On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (UDHR), whose fiftieth anniversary was celebrated with much fanfare last month. In order to understand the nature and origins of that document, one must understand the world political situation at the time.
In 1948, the world was dominated by the US and the Soviet Union. The British and French empires were in turmoil and on the verge of collapse; Britain and France themselves were bankrupt. The Soviet Union, though seemingly strong on the ground, was exhausted, desperate for breathing space to rebuild its strength and to absorb its conquests.
There was a clear victor of the Second World War. The US had been the banker, major arms supplier, and the main carrier of world trade during the war, and had profited enormously as a result. While other countries’ territories were ravaged and their economies shattered, the US had escaped unscathed.
Now the entire world, except a handful of countries in the Soviet orbit, looked to the US to use its newly-acquired massive wealth to kick-start the global economy out of the disastrous post-war slump. American politicians and thinkers surveyed the world scene and saw the fulfilment of their destiny. Adolf Hitler had been wrong; White Americans were the true master race.
Seizing the moment, Americans set about the task of remaking the world in their own image. Taking their own history as the model, they decided to start with a new ‘Declaration of Independence’. The Americans decided the ‘lesser’ races of the world also had to be liberated from the baggage of culture, tradition, loyalty, orthodoxy, and even language. So the UDHR was formulated, distilling the essence of ‘truth, justice and the American way’. At the same time, US foreign policy, which had previously been fragmented and largely isolationist, gained its central imperative - promotion of the American way of life.
The UDHR, then, is a product of that peculiar, perversely non-conformist, almost messianic, maelstrom of Judeo-Chistianity that became the United States of America (and that led, in the process, to a determined bid to exterminate the Native Americans, and to the horrors of the enslavement and miserable death of untold millions of Africans). Yet that is not the whole story of the origins of the UDHR. There is another aspect, hinted at above: Darwinian, nihilistic materialism, the same philosophy that gave rise to the perversions of Marxism, Nazism and, in the mainstream of western philosophy, Nietzsche’s ‘death of God’ dogma.
Thus was White America convinced of its superiority. They alone were destined to rule, they were the chosen people, theirs was the true criterion of right and wrong. Thus it was that US foreign policy (and British foreign policy, which after the war became progressively subsumed into American foreign policy) became, and has continued to be, a simple exercise in cultural imperialism.
Its real principles are simple to deduce: anyone who embraces or at least pays lip service to, the UDHR, is to be supported with money, arms and all other material benefits; such are the new pioneers and settlers, braving privations and battling savages to expand the American dream, and therefore deserving of the Rights enshrined in the UDHR. Anyone who opposes the UDHR is to be attacked and eliminated, regardless of the merits of their case. Such do not deserve any Rights (‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’), or the largesse of the American people; such are the savages, the terrorists, the forces of evil.
In the absence of adherents to the UDHR, the doctrine to be followed is cynically Machiavellian - ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, thus ensuring that those who oppose the UDHR are always under attack.
Islam, on the other hand, is based on the supremacy of the law of Allah, rather than on the supremacy of the electorate; absolute principles of justice and equity, rather than on contingent morality and the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’; and on duty, altruism and generosity, rather than on self-seeking individualism, selfish interest and greed. As such, it is an inevitable challenge to the UDHR and the amoral processes by which it is promoted. Indeed, Islam can be the only challenge to the cultural imperialism of the United States, for only Muslims can invoke the ultimate authority of the Lord of the Universe (subhanahu wa ta’ala) and the eternal wisdom of the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Final Messenger, upon whom be peace.
America’s numerous attacks on Islam and Muslims, in every sphere of life, indicate that they recognise this challenge Islam poses to its hegemony, even though their reasoning would undoubtedly be different. The viciousness and brutality of their latest attack on Iraq - to take but one of many possible examples - is a clear indication of the limits of their commitment to the ‘principles’ laid down in the UDHR.
Several times in the past decades, attempts have been made to ‘Islamise’ the UDHR. The above discussion should make it clear why these attempts are misguided and futile. An instrument of imperialism and oppression, based on rejection of Allah, can never be converted into a tool for da’wah. As Muslims, we do not need to look beyond our own sources for the solutions to the world’s problems. Our tendency to try to use and adapt such western tools plays into our enemies’ hands, giving credibility and strength to their claims to represent universal values.
This tendency also reflects an inferiority complex among Muslims which sits ill with Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala’s commands: ‘Allah will bring a people whom He will love, and they will love Him; humble towards the believers, strong against the disbelievers, striving in the way of Allah, and never afraid of the blame of the critics. That is the blessing of Allah, which he bestows upon whom He wills.’ (Al-Qur’an 5:54). This complex needs to be overcome if the Ummah is to counter America’s hegemonic policies effectively.
The Islamic movement needs to develop and promote contemporary formulations of the principles of Islam in order to provide a meaningful alternative to such empty western shibboleths as the UDHR. These formulations must be based on the principles of the Qur’an and Sunnah, and given weight and credibility by their reflection in the day-to-day lives of Muslims and the policies and actions of the Islamic movement. This would then stand in stark contrast to the way in which the west’s ‘values’ are constantly undermined by the actions of their supposed proponents.
In place of the UDHR, for example, a document, based firmly on the Qur’an and Sunnah, summarising the rights and duties of human beings, at the individual, family, group, community and societal levels, and reflecting the collective and self-less ethos of Islam is needed. Such a document, when it appears, will, insha’Allah, be a valuable tool in turning the tide of American cultural imperialism. The Islamic Human Rights Commission is presently working to develop such a document. In the meantime, we pray to Allah to protect the Ummah from the lies, hypocrisy and aggression of the evil-doers.
[Abd-ar-rahmaan Glyn Sparkes is a member of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, London]
Muslimedia: January 1-15, 1999