Strengthening connections between human rights leaders and faith leaders

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Strengthening connections between human rights leaders and faith leaders

Below is a list of questions to serve as a starting framework for the discussion in this thread:

  • What role can faith or faith leaders play in advancing human rights or engaging in human rights advocacy?
  • How can faith help mitigate the seeming tensions between cultural relativism and the universality of human rights?
  • How can faith leaders use their positions in their communities to promote human rights issues?
  • What are some strategies to combat oppression of marginalized groups within your own faith?
  • Share stories of success
Strengthening Connections between Human Rights Leaders and Faith

There is a disconnect between human rights defenders and faith leaders. First we need to inittiate a training and awareness program for faith leaders on the right based approach so that they understand what human rights defenders do and what are the issues they deal with. Most faith organizations and leaders are ignorant of the work of human rights defenders, so there is need to take religious leaders through an awareness campaign on the work of human rights defenders and what it entails. Training them also on the right based approach to their spiritual work is also necessary and to show how religion is related to human rights. For instance in Islam it states that "no one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself" While Judaism states that " what is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man and christianity it states that " do unto others as you have them do unto you". Therefore we must able to create awareness among religious leaders that human rights are natural rights and are GOD given.

Exploring the nexus between religion and human rights

Are human rights compatible with religion? And is religion compatible with human rights? In answering these oft-posed questions, some point to what they consider to be irreconcilable differences between the values and principles of the two meaning systems, arguing for their inherent incompatibility. Others argue that human rights do in fact have religious roots, and that religious traditions and texts can be read as justification of principles of liberty, equality and pluralism, facilitating their compatibility with modern human rights. When we talk about human rights and religion, I think it is crucial to focus on the empirical aspects of this relationship, exploring the ways in which concrete religious actors understand, approach and apply human rights in their daily life. While much current literature on religion and human rights, whether sceptical or enthusiastic about the potential for compatibility, provides valuable insights into especially legal, theological and historical aspects of the nexus between religion and human rights, it remains largely theoretical, focusing on religious texts and traditions and seeking broad generalizations about the relationship of these to human rights (Banchoff and Wuthnow 2011:10; An-Na’im and Abdel Halim 2006:7). Similarly, it tends to approach human rights as a fixed legal discourse rather than as shifting, contested social claims of actual individuals and institutions. As such, there is an explicit lack of focus on how concrete religious actors engage with specific human rights discourses, how they approach, adopt, and challenge these discourses, and not least on how they, in so doing, contribute to redefining human rights. To paraphrase Wilson (2006:77), what is the religious life of human rights? How do human rights travel through, and within, the worlds of religious actors? How do they shape the discourses and practices of these actors? And how are they in turn shaped by the values, traditions, structures and relations of these actors? In an upcoming paper, Brenda Bartelink from Groeningen University and I try to outline 4-5 common positions on human rights among contemporary faith-based organisations, focusing primarily on organisations involved in development and humanitarian aid. In this field, human rights have become a dominant normative framework, often in the form of the so-called ‘rights-based approach,’ and religious NGOs are, to differing degrees and in different ways, seeking to integrate their religious identity, values, motivations, and practices with a rights-based approach, while at the same time having to respond to local perceptions of human rights as ‘elitist’, ‘western’ and ‘secularist’. Bringing development and humanitarian aid into the study of religion and human rights is a way of contributing to a more practice-oriented, empirical analysis of the nexus between the two, directing attention to the ambiguities, contradictions and multiple realities of religious actors and their human rights practices (Hilhorst and Jansen 2012:893). In turn, the focus on religion and human rights can also contribute valuably to the study of development and humanitarian aid, broadening the analysis of rights-based approaches and contributing to conceptualising their strengths and limitations (see also Tomalin 2006). We argue that faith-based organizations’ approaches to human rights differ widely, ranging from a lack of engagement and rejection over partial accept and pragmatic reforms to explicit alignment and integration. Our basic overview demonstrates the banal, but nonetheless important, point that there is not one but many different ways to interpret human rights among religious development organisations. Religious approaches to human rights cannot be understood in simple contradiction to secular approaches. Similarly, these differences are not easily understood or explained in terms of theological differences. Muslim and Christian organisations can be found all across the continuum.

