On 27 August 2014, Hindu Human Rights was invited to participate in the three-day workshop entitled “Religion and Human Rights Compatibility, Conflict and Resolution”, at the Al-Mahdi Institute in Birmingham. Established in 1993 as a center for higher learning in Islam, the Al-Mahdi Institute contributes to Muslim religious scholarship and learning, with particular emphasis on the Twelver Imāmī (Ithnāʿasharī) tradition of Shia Islam, through engagement with both historical and contemporary discourses.
The Institute’s activities are marked by its non-dogmatic, open philosophy, coupled with an attention to scholarly rigour. For this reason the Al-Mahdi Institute has always been committed to ensuring that its research and educational activities reach beyond the scholarly circles of the Hawza’s, Madaris and universities, and as such seeks to allow for the expression of the human face of Islam. This has been achieved through maintaining an openness through which the education and research activities of the institute may come to be informed through the shared experience gained through bridges and networks with those who hold differing views.
It was in this vein that I was invited to contribute, with a presentation entitled “Religions, the Basis for Human Rights”, asking if religious beliefs enhanced or impeded human rights. In this I explored the sources and bases for human rights, looking at ancient codes such as that of Hammurabi, Ur-Nammu, the Cyrus Cylinder, ancient Athenian democracy and liberty in the Roman Empire. The foundation of modern western understanding rests upon the Magna Carta, Bill of Rights 1689, Virginia Bill of Rights 1779, and the Rights of Man as espoused by the French Revolution. But these same elements also gave us the very antithesis of freedom with the roots of totalitarianism arising out of the military state of Sparta, slavery in the ancient world, Roman Caesarism, and the degeneration of the French Revolution into the Terror.
But this leads us to ask what is religion? How do we define ‘religion’ and ‘culture’? Outside western paradigms and the Orientalist discourse created, this is not an easy question to answer. The Protestant Reformation and subsequent secular Enlightenment made religion text based.
Everything else was ‘culture’. But under the Romans, the Latin ‘religio’ originally meant an obligation to the gods, something expected by them from human beings or a matter of particular care or concern as related to the gods. It was not ‘faith’ but correct practice, with Mos Maiorum: “ancestral custom”[or “way of the elders,” plural mores, the unwritten code from which the ancient Romans derived their social norms. Religion was therefore synonymous with custom and therefore culture. Looked at in this way even secular ideologies such as atheism appear religious due to their inflexible dogmatism. It was here that concepts of Dharma and Rta were introduced, to emphasise correct conduct in harmony with the cosmic order.
My presentation followed that of Ayatollah Professor Seyed Muhaqiq Damad of Shahid Beheshti University in Iran who spoke on “Religion and Human Rights between Theo-centralism and Human-centralism.” He is one of the very few religious scholars in Iran to have been educated in international law in the West and completed a PhD (Doctorat en Droit) at the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve. Ayatollah Damad received traditional Shia Islamic education at the Fayzieh School at Qum in Iran and became a Mutjahid (Ayatollah) in 1970.
The Al-Mahdi Institute arranged and managed the three-day event in a professional manner and provided an incredible opportunity to be in the heart of work between different religions, ideas, communities and cultures. This was facilitated by the fact that after each presentation, with time strictly adhered to, there was an opportunity to ask questions and freely probe further.
The spheres for doing this today are actually limited due to everything being reduced to the lowest common denominator of sound bites and spin. It was indeed refreshing to be part of something which actually looked at contemporary solutions and tried to find methods of finding solutions to those very same issues which we face today. The Al-Mahdi Institute should be immensely proud of the efforts it has made toward these aforementioned efforts and HHR is very much obliged for being able to be part of this process.
The experience at the Al-Mahdi Institute was enhanced on a personal level by meeting four students of the MTO Shahmaghsoudi, the school of Islamic Sufism founded 1400 years ago and rooted in Shia Islam, who are also part of Sufi Rights. This group was formed due to the abuse of their sacred imagery by Italian designer Roberto Cavalli.
Because HHR had spearheaded the campaign a decade ago when Cavalli had abused sacred imagery by putting Hindu goddesses onto underwear, as an organisation we felt privileged that a Sufi school of thought teaching tolerance and acceptance would approach us, a Hindu organisation, to help. Because HHR was established to highlight the persecution and marginalisation of those communities which were continually denied a voice, we have also felt immensely proud to have been of help to the #TakeOffJustLogo campaign by Sufi students. These four young people had specially made the journey from London to meet with HHR in person which once again shows that events do not just happen by themselves, but are made with direction and effort in achieving success at what can look like insurmountable odds.
It was a privilege to be in the company of such distinguished scholars and activists. These included the following:
· Jose Luis Llaquet de Entrambasaguas (University of Loyola Andalucia) who has studied Catholic Canon Law, Spiritual Theology, Ecclesiastical Studies and Philosophy, and spoke on “Religious duties and human rights a meeting point?”
