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Religious “Blowback”

In the 1960s, when secularism was seen by many as inevitable, part of the unstoppable march of progress, and organized religious communities appeared to be sidelined as a political force, especially in the Western world, French writer and minister of Culture André Malraux challenged that orthodoxy, declaring in oracular fashion that “the twenty-first century will be either religious or not be” (“le 21e siècle sera religieux ou ne sera pas”).

Malraux’s view seems to have been confirmed in much of the world today: Western Europe excepted, religion has made a strong comeback. “The reemergence of religious discourse,” writes Sara Maitland, “seems to have caught many of us on the hop: baffled, irritated and uncomprehending. For over 250 years, Western democratic thinking has argued, and even fought for, the secularization of the public domain and the political arena... By the second half of the last century, indeed, one might have thought the battle was won... What I see instead is a faltering, a loss of faith, in the whole Enlightenment project.”17

While some have welcomed this development as a necessary counterbalance to the excesses of materialism and individualism, others have warned that this religious revival would subvert universal values, sow particularist and divisive attachments, and trigger a broader backlash. Many people have responded, in short, with the same alarm with which they greeted Samuel Huntington’s controversial thesis on the lasting power of and inevitable “clash” between the world’s major civilizations.

The reasons for this religious comeback are manifold. It expresses both renewed individual quests for meaning in a secularized, materialistic world and a more collective search for identity in a world engaged in the uncertainties and insecurities of globalization and diversity.

In some instances, the reemergence of religion also reflects in part the failure of the states, especially in the developing world, to provide and guarantee fundamental human rights for the majority of their populations. As political scientist Vali Nasr has phrased it: “There is a direct correlation between the scope and nature of religious activism and the decline of the secular state as a functioning political system and as an intellectual construct.... In Kemalist Turkey, Pahlavi Iran... secularism never permeated deep into society... and with little to show in the form of veritable development, the values that sustained these states came under attack.”18

The growing political influence of religious communities also has been linked to the “theologization” of state power. In some countries, ruling elites have used particular religious interpretations to shore up their power and maintain the social and political status quo. Saudi Arabia and Iran are prominent examples. 

When religion is merged with the state, human rights suffer. Asma Jahangir writes that, in Pakistan, “the judicial institutionalization of Islam has taken a particularly heavy toll on the rights of women and religious minorities, and critics of discriminatory laws are branded un-Islamic or traitorous…. The creed of National Islamization has been used as a stick to beat all emancipatory and human rights movements.”19

In Uzbekistan, the government has claimed a monopoly on the interpretation of Islam and has jailed those who diverge from its version of Islam on charges that such “independent” Muslims are attempting to subvert or overthrow the constitutional order. Although the government has used the pretext that such individuals are colluding with terrorism, in the vast majority of cases the suspects have not been charged with terrorism or any other form of violence.20

In Egypt, the government—citing the contrary dictates of Islamic law—has made reservations to both the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), evading its obligation to protect women’s rights.21

In Nigeria, twelve state governments in the north have added criminal law to the jurisdiction of Shari’a (Islamic law) courts since 2000,22 raising a number of serious rights concerns and stirring controversy in a country where religious divisions run deep and where the federal constitution specifies that there is no state religion. Shari’a has been in force for many years in the north, where the majority of the population is Muslim, but, until 2000, its scope was limited to personal status and civil law. Human rights concerns arising in application of religious law in those contexts have been exacerbated by the turn to Shari’a in criminal law matters.

Human Rights Watch research confirms that Shari’a in Nigeria has been manipulated for political purposes, and that this politicization of religion has led to human rights violations.23 Application of Shari’a in criminal cases in the twelve states has been accompanied by amputation, floggings, the death penalty, discrimination against women, and systemic due process failures. Since 2000, at least ten people have been sentenced to death; dozens have been sentenced to amputation; and floggings are a regular occurrence in many locations in the north. These issues were given world wide prominence through the highly publicized cases of two women, Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal, who were condemned by Shari’a courts to death by stoning for alleged adultery. Although the death sentences eventually were overturned, the cases highlighted how Shari’a could be used to justify flagrant human rights violations.

[17] Sara Maitland, “In Place of Enlightenment,” Index on Censorship, April 2004, p. 8.

[18] Vali NASR, “Religion and Global Affairs: Secular States and Religious Oppositions,” SAIS Review, Summer-Fall 1998. Volume XVIII, Number Two, The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The John Hopkins University, Washington, pp. 34-5.

[19] Asma Jahangir, “Human Rights in Pakistan: A System in the Making,” in S. Power and G. Allison, eds., Realizing Human Rights, pp. 168-9.

[20]Human Rights Watch, “CreatingEnemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan” New York: Human Rights Watch, 2004.

[21] Human Rights Watch, “Divorced from Justice: Women’s Unequal Access to Divorce in Egypt,” December 2004.

[22] Human Rights Watch, “‘Political Shari’a’?, Human Rights and Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria,” September 2004.  Human Rights Watch does not advocate for or against Shari’a per se, or any other system of religious belief or ideology, and takes no position on what constitutes “proper Shari’a.” 

[23] Human Rights Watch research in northern Nigeria also revealed patterns of fundamental human rights violations which are not peculiar to Shari’a but typify the human rights situation in Nigeria as a whole. For example, systematic torture by the police, prolonged detention without trial, corruption in the judiciary, political interference in the course of justice, and impunity for those responsible for abuses occur not only in the context of Shari’a cases, but are widespread in cases handled by the parallel common law system.

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