Human rights and religion

The basic principles of human rights come directly from many of our religious commitments, especially from the belief in the ultimate dignity of the human being. In Judaism, we speak of human beings as created "in the image of God"--meaning that an injury to any human being is an injury to God. As creations in the divine image, human beings also are imbued with certain divine powers and responsibilities--including the care of other human beings. In particular, many of our religious traditions insist on the just treatment of every human being--no matter how downtrodden, no matter how different from us, and no matter what that person might have done. 

Religious leaders can play a crucial role in teaching about these connections, and about helping to take human rights out of the dry language of international politics, and to put it in the language of morality and immediacy. 

What role can faith or faith
  • What role can faith or faith leaders play in advancing human rights or engaging in human rights advocacy?  Apply the contemporary issues to the religious text during discussions, sermons. This shows how your faith is still a living tradition.  
  • How can faith leaders use their positions in their communities to promote human rights issues? Talk with parishioners, congregants to see if they're interested in volunteering for a cause and reach out to that cause to let them know you have a base that would like to help. 
  • What are some strategies to combat oppression of marginalized groups within your own faith? The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community faces persecution around the world by other Muslims.  Despite that, we still progress and are in over 200 nations guided by a single leader, His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the Khalifa of Islam.  Through this guidance, we were able to form the first Muslim caucus in the House of Representatives, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Caucus, which is dedicated to preserving religion freedom around the world.  Rather than playing a role as a victim, we are playing the role of guardian.
Personal experience and observations?

I'm interested in hearing your lived experience. Would you be willing to share times when you saw a local faith leader positively promoting human rights? And when have you seen a local faith leader working against human rights? What personal stories are we willing to share, and what insights can be gleaned from these personal stories? (For this particular thread, I'm seeking stories that are concrete and here rather than abstract or "over there". Thanks for any experiences you're open to sharing.)

Local faith leaders promoting human rights

We see this all the time! T'ruah has a network of nearly 2000 rabbis who are committed to promoting human rights. Approximately 200 of these rabbis celebrate Human Rights Shabbat in their synagogues--that means devoting the sermon and often some teaching time to speaking/teaching about human rights from a Jewish perspective. Several hundred rabbis recently came together to call on both the U.S. and Israel to cease any support for the Burmese military, in light of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people (a situation eerily familiar to Jews). Rabbis have gotten arrested protesting the Muslim Ban/Refugee Ban, have made their synagogues into sanctuaries for undocumented people, and have spoken publicly about U.S. sponsored torture. 

Thank you for your efforts! 

Thank you for your efforts!  Likewise, when Jewish cemeteries were attacked earlier this year, my Muslim brothers and I went to the cemeteries to offer our condolences and offered to stand guard.  Living and resting in peace are just two of our many, many common goals.

Related book, more or less.

Along these lines, I really appreciated the book Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice (Edited by Rabbi Or N. Rose, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, and Margie Klein).

Hi Jeff,

Hi Jeff,

Here's a video of our Khalifa, His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, speaking at Capitol Hill in 2012 about the path to peace and just relations between nations.  His Holiness Ahmad has traveled the world talking about establishing justice on every level of society as being the path to peace.  He also preaches to his congregation spread in 210 nations weekly about our duties of service to mankind, being kind to each other, and practicing a love for all and hatred for none.


Thanks for sharing the video. I'll check it out. And your brief description sounds moving -- so important. Peace

Using language suitable to the context and people you work with

In our research and practice, we have found that while there are often shared values and approaches across different religions and cultures, these aren't always expressed in the same language. Research we conducted in Indonesia on 'religious freedom', for example, found that this term could be very divisive in the Indonesian context, but that did not mean that people did not support the right to freely practice your religion, they just phrased it differently. It's important to be conscious of the language people use to talk about these issues and that it might not always be the same as our own. That doesn't mean, though, that there aren't lots of points of commonality and shared values. 

