Any mention of “˜sharia” is now outlawed at the UNHRC. More reflections by David G. Littman:
“Here’s the smell of blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia
will not sweeten this little hand.” – Lady Macbeth
[nor oil from Arabia and the Persian Gulf]
A day after our July 7 report on the UNCHR, “Sharia: What’s in a name?,” Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Terre des Hommes and 20 other NGOs — backed by Iran’s Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi — spoke out against the Iranian policy of executing juvenile offenders under 18. It was pointed out that Iran is a signatory of both the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, “both of which prohibit the execution of persons under the age of 18 at the time of their offence.” A detailed list of 138 child offenders on death row in Iran, including five girls was provided — although the true numbers are said to be very much higher.
The Reuters report (UN, Geneva) also stated a known fact — that “murder, adultery, rape, armed robbery, apostasy and drug trafficking are all punishable by death under Iran’s sharia law, practised since the 1979 Islamic revolution”. The same sharia law applies in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and other countries where, as in Iran, girls can be married off as early as 9 years old by their fathers. In Saudi Arabia, clandestine forms of slavery are tolerated on a large scale, as described in a recent New York Times article [“Saudi Arabia: Workers Abuse Cited” by Peter Gelling, July 9]. Sudan is just as bad.
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This month the Zurich and Washington-based NGO Christian Solidarity International (CSI), led by dedicated activists Dr. John Eibner and Gunnar Wiebalck, facilitated the liberation of 102 Southern Sudanese slaves — Christian and others. This was in addition to the tens of thousands (women and children) freed by CSI since 1995.
The constant denunciation by CSI of the Sudanese regime’s grave human rights violations in the 1990s, particularly its jihadic slavery practises, led to a travesty at the Commission on Human Rights in 1999, after which CSI — on a simple procedural error — lost its accreditation to the United Nations on the initiative of the Sudan.
Five years earlier, Sudan’s ambassador circulated a letter at the UNCHR accusing the UN Special Rapporteur on Sudan, Gaspar Biro, of making a “vicious attack on the religion of Islam”. He alleged that the report “contained abusive, inconsiderate, blasphemous and offensive remarks about the Islamic faith”. In another tract titled, “Attack on Islam” — also distributed at the CHR — it was claimed that portions of the report “represent a vicious attack on the religion of Islam.” In fact, the report merely indicated inconsistencies between the international human rights Conventions (to which Sudan had been a signatory party since 1986) and some provisions of Sudan’s Criminal Act of 1991 that follow the sharia law. In 1994, Sudan failed to impose the charge of “blasphemy”; this was later achieved by the OIC in 1997 on another theme.
CSI”s ouster was a result of another scandalous landmark “affair”. The late Dr. John Garang — the charismatic leader of the Sudan Peoples” Liberation Movement (SPLM) and head of the Sudan Peoples” Liberation Army (SPLA), the southern mostly Christian rebel force fighting the government of Sudan and its sharia law since 1983 — appeared dramatically at the UNCHR on March 23, 1999 after we had introduced him to Mary Robinson the previous day. He was prevented from speaking for CSI by the Sudanese delegation before he could reach the second sentence in his statement describing “the genocidal character of the war waged by the present regime in Khartoum.” Sudan’s representative raised a point of order claiming that “the statement being made by the representative of CSI was not germane to the agenda item”. Here are the exact words which Garang had spoken at his press conference the previous day, widely circulated to the media and the CHR:
In 1992 the regime in Khartoum declared jihad against the people of southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Since then jihad has been declared again and again. I ask this very important question: is the jihad a religious right of those who declare and wage it, or is it a violation of the human rights of the people against whom it is declared and waged?
The very next day, a detailed letter was sent by the former Sudanese Prime Minister Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi — ousted in 1989 by Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s coup d”Ã©tat — to the High Commissioner. In this widely circulated letter to the CHR he referred to jihad and slavery in Sudan; under the heading “War Crimes,” he asked — as a 5th question:
Is it legitimate for the ruling regime in an Islamic State to call for a JIHAD against its citizens, be they Muslims or Christians?
He concluded by affirming that, although no one would justify slavery today, under the sharia “the traditional concept of JIHAD does allow slavery as a by-product.”
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As a young journalist at the end of the 19th century, Winston Churchill described the situation in an Arab slave market in Sudan. Over 100 years later, little has changed.
