There are so many challenges in today's world for all human beings, including Muslims, that there is no point in even attempting to summarize them. However, it is critical to remember that whatever challenges confront humanity, at the core of everything is the personhood of a human being. God created us as individuals that come to this world with an equal right to all individuals. We belong to different families, cultures and nations; but at the core we are creatures of God created with an equal right to existence, safety, tranquility, happiness, security, life and dignity. This is the core of human rights.
Of all the challenges that confront human beings in this world, when you distill everything down to its core, we are talking about the rights of human beings in this world. The issue could sound like it is about nations, sovereignty, geopolitics or economic world orders, but at the core is human rights. Human rights stripped to its basic meaning is that every individual that comes to this world needs to be safe, fed, housed, clothed, loved and nourished; free to create bonds, seek an education, feel dignified, honored, safe and secure. They need to be able to exist in prosperity and dignity. It is essential that we remember that. Muslims too often get lost in the jungles of ideology, doctrinal debates, technicalities and laws while losing sight of the fundamental principles that apply to God’s creation and the very notion that God dignified humanity.
The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, appointed a commission called the Commission on Unalienable Rights that is supposed to advise the State Department and the Trump administration on the subject of human rights in the modern age. It is too important for us not to recognize that the way that our government conducts itself, especially in foreign relations, when it comes to human rights is at the core of who we are as American citizens. Mary Ann Glendon, a well-known Harvard Law professor, was appointed as the chair of the commission. This appointment gives the commission a certain ideological bent as Glendon is well-known in the conservative movement as a legal scholar whose writings on human rights favors the American conception of human rights anchored in the biblical, Judeo-Christian tradition.
This commission is filled with human rights scholars from numerous universities, with the Muslim representation in this commission coming from Hamza Yusuf of Zaytuna. Muslim presence in the human rights field, since the advent of the colonial age, is as an errand boy, appointed the purpose of simple representation but not expected to engage in any meaningful way in the discourse about human rights. The fact that, in this commission, every member is already a published, recognized voice in the field of human rights, except for the Muslim voice, is problematic.
The Atlantic Magazine published an article titled, “The Problem With The 'Judeo-Christian Tradition,'” on this commission and the conclusion of its work. According to the article, the problem is that the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition has never existed; it was invented in the 20th century as a response to the conflict with the communist block and with national socialism and communism. There was never a Judeo-Christian civilization or tradition. The article claimed that the report is a fulfillment of an already biased project in which the Trump administration wanted to claim that the American human rights tradition is based in the Judeo-Christian tradition; that American human rights are Judeo-Christian. The article also claims that the objective of the Trump administration was an ideological project not about human rights at all, that the commission report basically privileges religious freedom.
The report talks about an American human rights tradition that is distinct from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as points of overlap between the international and the American human rights traditions. It talks about the true human rights tradition, but adds in the word, “American”. These rights are innate, God-given, based in natural law; separate from the rights that are a product of positive law or international treaties. Natural rights that are part of the natural order precede any contractual social rights that might be created. It states that civil and political rights are more fundamental than economic, cultural and social rights while conceding that all rights in theory are equal. In reality, the US must give priorities to certain rights, that it’s entirely justified for the United States in conducting its foreign policy to privilege certain rights over others. This report says that among the traditions that formed the American Spirit, three stand out: First, Protestant Christianity, widely practiced by the citizenry at the time, was infused with the beautiful biblical teaching that every human being is imbued with dignity and bears responsibilities towards fellow human beings, because each is made in the image of God. The civic republican ideal, rooted in classical Rome, stressed that freedom and equality under the law depend on an ethical citizenry that embraces the obligations of self-government. Classical liberalism put at the front and center of politics the moral premise that human beings are by nature free and equal, which strengthened the political conviction that legitimate government derives from the consent of the government.
