangor government is to be commended for finally choosing not to pursue this challenge and to recognise such customary land rights.

While a national constitution can stipulate an official religion for the nation, such a document must also recognise the rights of those who do not subscribe to that religion. International human rights norms seek to make commonplace the understanding that the lives of citizens and residents of a country should be free from interference and molestation as a result of any official religious or philosophical orthodoxy.

International human rights norms object to the attempt to legislate for a particular religion and to impose such legislated rules to non-adherents or non-practitioners. And these norms also additionally object to the attempt to deny non-adherents any means to participate in a public debate about that which nonetheless affects their lives and that of their country. A self-serving interpretation of a religion’s tenets as a pretext to separation and exclusion, rather than in favour of universality and inclusivity, is to be abhorred.

Wan Azhar wrote that “human rights should neither be made the basis to undermine the constitution, nor be worshipped as if they represent a sacred agenda which could impose restrictions in terms of transforming the country into a united, peaceful and developed nation.” We couldn’t agree more.

International human rights norms serve as a checklist to uphold our constitution and to benchmark it against international best practices. There is no attempt to undermine but rather strengthen and undergird our Federal Constitution by eliminating any attempt to utilise it as a basis to perpetuate unjust laws, rules and regulations which cause hardship, harm and suffering to our fellow citizens and residents. Where there is a lack of clarity, international human rights norms offer a clear and unambiguous frame of reference.  Hence the latest cabinet directive regarding the religious upbringing of children of divorced parents, which we support.

Wan Azhar concludes his essay by saying that “[i]f we really believe in a religious or value system, we cannot accept any notion under the banner of human rights which propagates the idea that [humankind] is free to do whatever [he/she] likes without restriction.” The comparison is incorrect. To each right there is a balancing obligation not to act in a way that would discriminate others. Human rights do not promote anarchy and irresponsible behaviour without limitation, as Wan Azhar would like your readers to believe.

Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan,
Andrew Khoo
Zarizana Abdul Aziz

11 May 2009

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16 Responses to “Religion and human rights”

  1. Hafidz Baharom says:

    One could quip back to Wan Azhar about his last paragraph:

    Whose religion, and whose values?

  2. walski69 says:

    A popular myth that seems to be perpetuated by religionists is that anything secular equates to being anti-religion. This couldn’t be further from reality.

    Whereas in a secular democratic government, taking the United States, Canada or even Indonesia, as examples, all religions are allowed (and even encouraged) to flourish, without one single religion used as the basis of a system of government, or dominance.

    Another myth is that a secular system of government equates to free-for-all anarchy and lawlessness.

    A system of government that is not secular, on the other hand, will definitely lead to discrimination against non-adherents to the dominant religion, or even adherents to said religion who do not buy wholesale into the specific school of thought that is dominant.

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one that takes the common ethics of all faiths into consideration – and there are many commonalities. The UDHR is only a threat to those who have supremacist views that their own religion, and theirs alone, is the right path, which should then be imposed upon all and sundry.

    It is not surprising, therefore, that Wan Azhar has not offered a single example of a modern-day state where a dominant religion, when used as the basis of governance, has resulted in an equitable, progressive society that is free of injustice.

  3. Tan Jin Huat says:

    I am personally disappointed that The Star has chosen not to publish this rebuttal to Dr Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad’s article on religion and human rights in Malaysia.

    Any credible newspaper in Malaysia should have as its policy to nurture responsible discussion affecting every aspect of civil society. For the maturing of a civil society in Malaysia, calm and rationale discussion is imperative. A social responsibility of any good newspaper is to portray the truth even if there is a need to give differing perspectives. In this way, it acts as a medium of education of the public at large. Good levels of discussion also promotes the acquisition of analytical skills of reasoning without being emotionally charged for no good reason. Believe me it is also good for the sales when it is perceived to be fair-minded in its dealings with alternate views.

    Hearts and minds of people are won not through marginalisation or oppressive measures of censorship of alternate viewpoints but of winsome persuasion of one’s conviction that is clear for all to see.

  4. myop101 says:

    Wow… this is new, you mean people still read what IKIM writes?

  5. Abdul Rahman says:

    And one can also quip back to you, Hafidz Baharom,

    Whose religion, and whose values?

    See what I did there?

  6. Kamal says:

    Wan Azhar simply exposed his own ignorance as well as those of IKIM. If I remember correctly, among some of the things Islam introduced to Arab society was an Appreciation of the role of women in society, legal recognition of women property inheritance, responsibility towards divorced women, encouraging the release of slaves from bondage, laws of engagement in war that included no wanton killing of unarmed men, women and children, livestocks and destroying crops as well as paying the zakat and giving to charity.

    It also recognised tribal rights and minority representation. Of course, I stand corrected. My knowledge on these matters are limited, but if I remember what I have read or was told correctly, Islam also being neither tribal or ethnic in nature, promoted the notion of universality be it in religion or justice about 1400 years ago.

    Wouldn’t at some level, these ideas of justice be equated to notions of human rights? Anyways, where in the notion of contemporary Human Rights is anyone given the right to absolute and unrestrained freedom? We are all responsible for our actions.

  7. atheist says:

    Do atheist really care about religions or values ?