The stronger race soon began to prey upon the simple aboriginals; some of the Arab tribes were camel-breeders; some were goat-herds; some were Baggaras or cow-herds. But all, without exception, were hunters of men. To the great slave-market of Jedda a continual stream of negro captives has flowed for hundreds of years. The invention of gunpowder and the adoption by the Arabs of firearms facilitated the traffic by placing the ignorant negroes at a further disadvantage. Thus the situation in the Sudan for several centuries may be summed up as follows: The dominant race of Arab invaders was increasingly spreading its blood, religion, customs, and language among the black aboriginal population, and at the same time it harried and enslaved them.” [The River War, 1899, page 25]
Non-Muslim slaves in Sudan had always been referred to by UN officials as having been abducted (“abductees”) not enslaved — in order not to offend the regime, the OIC or the Arab League. But African Muslims enslaved today in Darfur by janjaweed militias are called “slaves.” Why this distinction between “abductee” and “slave”?
Finally, evidence of genocide in Darfur — earlier recognized by a Special Rapporteur as being carried out by Arab Muslims against African Muslims — is now recognized (not yet officially at the UN), which led the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, to seek an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for crimes against humanity and war crimes since 2003 in Dafur — and genocide against its three main ethnic groups: the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa.
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Turning again to the “Sharia Affair” at the UN Human Rights Council on June 16, we also referred to Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi’s denunciation in Geneva of another taboo subject: “In Iran a girl is considered an adult and liable to punishment, even execution, at 9, and a boy at 15.” When referring to these matters in a joint statement for the Association for World Education (AWE) and International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), an inappropriate “˜point of order” by Iran stopped us. Here is what was said – although the words in brackets were not pronounced as the president had informed us that no mention of “˜sharia” or an “˜evaluation” of a religious law would be permitted:
The stoning of women for alleged adultery still occurs regularly in Iran, Sudan and other [Muslim] countries [that apply Sharia law]. In Iran, they are buried up to their waists in pits and [by law] blunt stones are used thereby increasing their agony in death. The marriage age for girls in Iran remains at 9 years [based on Sharia law]. In the year 2000, the Iranian Parliament attempted to increase the age to 14 but the law was overturned by the Council of Guardians [claiming Qur’anic justification].
The delegate of Iran then took the floor on a “˜point of order” to deny everything:
the statement and the references made by this speaker in this statement is false and has nothing to do with the realities in my country. I just wanted, for the record”¦ he said that”¦”the stoning of women for adultery still occurs regularly in Iran” — it’s not true, it is completely false, and is out of the question.
In an earlier point of order, Pakistan’s delegate Imran Ahmed Siddiqui declared:
the voices which we hear in this Council and the issues they raise are not unfamiliar. There is an agenda behind it and you have already given a ruling on the discussion of sharia law in this Council. We have strong objections on any discussion, any direct or indirect discussion, any out of context, selective discussion on the sharia law in this Council. I would therefore request the president to exercise his judgement and authority and request the speaker not to touch issues which have already been debarred from discussion in this Council.
Later, on yet another point of order (there were 16), Siddiqui declared, inter alia:
I would like to state again that this is not the forum to discuss religious sensitivity. It will amount to spreading hatred against certain members of the Council.
The “ruling” that he was referring to was made on March 13 2008, when the same Pakistani representative raised a point of order against a statement on behalf of the IHEU, made by its main representative Roy Brown. He claimed: “It is an insult to our faith to discuss sharia law in this forum”. President Doru Costea, on that occasion, did not prohibit discussion of the sharia, but said that “as long as the speaker refrains from making evaluative judgements of any system of law, he may continue”.
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It is worth comparing these comments to what Pakistan’s Ambassador Munir Akram stated a decade ago (April 29, 1999) at the CHR, when — speaking on behalf of the OIC — he proposed a resolution on the “Defamation of Islam” (later changed to “Combating the defamation of religions”, but only Islam is mentioned).
“It was Islam which gave the world the first Charter of Human Rights in the Holy Qur’an; the Declaration of Human Rights in Prophet Muhammed’s last address; and the first Refugee Convention in the mithÃ¢q-i-Medina — The Constitution of Medina.”
