Column – UDHR at 60 by Yemi Johnson

  • post Type / Young Humanists International
  • Date / 1 December 2008

UDHR at 60: Human Rights and the Imperativeness of Secularism

Let me commence this piece by congratulating every human rights activist, and of course humanists, on the surface of the planet earth for their doggedness in the promotion of the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed on December 10, 1948. You can all bet that the road has not been easy. One, most governments, even the so-called world leading countries, have only paid glowing lip service to the ideals of the document; two, enforcement across border has been made cumbersome by some international treaties; three, many leaders do not consider it their responsibilities to ensure the enforcement and protection of the tenets of the document. But despite all these, we could still roll out the drums for the core of the document’s tenets has found its way into many national and international constitutions and many lives have been saved with the document. These, indeed, call for a great celebration; at least they gave us something to cheer.  So, hurray!!!  

Outside of these, however, and like I opined earlier, there are some grey areas that needed to be lightened. One of such areas is the link, nay the relationship, between human rights and secularism, and how the rejection of the latter has made the realization of human rights ideals unachievable. The main question behind this is: whether human rights can survive in a religious or non-secular state, where humans are chained to or coloured in one faith, on one hand, while being discriminated based on gender and belief, on the other? But first, let’s explain the two concepts: human rights and secularism. 

Human rights are entitlements inherent in individuals as free willing creatures; they refer principally to human dignity, to unblemished individual autonomy which all humans, by virtue of their humanity, can confidently lay claim to. Although not uniquely a concept of the twentieth century, having antecedents in the likes of King Alfonso’s 1188 declaration, King Andrew II of Hungary Proclamation 1222, among others, the concept was, however, made most popular by the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights charter by 48 United Nations member states out of 58 on 10 December, 1948. The UDHR is different because it consists of texts and instruments put forward by men and women from different countries, of different colours and beliefs, at a moment in the history of humanity when injustices and inhumanity thrives like air. The signing into force of the UDHR changed the definition of human rights to mean ‘international moral and legal norms that aspire to protect all people everywhere from several political, legal, religious and social abuses’. It essentially means a set of tenets intended to guide the relationship between individuals and the state, the freedoms that the individuals enjoy and their claims on the state, especially with regard to the provision of the basic needs of life. The above explains the intricacies that made the articles of the Charter to be akin to a spider web, intrinsically linked one to another, to the extent that a violation of one means a gross damage to the other; hence the need to wholly protect the document. 

Secularism, on the other hand, can be defined as indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion, or religious considerations from public life. What is inferable from this is that secularism involves more than one attitude on the parts of its subject, whether person or state or society. This might mean lack of concern for and about religious matters, or outright rejection of religions. In the words of Wilfred M. McClay, there are two versions of secularism, namely, soft and hard secularism. While Soft Secularism can be defined as a political and social order in which no particular religious, or irreligious, outlook is established, and in which the expressive and associative liberty of believers and non-believers alike is protected and secured in law and public policy; Hard Secularism, on the other hand refers to an order in which religious expression is rigorously banished from public life and in which proscription of all but the most private expressions of religion becomes codified in law and enshrined in public policy.  

The underpinning need for secularism is based on three pillars of rights: namely, the freedom of conscience, the need to respect individual autonomy and the equality of all humans. These are likewise the ground norms of human rights that most non-secular states cannot but violate unceasingly. These three, upon close examination will also be discovered to be quintessential to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that we are celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. In other words, once one is deprived of these three basic pillars of rights, then the very essence of one’s humanity, nay the possibility of claiming one’s human entitlements, is challenged, dashed or quashed. For how can one, for instance, lay claim to right to life when one is considered an unequal human being based on gender or belief (discriminations)? And how can one be free to move when one’s autonomy and ratiocinating ability as a human is challenged? These three pillars are therefore the crossroads that links secularism and human rights. 

One can then say that that meeting point and the need to ensure its effective management has been, is, and might continue to be, the headache of many of us who are humanists. This concern was first globally raised in the Summer 1992 edition of Free Inquiry and re-echoed in the October/November 2005 edition of the same magazine under the headlines ‘Will Secularism Survive?’ and ‘Secularism: Will it Survive?’ respectively. Our concern, as humanists, is based on the continued rise of Christian activism and Islamic fundamentalism that are daily shrinking the global political, social and cultural space. The fatwa issued on a Nigerian, Daniel Isioma, for desecrating the holy prophet, the same issued in the wake of the Danish Cartoon saga, and the continued annoying hypocritical behaviour of the Christian conservatives on issues that affects children and women lives, such as abortion, cannot but bother many humanists.  

Also very worrisome is the continued intrusion of Shari’ah, Islamic, legal code into the public space and most importantly the continued rejection of the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in many modern Islamic states such as Iran, Iraq, Sudan, etc. In the words of Ismail R.  Al Faruqi, a Professor of Islamics, Temple University, Philadephia, 

…muslims believe in human rights but their bill of human rights is  not one composed by a committee of scholars and leaders, resolved and promulgated by a government or or a representative assembly. Rather, they believe in a bill of human rights which is eternal and whose author is Alla- Subhanah wa Ta’ala (SWT)

This is despite the inadequacies of these Shari’ah based ‘bill of human rights’ noted by Prof. Abdulahi Ahmed An-Naim (quoting one Khadduri) that, 

Human rights in Islam as prescribed by the divine law (Shari’ah) are the privilege only of persons of full legal capacity. (And) a person with full legal capacity is a living human being of mature age, free, of Moslem faith. 

What is deducible from Abdulahi’s statement is the fact that the Shari’ah document does not make provision for the protection of the rights of all, most especially women and non-Muslims (see Qur 4 vs. 34, and the rights of Dihimma, for examples). 

Also disturbing is the continued Christian backed killing and maiming of children suspected of being witches in Nigeria of 2008, a very pathetic case study which has made the need for continued humanists’ concern for secularism and human rights an imperative.  

In order to arrest some of these nauseating conditions, most of us, humanists, have been campaigning for outright abandonment of religion, nay for a state that is totally disinterested in religious affairs of the citizens but that which is focused on their welfare. This to me is hard secularism. As for me, I think there is need for us to try routing for soft secularism, at least for a change; for as it offers a viable alternative based on the three essential points that it is likely to constructively underscore, namely:

  1. Neutrality: which will enable the state to seek to be neutral between institutionalized religions without being indifferent to the religious life and activities of its citizens, and be able to come hard on any without fear or favour;
  2. Plurality: protection of the plural nature of the state and not degenerating to segregating them into groups for the sake of seeking a sense of belonging, which makes fundamentalist attack and easy alliance to be formed (the Egyptian Brotherhood Party that nearly dominate the Egyptian Parliament, is a very important example here);
  3. Tolerance: this means that we allow other belief to thrive side by side, schooling the citizenry in this will guarantee the spirit of tolerance that values the belief of others.

The main point here is that as we, rights activists and humanists, celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we must not lose focus of the fact that a lot is still being expected of us in the world, most especially the need to intensify efforts at promoting a global social order in which no particular religious, or irreligious, outlook is established, and in which the expressive and associative liberty of believers and non-believers alike is protected and secured in law and public policy, this, in fairness to the ideal of humanism, is the only sure way of securing human rights for the sake of generations yet unborn. 

Yemi Ademowo Johnson, socio-political philosopher and applied anthropologist, is former Secretary General of IHEYO, Belgium, and National Coordinator, Young Humanistas Network, Nigeria. Yemi, co-author of Humanism, Ethics and Africa, is also a Columnist with the HEF Magazine Fritanke.

© 2008 

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