Do others have any experiences like this? Would be great to hear them!

That language context is

That language context is interesting! Can you expand on why 'religious freedom' was divisive?  

This is the section from our

This is the section from our report where we talk about it:

''The language around FoRB is especially sensitive with regard to freedom, which many take issue with since religion is less a matter of choice than one of collective and individual identity, and pluralism, which is often understood as a blending of different religions", blurring of theologies 

The report was for a development agency, and not made public, so I need to check with them before sharing it, but this insight was drawn from participant observation and semi-structured interviews with people working for human rights organisations and local community members in Indonesia. Rather than 'religious freedom', organisations would speak of tolerance, diversity and difference. Of course, these terms can be equally problematic, which is why the context and the local language is so important. Words also translate imperfectly from one language into another.

Thank you for bringing this

Thank you for bringing this up! It's good to be reminded that miscommunications can create the appearance of divisions where there are none, especially across cultural and linguistic divides. Even concepts that we would think are pretty self-explanatory, like "religious freedom," are susceptible to different connotations and contextual baggage, given the right situation -- and if we're not on the lookout for this kind of confusion, then we might miss them entirely.

Does anybody know of additional, publicly available resources to help navigate situations like this?

Absolutely fascinating! I

Absolutely fascinating! I appreciate you sharing that snippet. If you receive permission to share it, I'd love to check it out.

The importance of language: Women's rights

The importance of language is something I recognise from my research on Muslim faith-based organisations. In a recent study I did on gender equality and women’s rights in international Muslim NGOs, I found that many people would prefer a different language from that used by secular human rights and development NGOs, because this language was often seen to be alienating rather than empowering people. As one person noted: “If we come straight-away and say ’we are here to empower you because you are a woman, you are oppressed, we have women’s rights’, we will not be allowed to go into the village, we will not be able to do any good.” Another person said: “We can’t use a slogan that is considered Western. In Pakistan particularly, there are many different NGOs that are liberal, secular, they say women are equal to men. That is considered by some sections of community as Westernised, people think they are getting paid by the West, that they are furthering Western interests.”

Some of the organisations I have talked to make great efforts to introduce new ways of talking about these issues, ‘translating’ mainstream development and human rights discourses into something that resonates better with the populations they work with. As noted in Islamic Relief’s Gender Justice Policy: “We chose the term gender justice because it encapsulates both equity and equality. Within many Muslim communities, the use of the word ‘equality’ often lends itself to controversy because it is perceived as promoting sameness between the genders. It is also associated with certain forms of secular feminism that might see religion as oppressive and/or regressive. In this context the word ‘equality’ is sometimes seen as threatening to the principles underlying Islamic gender relations, which do not promote sameness between the genders but rather focus on balanced partnership and symbiosis between them. In some circles, this has created a preference for the word equity.”

Faith Leaders Can use their Position to Enhance Human Rights

Faith leaders can be a conduit towards strengthening human rights in their communities and followers. As we know most faith leaders have a large following and are sometimes considered as role models in their communities. Then there is need to take human rights to the pulpit by educating and passing on knowledge on human rights to faith leaders. This will enable faith leaders treat their followers with dignity and respect and the human rights knowledge will be inculcated in societies. It will also generate a society that is anchored on equality and human rights for all.

Faith leaders can be a conduit to Pass Human Rights Knowledge

Faith leaders can be a conduit towards passing and strengthening human rights knowledge to their communities and flock/followers. As we know most faith leaders have a large following and are considered as role models and perfect persons in their communities. Then there is need to take human rights to the pulpit by educating and passing on knowledge on human rights to faith and spirital leaders. We could also use some scriptures from the bible, Quran and Taurat etc which specifically speak about the creation of human beings as higher beings who derserve dignity and equal treatment. This will enable faith leaders treat their followers with dignity and respect and the human rights knowledge will be inculcated in societies. It will also generate a society that is anchored on equality and human rights for all.