[UN verbatim recording, summarised in E/CN.4/1999/SR.61, Â§1-2. For a contradiction of this statement from many scholarly texts on the “The Constitution of Medina”, see Andrew Bostom (Edited), The Legacy of Antisemitism: from Sacred Texts to Solemn History. Foreword by Ibn Warraq (New York: Prometheus Books, 2008), pp. 66-76]
Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim Bin Nasir ath-Thani repeated this general Muslim viewpoint:
There is no doubt that Islam, which preceded the Universal Declaration on Human Rights by fourteen centuries was first in declaring equality among humans in all rights and responsibilities, and in defining rights and freedoms both for individuals and groups.” [E/CN.4/1999/SR.13 Â§ 95]
However, in 1981, and on December 7, 1984, the Iranian representative to the UN General Assembly”s Third Committee, Rajaie Khorassani did not beat about the bush:
Certain concepts in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights needed to be revised (“¦) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which represented a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition, could not be implemented by Muslims and did not accord with the system of values recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran; his country would therefore not hesitate to violate its traditions, since it had to choose between violating the divine law of the country [sharia] and violating secular conventions. [A/C.3/39/SR. 65, paras. 91-95;
Soon after the Islamic Revolution, the new Iranian Constitution (December 1979) referred to human rights in article 20, without endorsing the UDHR. In 1982, a demand was made [E/C.3/37/SR. 56, paras. 53-55] to transform the UDHR “through sincere dialogue and honest scholarly endeavour.” After President Mohammad Khatami’s election in September 1997, Iran’s foreign minister Kamal Kharazi (Iran then held the presidency of the OIC) appealed for a “revision of the Declaration” on March 17, 1998 at the Jubilee Commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Commission. This was followed by a November 1998 seminar on Iran’s initiative, which was hosted by Mary Robinson and the OIC at the Palais des Nation, under the title: “Enriching the Universality of Human Rights: Islamic perspectives on the Universal Declaration on Human Rights”. A letter was sent to all delegations from the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, probably inspired by the OIC:
We have agreed that for the purpose of this seminar, Islam is understood in terms of “˜Sharia” (Qur’an and Hadith) and not in terms of tradition or practices that may vary and mix with historical heritages. This will allow the seminar to focus the Islamic perspective with a minimum of potential controversy which could overshadow the central purpose.
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Soon after, on the initiative of Iran, the year 2001 was eventually designated by the UN General Assembly as a “United Nations Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations”. This was the year of the early September Durban fiasco, followed within a day or so by the tragic 9/11 climacteric. In March 2002, the OIC organised — prior to the 58th session of the Commission — yet another “Symposium of Human Rights in Islam”. Mary Robinson addressed the symposium, and under the title: “A greater need for an understanding of Islam”, she read from a text — later placed on the back table — the following appreciation of Islam which was perfectly in line with the OIC”s affirmations.
No one can deny that at its core Islam is entirely consonant with the principles of fundamental human rights, including human dignity, tolerance, solidarity and equality. Numerous passages from the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad will testify to this. No one can deny, from a historic perspective, the revolutionary force that is Islam, which bestowed rights upon women and children long before similar recognition was afforded in other civilisations. Custom and tradition have tended to limit these rights, but as more Islamic States ratify the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against women, ways forward for women are being found and women are leading the debate. And no one can deny the acceptance of the universality of human rights by Islamic States.
Whether she believed all this or simply read from a text prepared by her advisor is anyone’s guess, but at the back of the room could be found statements by all participants, as well as piles of copies of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam — but no sign of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, usually available.
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The reaction of her successor was different six years later. At an NGO “˜goodbye” reception for High Commissioner Louise Arbour on June 17, I handed to her a copy of the Agence France Presse “˜story” on the June 16 “˜Sharia Affair” (“La critique de la charia en question devant le Conseil des droits de l”homme” / “Criticism of the sharia questioned at the Human Rights Council” — there was no official English version). She expressed shock and disbelief at what had happened the previous day.
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The next day (June 18), AFP described her genuine anxieties on the ruling made by President Doru Costea. This 2nd report by AFP”s director Denis Rousseau (1st on June 17), is worth reproducing in English, as it was not covered fully in the written press.
On Wednesday [June 18] Mrs. Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, considered it “very disturbing” to see “constraints and taboo subjects” imposed in the debates at the Human Rights Council, after its president had forbidden any mention of sharia.
Under pressure from countries of the Arab group, the president of the Council, Romanian Ambassador Doru Romulus Costea informed an NGO speaker last Monday [June 16] not to mention the sharia (Muslim law).
The Human Rights Council “must be, among others, the guardian of freedom of expression,” Mrs. Arbour stressed in a meeting with journalists [June 18].
“There is a blockage at the Council itself,” the High Commissioner deplored. She leaves her post at the end of the month after a four year mandate.
Questioned by journalists, Mr. Costea reaffirmed on Wednesday that “the Council didn’t have a sufficient expertise to debate, at any particular moment, the fascinating links between religion and human rights.” “It’s a subject on which we must be very prudent,” he insisted.
On Monday evening Mr. Costea summoned a representative of two NGOs to abstain from any value judgement on a belief or a religious law.
