Graphic and deeply disturbing images of violence, motivated in part by religious animosities, emanated from the Middle East last week. Such images, whether beamed from Israel, Palestine, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Northern Ireland, or the United States, overshadow a subtler trend gradually transforming contemporary religious sensibilities.
The modern human rights era, inaugurated by the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, presented religious communities with challenging new opportunities to serve the cause of peace. Following the end of the cold war, religions found themselves called upon to promote cultures of nonviolence and civic tolerance. Increasingly, the challenge comes from within the religious communities themselves, where leading thinkers have begun to contemplate the religious sources and meanings of "universal human rights."
Religions claim to be the original source of "human rights." Religious concepts, such as the Buddhist notion of *metta* (compassion), the Christian understanding of human dignity, or the Jewish emphasis on hospitality to strangers, govern local understandings of rights and responsibilities. But are such concepts generalizable across cultures and religions? The language of "universal" rights inspires resistance from various quarters, including religions communities that perceive a new form of Western colonialism therein. North American and European interests stand behind "rights talk," opponents contend, but Western philosophies are no more universally binding than any other culturally determined set of principles.
Asian leaders meeting in Bangkok in 1993, for example, strenuously opposed "the universal human rights regime" and its supposedly non-Asian emphasis on personal autonomy. The Bangkok Governmental Declaration, issued by a group of Asian nations as a preemptive strike against the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, emphasized the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and noninterference.
Similarly, Hassan al-Turabi, the Sudanese Muslim leader, declares that Muslims will never conform to alien values and obey laws derived from non-Islamic sources. We may speak across cultural borders of "human rights" or "women's liberation," Turabi allows, but the social expression of these "rights" are determined not by the secular West but by Islam's sacred sources -- the Qur'an and the Hadith of the Prophet. In this way Islamic societies avoid the high rates of divorce, drug use, and moral decadence, Turabi says, that derive from "America's flawed understanding of genuine women's liberation."
The development worth watching is the emergence of strong voices from within traditional religious communities that speak confidently of overarching moral truths, a universal moral sense, or "core values" held in common by all cultures.
The Islamic Republic of Iran provides a striking example of the emergence of Islamic "rights talk." With his brilliantly argued advocacy of human rights and democracy, formulated from the depths of the Shi'ite tradition, Iranian philosopher and public intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush has sparked a fascinating political debate in the home of the first "fundamentalist" revolution. Popular among Iran's youth and technocratic elite but opposed by the ruling clergy, Soroush challenges the latter's political legitimacy. Religiously imposed ideology, he contends, is a distortion of religious values.
Whereas his opponents complain of *dimukrasi-yi gharbi* (Western democracy), Soroush thinks democracy is compatible with multiple political cultures, including Islamic ones. Strikingly, he holds up human rights as the norm by which the Islamic state is to be judged. In defending the sanctity of religion, Soroush warns, the government must not privilege a particular conception of religion, lest it sacrifice human rights for ideological purity. The guiding criteria for governance must be "universal human rights" themselves rather than a religious ideology; indeed, Soroush argues, a society embraces religion because it upholds the society's sense of justice. Today that includes a respect for human rights.
This appeal to external (extra-religious) criteria to evaluate religion constitutes an invitation to cross-cultural dialogue. Politically charged matters such as the relationship between religion and justice, though addressed by the Qur'an and other religious texts, can be defined for the present age, Soroush teaches, only by Muslims entering into a theological debate that includes political, secular, and religious discourses.
Soroush has been a powerfully influential thinker because of the quality of his ideas -- and because they come from a man who was an insider in the Iranian revolutionary government. In 1997, despite being threatened by hardliners and hounded by young extremists from Ansar-e-Hezbollah, Soroush publicly applauded the election of reformer Mohamed Khatami. But he also criticized the new president for indecision in the face of his extremist opponents, and urged him to stand up for human rights and academic freedom.
Religious communities and leaders participate constructively in the international discourse of human rights and responsibilities when they help build local cultures of religious and other human rights that correspond to international standards. The good news is that Soroush is not alone in his effort to retrieve, articulate, and apply religious concepts, norms, and practices that promote human rights and nonviolent conflict transformation.
Scott Appleby is professor of history and the John M. Regan Jr. Director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of *The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation* (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).
*Editor's note*: The University of Chicago Divinity School will be hosting a conference entitled "The Sacred and the Sovereign: Human Rights, the Use of Force, and Religious Pluralism at Century's Dawn" on October 20, 2000. Scott Appleby is one of the participants. For more information, visit http://sacred-sovereign.uchicago.edu.