Human Dignity and Justice   /   Fall 2007   /    Essays

Response: The Irony of It All

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Headless statue at the Louvre (2013). Via Wikimedia Commons.

In this response, I will bring to light a fascinating, and in some ways hopeful, irony embedded in the preceding essays on human rights, when they are taken together. Unfortunately, I will have to forego saying anything about the many other interesting and important points raised—for example, Michael Zuckert’s observations concerning the origins of our egalitarian concept of dignity.

In his very helpful and informative essay, “The Clash of Universalisms: Religious and Secular in Human Rights,” Abdulaziz Sachedina describes and comments on Muslim criticisms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Muslim critics of the Declaration see it as an expression of Western secularism, the tell-tale sign for them being the fact that the Declaration offers no religious support for the recognition of human rights. This silence is seen by the Muslim critics as reflecting the strategy the West adopted for coping with religious pluralism upon the fragmentation of Christianity, namely, to secularize public life by privatizing religion and keeping it out of the public sphere. Muslim critics point to the fact that no Muslims who were capable of articulating a comprehensive Muslim defense of human rights were included in the discussions that led to the writing of the document. And they see their interpretation of the Declaration as an expression of Western secularism as confirmed by those vocal defenders of human rights in the West who argue that religion must be kept out of discussions about human rights.

It should be added that the interpretation of the Declaration as an expression of Western secularism is by no means peculiar to Muslim critics of the Declaration. The same interpretation is common in the West. The dominant story told in the West about the emergence of the idea of human rights is that it is a child of the secular Enlightenment.

With all this in mind, it is easy to see why pressure by the West on the Muslim world to accept the Declaration would be seen by many Muslims as anti-religious, ethnocentric, and hegemonic. Sachedina argues that traditional Islam will accept human rights only if it becomes convinced that Islam offers a religious foundation for human rights. Thus when secularists such as Michael Ignatieff express their opposition to all attempts to provide a religious basis for human rights, insisting that we should content ourselves with a purely pragmatic defense, they impede rather than advance the cause of human rights in the Muslim world.

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