· Anicee Van England (SOAS, University of London) who is fluent in French and Persian, sits on the advisory board of the Irmgard Coninx Foundation in Berlin and is associate editor for the Muslim World Journal of Human Rights. Van England has also worked for several NGOs including UNHCR, as well as the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She spoke on “International Law, International Human Rights & Religion”.
· Daniele Bolazzi (Kings College London) is currently doing his PhD at Kings College and has worked on civil rights research in Egypt. He spoke on “Defining Religious Diversity: the beurocratization of religious identity in Egypt.”
· Professor Jose Ferrer Sanchez ( Granada University ) spoke on “Dialogue and Mediation for the right to Religious Freedom” and is an executive member of a UNESCO programme in Andalucia, Spain. Sanchez also carries out humanitarian projects for refugees from the former Spanish African colony of Western Sahara, and served as Judge of Peace from 2008 to 2012.
· Islam Uddin is currently working on his PhD at Middlesex University on Islamic Law, and spoke on “The Muslim wife in Britain: In pursuit of Divorce in a multicultural society, in light of Human Rights.” Mr. Uddin teaches at a private Islamic institute in London and delivers lectures and talks to mosques, colleges, universities and community organisations.
· Maria Dimova-Cookson is director for the Centre for the History of Political Thought at Durham University, focusing on theories of liberty, multiculturalism and human rights. Dr. Dimova-Cookson spoke on “Why is religion at the heart of modern liberty? Benjamin Constant on religious experience, the power of the clergy and the ‘vivid love of individual independence’.
· Mark Juergensmeyer spoke on “Hindu and Buddhist Challenges to Human Rights in South and Southeast Asia” and is director of the Orfalea Centre for Global and International Studies as well as being professor of sociology, and affiliate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Professor Juergensmeyer taught at the University of Punjab in India and is the holder of many awards and fellowships, notably the Harry Guggenheim Foundation.
· Dr Kishan Manocha has trained both in medicine and law. As well as being a criminal barrister, he is also a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has served as General Secretary of the Baha’i national governing council and director of the Baha’i community of public affairs, as well as being involved in interfaith work and human rights work. This has included Vice Chair of the Interfaith Network in the UK, Vice Chair of Faiths Forum in London, and Chair of the International Association for Religious Freedom. Manocha spoke on “Principles and processes that facilitate the realisation of the freedom to believe in the individual lives of Bahá’ís”.
· Dr Giovanni Patriarca of the Italian Cultural Institution in Nuremberg has received the Noval Award from the Action Institute in Michigan, the Diploma in islamic Studies at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic studies, and has written papers ins several languages. Dr Patriarca spoke on “Back to Essentials: Rediscovering Human Nature. An Existential and Spiritual Dialogue”.
· Dr Susannah Cornwall spoke on “Bodily Rights and Gifts: Intersex, religion and Human Rights.” She is Advanced research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter and director of EXCEPT (Exeter Centre for Ethics and Practical Theology).
· David Van Dusen is doctoral fellow of the De Wulf-Mansion centre at the University of Leuven in Belgium, and spoke on “A Crime against Human Nature: Revisiting Immanuel Kant’s Argument against Religiously closed Constitutions.”
· Dr Ahmed Shaheed, Visiting Professor of Human Rights at University of Exeter spoke on the application of international human rights law in the Maldives. His experience has actually been as Foreign Minister for this republic, and while in government of this island state Dr Shaheed helped transition it into a democracy. This earned him the Muslim Democrat of the Year Award from the Centre of Islam and Democracy in Washington in 2009, and in the following year the ‘Medal of Gratitude’ from Albania for his efforts at promoting peace and human rights in the Balkans. In 2011 the UN Human Rights Council appointed Dr Shaheed to the officer of Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran.
· Professor Seyed S.M Ghari Fatemi of the Al-Mahdi Institute spoke on “Moralists-Realists divides on modern state and human rights: An Islamic virtue-mystical observation”. Dr Fatemi studied in the seminaries of Qum in Iran, and also read law at Tehran University. In 1999 he was awarded a PhD in Law from the University of Manchester with research on human rights.
· Professor Abdul Aziz Sachedina is Endowed IIIT Chair in Islamic Studies at the George Mason University in Virginia) gave his talk on “Can Islam become a legitimating source for the cultural legitimacy of the UDHR”.
· Medical student Calum Miller writes for the Huffington Post on religion and researches science and ethics, at the University of Oxford. He delivered his talk on “Whence Human Rights? Some moral evidence for theism”.
· Shaykh Arif Abdul Hussain gave his talk on “The Relationship between religion and human rights in light of existentialism”. He is the director and founder of the Al-Mahdi Institute, where he lectures in al-fiqu and Islamic philosophy. Having studied at the Madrassah Syed Al-Khoei in London, he also studied in Qum between 1989 and 1993.
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