The OHCHR Faith for Rights initiative

As many of you probably know, the OHCHR recently spearheaded a new initiative, Faith for Rights, seeking to encourage greater reflection on the nexus between religion and human rights. Does any of you know more about this initiative? WHo is involved? Are there any plans to take it further or will it remain yet another declaration?

We can strengthen connections

We can strengthen connections between human rights defenders and faith leaders by focusing on common ground and teaching the dignity of difference.

I would strongly recommend reading the works of activists such as Lord Jonathan Sacks' The Dignity of Difference,  HRH Prince Hassan of Jordan's To be a Muslim, Professor Akbar Ahmed's The Thistle and the Drone.

Thanks for sharing the

Thanks for sharing the resources. Sometimes it's embarrassing how many important books I've never heard of. :)

Strengthening connections between human rights leaders and faith

Faith leadwes inspire their followers and to some extent instill the faer of God in them. Enhanced connections will create platforms for both  leaders to connect with violators of human rights to foster partnerships for indpth understanding of human rights and violations

"Strengthening connections

"Strengthening connections between human rights leaders and faith leaders." I keep thinking about this heading.

It seems to presume "human rights leaders" are secular or non-religious and "faith leaders" are a separate group who are religious but not active human rights leaders. But many faith leaders are in fact human rights leaders, as we all know. Nothing new there.

Regardless, if we do make two generalized camps -- non-religious supporters of human rights & leaders of faith communities -- then I ask myself a few questions. In what ways might human rights leaders benefit from connecting with faith leaders, and in what ways would faith leaders benefit from connecting with human rights activists? What is in it for each of them? Perhaps one obstacle to connecting is that they don't always have a clear vision of what would be gained or how it would support their respective missions. [I have opinions about what they would gain, but I'm saying they might not always have that same understanding or awareness.]

Then thinking specifically of faith leaders, I think they would need to have some motivation from within their faith itself as to why they should (a) value human rights, (b) work to promote human rights, and (c) partner with people and organizations of other faiths or no faith in promoting those human rights. That's a long chain of logic to work out. Most of my books are packed in boxes right now, so I can't quote this line, but one book on peacemakers in various religions described how they all had found a way to interpret their faith with a peace lens or hermeneutic. I thought it was a book edited by Scott Appleby, but I'm not seeing it in his bibliography [I can't remember the name of it right now; pretty sure the cover is blue ;) ]. So the first stop is to promote peace within one's own faith and encourage leaders to see the themes of peace, justice, and compassion in their own faith tradition, if they are not already seeing it (I speak for Adventist and Christian circles when I say that these are not universally held as being of utmost importance; just to state the obvious.). 

So a clear motivation (or compelling logic) to promote these values and to partner with others would be an important foundation, it seems to me. So how can we best promote this in faith communities that have many other interests and commitments? For us lay people, how can we promote a certain humanitarian/human rights hermeneutic to those in leadership in our faith communities? That is, how does a lay person train a pastor/minister?

To this end, here are two short books on human rights for Christians and then three on action/advocacy:

  • Faith and Human Rights: Christianity and the Global Struggle for Human Dignity (Amesbury & Newlands, 2008)
  • Crowned with Glory and Honor: Human Rights in the Biblical Tradition (Marshall, 2001)

For Christians who want to do more advocacy but aren't sure how to go about it, I recommend these first three books, and I've heard good things about the fourth:

  • Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World (Rev. Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel; 2014)
  • Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing, 2nd Edition (Dennis A. Jacobsen and Bill Wylie Kellermann; 2017)
  • Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice (Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, S.J.; 2001)
  • Faith in Action: A Handbook for Activists, Advocates, and Allies (2017)

 In christianity, the husband is unarguably the head of the family and the wife is expected to submit to the authority of the husband. This Bible precept is the cornerstone of sound christian marriage which is anchored on the submissiveness of the woman not because she is a weaker vessel but rather, it is an obedience to  stated concept. From the standpoint of human rights, this may sound irreconcilable based on human rights treaties affecting the rights of women. Faith leaders will consider abviously human rights concerns in this regard contentious.