Elsewhere, this report tells us that the American founders saw themselves as intellectual and political pioneers of religious liberty. It underscores the same idea by again saying that the American rights tradition is based on the biblical heritage. The idea that the Bible is at the core of the human rights tradition is a political ideological invention made by scholars who wish that the United States was a Christian nation rather than a secular nation one born out of a secular tradition. The idea that the human rights tradition was anchored in Roman civilization is a grotesque misrepresentation and twisting of history.
While the report says it's horrible that human rights were abused to perpetuate colonialism, all of that is lip service because in order to accept what this report offers, you have to accept that there is an American human rights tradition anchored in the Bible and Rome. The report advocating human rights is already biased in that it tells us that the entire human rights tradition, if it's based on natural law, would be a Christian thing. As non-Christians, we are accepting a biblical Roman tradition.
In this report, nothing is said about the Islamic tradition or even Catholic Christianity, biased in favor of Protestant Christianity. We are to believe that Muslim, Buddhist and Catholic civilizations did nothing - they are not even deserving of mention - it's all to the credit of Protestant Christianity and Judaism. Their claim is that the American human rights tradition is founded on the Bible. If you read the Bible, you'd realize that's an impossibility. If you knew the history of colonialism, you would know that the ideological trope in the colonization of the world was the Bible. The Bible was not used in the colonial project to defend the rights of the people, it was used to dominate, control and abuse people.
The report claims that the essential rights are the rights of The Declaration of Independence; the pursuit of happiness, liberty, equality before the law and religious freedom. What are the rights that are not so important? The rights to shelter, food, education and a job. They are laws recognized through new deal laws, but they are not constitutional rights. Therein lies the issue. Why privilege religious rights? In the Christian tradition, what religious rights amounted to was the right to evangelize the rest of the world. It was used by Christian fundamentalists to violate the separation of church and state in America and to evangelize among Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim cultures. While the US is not troubled by laws in foreign countries stopping Muslims from evangelizing for Islam in Europe, they are troubled by any law in Arab nations that restrict the right of Christians to evangelize worldwide.
This report claims it's okay for the US to focus on certain rights as a policy matter; it cannot serve all rights equally, so it’s acceptable to prioritize religious rights over others. This leaves us in a world in which the United States protects dictators with genocidal policies, in which the United States ignores the systematic human rights abuses committed by Israel, but defends the rights of American evangelists to christianize the world.
The report claims that the United States is just, fair and would defend fellow democracies. Is this a reference to Israel? “In today's interconnected world, the defense of freedom at home may require the United States to come to the aid of friends of freedom abroad in repelling the aggression of freedom's enemies.” Is this a human rights report or an ideological tract written by the Trump administration?
What's most important is for Christian evangelists to christianize the world. What’s the problem with this? They're not entitled to do so using American tax dollars, nor are they entitled until it’s done under the color of American authority. It's a violation of our constitution and also of human rights, but according to this report, it's acceptable. This is part of the colonial project. American evangelists don't appeal to reason, they exploit need. They go to those in need and say, "We will give you jobs. We will educate you, but accept Jesus." If they don’t accept Jesus, they get nothing. That is an exploitation of human rights, religion and America.
There is nothing in this report about American human rights violations in Iraq or Afghanistan; this Pompeo-backed report is fine with all of that. Some may argue that because this is a group of right-wing scholars, support of the Trump administration’s conception of the world was to be expected. Yes, but the problem is the Muslim voice. Either the Muslim representative, Hamza Yusuf is ideologically a right-winger, or he was put where he does not belong because he does not have the understanding of the complexities and history of the human rights tradition and its debates.
If there was a real Muslim voice, it would be dissenting in this report. A Muslim voice would bring attention to the gross human rights abuses in Muslim countries, the murder of hundreds of thousands of Muslims worldwide, the human rights abuses of Christian missionaries all over the world and that American power is used to Christianize the world in a colonial project. With a document like this, we should much rather not have a Muslim voice than a Muslim voice that backs an embarrassing conception of human rights like this. Our Muslim representative is a proud agent on behalf of the Emirates, one of the main human rights violators of the Arab world.