  8. dominik says:

    Wan Azhar seems to know and understand “one particular religion” only. Even then what is written and commanded in that religion encompass “all the values of human rights and dignities”. Does it mean it only exist in that one particular religion? Definitely not. All religions encourage its people to practise what is truly good for all peoples irrespective of race or religion.

  9. Dhanen Mahes says:

    I would like to congratulate the writers for a well written and timely article. It is a shame that The Star chose not to publish this article.

    I have read Dr Wan Azhar’s article in question, and can’t help but feel that although his intentions may be noble, his article sounded quite one sided and one dimensional. I fear he has fallen prey to the mistaken demonisation of everything ‘Western’, and to a bi-polar world view of ‘I am right, and you are wrong’.

  10. Wafi says:

    Apparently they do not understand what Wan Azhar was saying. And probably they do not want to understand. Human rights as promoted by the Western civilisation is not value-free. Under human rights provision they can challenge the constitution, religious norms and moral values, etc. They think they have the right to publish the caricature of the Prophet and can insult Islam by producing Fitna as happened in Holland. Can we think independently, so as to develop religious human rights as opposed to secular human rights?

  11. Karcy says:

    To atheist:

    Sometimes, when I don’t feel particularly religious or doubt the existence of God, I take a walk into any bookstore and get slammed by the immense religiosity of almost everything in Malaysia.

    I don’t know how atheists survive in this place. Four mega religions in this country, excluding smaller religions and Teapot-like sects, all shuffling for space.

    Anyway, it is a shame that human rights is seen as the opposite of and a threat to Islam (which is the issue discussed here), when anyone can tell just by reading the Quran that the Prophet was a brilliant and progressive man, even without the help of Tafsir. Far from it to be my duty to talk about how Muslims ought to interpret their religion, but still a pity.

  12. Exactly, Abdul Rahman.

    When it comes to human rights, what exactly are we discussing? If we’re discussing it from one religious stand point, then obviously we are being unconstitutional, since ours clearly states that all religions have their say.

    However, looking at it from a universal standpoint is more feasible. And that is something that is lacking within IKIM itself.

  13. Nora says:

    atheist Posted “Do atheist really care about religions or values ?”

    Precisely………religion is nothing but to cloud the person’s reasoning and logical thinking. Religion has done more damage than good to humanity. Religious identities have themselves becomes the potent force of human conflict.

  14. Abdul Rahman says:

    >>However, looking at it from a universal standpoint is more feasible.

    There’s no such thing as a universal viewpoints. He thinks he’s right. You think you’re right. That’s all there is to it.

    And once you claim authority on the meaning of what is discussed, you will be like a god in the text.

    Betul tak Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, Andrew Khoo Zarizana Abdul Aziz? If you claim authority, human rights can be anything you please.

    Spare me your posturing.

  15. Vikraman says:

    Wafi Posted: 22 May 09 : 2.16PM

    Apparently they do not understand what Wan Azhar was saying. And probably they do not want to understand. Human rights as promoted by the Western civilisation is not value-free. Under human rights provision they can challenge the constitution, religious norms and moral values, etc. They think they have the right to publish the caricature of the Prophet and can insult Islam by producing Fitna as happened in Holland. Can we think independently, so as to develop religious human rights as opposed to secular human rights?


    1)And probably they do not want to understand. – Your basis for this accusation?

    2)Human rights as promoted by the Western civilisation is not value-free. – Firstly define values? You mean your religious morality? Yes it definitely lacks that because that’s the individual’s role to play. His/her role to define what s/he feels is moral/immoral and what s/he chooses his influences in those decisions to be. Part of the concept of liberty and freedom of choice.

    3)Under human rights provision they can challenge the constitution, religious norms and moral values, etc. – Yes. For good reason as well. If not for those provisions we’d still be living in a church mandated feudal system where the king/church owns all your property and your life as well.

    4) They think they have the right to publish the caricature of the Prophet and can insult Islam by producing Fitna as happened in Holland. – In fact they do. It’s called the freedom of expression. They’re as entitled to insult any religion they want to because you too have the right to insult their religion. Social organisations do not have “human rights” simply because they’re not HUMAN.

    5) Can we think independently, so as to develop religious human rights as opposed to secular human rights? – 7 centuries of independent thought brought us the concept of individual human rights which cuts across boundaries or race, religion, culture, caste and sex. Before that we had 20 centuries of organised religion. That worked out really well no?

  16. The root problem in Malaysia is that we have allowed politicians with narrow and vested interests to decide and make declarations on religious issues. Here Umno politicians are singled out.

    There are religious authorities in Islam who are qualified and have the authority and mandate to make decisions and declarations of religious matters, especially on Islam. The problem is these Islamic authorities come under the purview and payroll of government funding and appointments are also government-approved, thus lending to the situation where even if the official from Islamic authorities knows and believes what is the right thing thing to say or do, he has to follow his political masters who control his payroll. That’s the fundamental flaw in our system.

    Since Constitutionally Islam comes under the jurisdiction of the Sultans, should not the Islamic Officials also come under the Sultan’s Office and Sultan’s Office’s payroll? It is not easy to follow your conscience if you paymaster is a bigoted political master and you have children in college or are still dependent on you.

    Religious officials must not be under the payroll of political masters.

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