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The Way Forward

Understanding and engaging does not mean retreating into a more conventional and consensual mode. Confronted with a growing assertion of religion in private life, the increased political power of religions, and the rise or revival of religious conservatism, the human rights community must step up with a clear message and a distinctive voice. To paraphrase Edward Saïd, it must be “someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them) and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”41  

There is still space for convergence and coalitions between human rights and religious communities. On some basic freedoms and rights this is already a reality: most secular human rights groups and religious groups have united in combating hate crimes and discrimination against Muslims in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the ensuing war on terror. Most have reasserted the absolute duty to protect civilians in armed conflicts.

These alliances should not be sacrificed lightly. In recognition of the importance of religious conscience for many people, the human rights movement should do more to defend religious freedom. In that spirit Human Rights Watch has been defending the fundamental rights of independent Muslims in Uzbekistan, Christians in Iraq, Jews in Iran, Jehovah’s witnesses in Georgia, and Mennonites in Vietnam. Such commitment should include the defense of the rights of “fundamentalists,” i.e., including those who would threaten liberal conceptions of rights if they were in power, so long as they do not physically attack or otherwise impinge on the rights of non-believers.

At the same time, however, the human rights movement should not sacrifice its most valued principles and objectives in order to protect its good relations with religious communities. Human rights defenders should not shirk in particular from insisting on a distinction between private religious morality and religiously motivated public policy that infringes rights. Public expression and political mobilization of religious groups or believers on matters of rights are legitimate. When private religious morality imposes itself on society and threatens to change public policy in a way detrimental to rights, however, the human rights movement should speak out and draw the line.

[41] Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), p. 11.

<<previous  |  indexJanuary 2005