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Working with “Fundamentalists”?

While the human rights movement has an obligation to oppose efforts aimed at using religion to justify laws and public policies that contravene rights standards, it is also critical for the movement to recognize that religious fundamentalism does not always collide with secular human rights standards. Many fundamentalist movements, for example, are deeply involved in helping people’s access to food, housing, health care, and other social services. “Such commitments position many militant religious movements ambiguously, and positively from a human rights standpoint, in relation to social and economic human rights.”37 On foreign policy issues, although often displaying selective outrage, Christian evangelicals have been active in generating support for victims in conflicts such as those in southern Sudan and Darfur.

These examples challenge the human rights movement to define policies and strategies on how to associate with groups that are sometimes part of the same campaigns and sometimes actively hostile to human rights principles, depending on the issue or the context.

Within significant parts of the secular liberal movement there is a clear dividing line: on the one hand, those who echo French revolutionary Danton’s (in)famous phrase, “No liberty for the enemies of liberty” and want to restrict the civil and political rights (including freedom of expression, association, and assembly) of members of religious groups believed to pose a threat to a rights-respecting political order; on the other hand, those who in the name of freedom of religion and free speech have chosen to defend, like Voltaire, “the right of every man to profess, unmolested, what religion he chooses.” While human rights groups have generally sided with the latter position, some have been tempted to make an exception when it comes to religious movements seen as intrinsically hostile to the liberal political order.

Terrorism in the name of God has exacerbated these debates. In the 1990s, when violent Islamic movements seemed bent on overthrowing secular governments in Algeria or Egypt, and more generally after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States, October 12, 2002 in Bali, and March 11, 2004 in Spain, the commitment to protect the rights of everyone, including alleged terrorists, not to be tortured or “disappeared” has been under heavy attack, even from quarters usually associated with the human rights community.

Suddenly human rights groups advocating for consistent standards on human rights are being accused by some secular groups, with whom they cooperated on press freedom or gender issues, of “being soft” on religious extremism and of risking sacrificing other rights, especially women’s rights, and even democracy, by standing up for the rights of terror suspects. Human rights groups need to respond forcefully that the choice is not one between, on the one hand, an “anything goes” approach to terror in which civil liberties are among the first victims and, on the other, the creation of an archipelago of fundamentalist Islamic states that systemically violate women’s and other basic rights. The real challenge is finding ways to preserve basic rights in efforts to combat terror in order to strengthen the appeal of liberal, rights-respecting societies.

[37] John Kelsay and Sumner B.Twiss, eds., Religion and Human Rights (New York: The Project on Religion and Human Rights, 1994), p. 27.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005