The wrath of Egypt, Pakistan and Iran had previously fallen on the speaker, reading a joint statement for the Association for World Education (AWE) and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which denounced notably the stoning of women for adultery “in countries that apply the sharia.”
[In fact, I had been warned by the president not to pronounce “˜sensitive” words such as “sharia”, which had been seen by the Egyptian delegate, who had obtained a copy of my text from an interpreter. He kept waving the page as proof of this “˜blasphemy”.]
“Islam will not be crucified in front of this Council”, ranted Egypt’s delegate Amr Roshdy, while menacing a vote of the Human Rights Council in order to silence the troublemaker, accused of Islamophobia.
The speaker for the two NGOs, Mr. David Littman, had been interrupted by more than 15 virulent interruptions and the debate had to be suspended for more than half an hour.
The banning of any reference at the Human Rights Council to the word “sharia” and various “constraints and taboo subjects” — to quote Louise Arbour — is a final warning that we all must insist on saying that “jihad” is jihad, “sharia” is sharia, a “slave” is a slave, “genocide” is genocide –and, yes, a spade IS a spade.
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On 18 April 1997 the first “Blasphemy Affair” had erupted at the Commission because of a factual quotation (subtitle “Islamist and Arab Anti-Semitism”) in a Report by the then Special Rapporteur on Racism, Maurice GlÃ©lÃ©-Ahanhanzo of Benin. It stated:
Muslim extremists are turning increasingly to their own religious sources, first and foremost the Qur’an, as a primary anti-Jewish source.
Although this was a fact (confirmed regularly since), in 1997 it was considered — and since then by the OIC countries — to have been “an offensive reference to Islam and the Holy Qur’an”. Three months later, it was officially “excised” from the Report. Turkey”s then Islamist representative also objected separately to the “blasphemy”, as did Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria and Bangladesh, alongside Indonesia — on behalf of all of the OIC countries, probably on the initiative of Iran. Two years later began the efforts by Pakistan — on behalf of the OIC — to ram through the CHR a resolution on “Defamation of Islam”, which became “Combating defamation of religions”. From then on, “Islamophobia” has become one of the main themes under “Racism”.
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The conclusion from our 1997 article is worth reiterating at this crucial moment, as our worst fears are being fulfilled after the calamitous UN “Sharia Affair” of June 16:
The last years of this second millennium is not a time to allow this form of “cultural relativism” to restrict freedom of opinion and expression at the United Nations — in Geneva, not far from the homes of both Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is a dangerous precedent for charges of “blasphemy” to be given credence and even consecration at the UN Commission on Human Rights and other UN bodies.
Especially at the UN Council — at the end of the first decade of this third millennium!
In our written statement to the 2005 Commission (E/CN.4/2005/NGO/106), we reproduced the Appeal we sent to Secretary-General Kofi Annan on May 13, 2004, titled: DARFUR, SUDAN: NON-IMPUNITY and PROSECUTIONS FOR GENOCIDE. In it, we quoted his words of contrition, delivered on April 7, 2004 to the 59th Commission:
“We must never forget our collective failure to protect at least 800,000 defenceless men, women and children who perished in Rwanda ten years ago”¦we must all acknowledge our responsibility for not having done more to prevent or stop genocide.”
On December 2, 2005, we initiated an appeal by 22 NGOs to the High Commissioner, followed by a second appeal by 43 NGOs on May 23, 2006, in which it was stated:
We believe that the role of the new Human Rights Council will be, in part, tested by the way the Darfur conflict is faced.
For a decade and more at the CHR, a “slave” in Southern Sudan was a taboo subject. This was the same for the term “genocide” later in Darfur — although African Muslims were being massacred by an Arab Muslim regime. Now it is the word “sharia” and “fatwa” that can no longer be pronounced at the CHR — or elsewhere at the UN. And an evaluation of religious law is also taboo — that would include the word “jihad”.
Yet former Sudanese Prime Minister Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi, explained to Mary Robinson a decade ago that under sharia law: “the traditional concept of JIHAD does allow slavery as a by-product.” This Muslim opinion coincides with the view of all serious Western scholars. In other words, civil society is being muzzled for saying the truth.
It might well be that the litmus test for the Council on Human Rights, and the UN as a whole, will be the ongoing “Darfur Genocide” and the multifarious “Sharia Affair.”
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* For full references, see the articles, republished in Robert Spencer (edited), The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims (New York: Prometheus Books, 2005), Part 5. “Human Rights and Human Wrongs” (ed. by David G. Littman), pp. 305-472