The Muslim tradition is full of moral examples. It is important to understand what value system, moral framework and vision of human dignity and human rights led, inspired and guided early Muslims to create one of the greatest civilizations of humankind. It was elementary for early Muslims that their cause demanded sacrifice. Without sacrifice, a cause is nonsense. The most important type of sacrifice requires relinquishing your attachment to materialism, luxuries and enjoyments. When we look at what early Muslims were willing to forego to uphold a principle, they were truly sacrificing the most fundamental things in life.
An example comes from a companion of the Prophet, Musa'ab ibn 'Umair. Musa’ab was raised in a wealthy Meccan family, accustomed to luxuries. Musa’ab was known among the most handsome, best dressed youth of Mecca. But when 'Umair heard the Prophet recite the Quran in Mecca, it captured his heart. He was thoroughly convinced that this was God's prophet and that Islam was God's message to humanity. With time, he came out about his love for Islam. When his family found out, they imprisoned and tortured him. He refused to leave the Islamic faith and would sit in his home prison reciting Quran and praying until his mother feared he would perish. Finally, she told him, "I'm letting you go, but if you follow Muhammad, I'm not your mother anymore." Musa'ab replied, "I have no choice. I know Islam is the truth,” and left to join the Prophet.
Musa'ab went from someone who was famous in Mecca for his wealth to one of the most sincere, honest servants of Islam who became famous in Madinah for his poverty. Musa'ab eventually died during a military campaign. At this point, he had absolutely nothing, so when they tried to find a cloth for his death shroud, he didn't even have a cloth big enough to cover his body, they had to get cloth from others to cover him. Truly a story from riches to rags, a person among the people who - in terms of contributions of Islam and the founding of the Islamic message - was core.
A similar story comes from Dhul Bijadayn, another Meccan youth that came from a wealthy family. When Dhul Bijadayn was about 16-years-old, he met a group of Muslim travelers who told him about the Prophet and read him some Quran. The minute he heard the Quran, he was enraptured. Every time Muslims would pass by where Dhul Bijadayn lived, he would meet them to listen to the Quran and memorize as much of it as he could. He would follow the Muslims about 10 kilometers out of Makkah just to listen to Quran from them.
He eventually converted, but fearing the reaction of his uncle, he hid his conversion. Eventually it came out that he's a Muslim and he asked his uncle to convert. His uncle refused and told Dhul Bijadayn, "If you remain a Muslim or leave to Madinah, I will disown you. Every bit of money that I've given you, I want back." Dhul Bijadayn insisted on being Muslim, so his uncle took away everything he gave him, including the clothes Dhul Bijadayn was wearing. Dhul Bijadayn went to his mother, who was also opposed to him being Muslim. The most she could do for him was that she brought a piece of cloth that she tore it into two pieces, which is why he became known as Dhul Bijadayn (“The man of two cloths”). Losing his family and wearing nothing but these two pieces of cloth, he traveled to Madinah.
In Madinah, he is in complete poverty. But Dhul Bijadayn was obsessed with prayer and the Quran. He memorized the entire Quran as it was being revealed and would spend so much time reciting the Quran in the masjid that he became known for his beautiful recitation. Whenever others would see him, he was either reciting Quran or doing something that the Prophet asked him to do. Even when he would go out to battle or trade, he would consistently pray and recite the Quran. On the way to the Battle of Tabuk, Dhul Bijadayn died of a plague. When the Prophet lowered him to his grave, the Prophet prayed for him and said, "I love him, so Allah please love him." This man lived from absolute luxury to absolute poverty. The cloth he was buried in was the only piece of clothing that he owned.
These are the people who established our religion. This is the level of sacrifice. There is no cause on earth that didn't take dedicated people willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of that cause. The hardest thing to sacrifice is money and time. The easiest shortcut is to end your life. May this ummah wake up and realize the type of commitment that guided our ancestors and allowed God’s barakat and aid to be with them.