Heiner Bielefeldt

The Role of Politics

Heiner Bielefeldt argues that one can no longer consider a foundation of divine or eternal principles when searching for a universal human rights concept. Human rights are basically a political matter.

I would like to start by referring to Samuel Huntington’s well-known, even notorious, thesis on the ‘Clash of Civilizations’. According to Huntington, civilisations are more or less enclosed entities based on specific values. For instance, what he calls ‘Western civilisation’ – encompassing North America and large parts of Europe – is based on Christian values, whereas Islamic civilisation, not surprisingly, epitomises Islamic values.

Heiner Bielefeldt Foto: privat H. Bielefeldt

​​Even many who are opposed to this global map often subscribe to its main contours. They then often articulate a concept of justice using its key terms, leading to the assumption that there is something like a ‘Western’ or ‘European’ concept of justice, and an ‘Islamic’ concept of justice, and that those two concepts are essentially opposed.

What is missing in this ‘Huntingtonian’ view of justice is an account of history and politics. By history, I mean the experience that society, social orders, convictions and values – including the meaning of justice – can and do change over time. They are not fixed, eternal entities. By politics, I mean the awareness that human beings bear a fundamental responsibility for shaping the social order, for debating the terms on which to organise their co-existence, and for creating and improving a ‘just society’.

What I want to propose in today’s discussion is: let’s take politics into account! Otherwise debates about different cultures, and culturally different norms or concepts, are in danger of becoming abstract and indeed, ideological.

An important point flows from this approach. If we accept that the meaning of justice is indeed a matter for political debate and controversy, we lose the possibility of taking the meaning of a just social order for granted. Thus, we can no longer refer to something like ‘natural justice’ as an eternal human nature (as used to be the case in the European ‘natural law’ tradition). Nor can we directly invoke religious authority to define clearly what a just order is supposed to be.

My point is not that religion has nothing to say in questions of social justice. Rather, my claim is that an immediate reference to religious authority, to divine commandments, to divine law, cannot replace an open political debate. Divine orders, after all, are put forward and take shape in diverse human interpretations. When we leave human interpretation out of consideration, we actually destroy the space for politics, for pluralism, for political debate, ending up with some sort of religious authoritarianism.

What are the consequences of my emphasis on politics? Does it mean that everything is debatable – that anything goes? Does it lead to complete relativism in the understanding of social justice? Indeed, modern democratic societies have often been described in such negative terms – of relativism, scepticism, and the loss of values. There may be some truth in that; but it is definitely not the full picture. For, in losing the possibility of a natural or divine order of justice, we have gained an increased awareness of human responsibility. Hence, respect for human responsibility has more and more become the core principle of modern democracy.

Respect, more precisely, is due to every human as a responsible agent. This gives a clue to understanding the modern interpretation of human dignity. Human dignity is an old idea. It can be found in the Bible and the Koran. But what is new is that the respect due to the dignity of all human beings is supposed to manifest itself politically in terms of human rights: enforceable rights to which every human being is equally entitled. Respect for human dignity is the fundamental normative principle on which all possible orders of justice are based. In all the controversies over what social justice might mean, the basic requirement of respecting human responsibility is always presupposed.

I don’t say that democratic societies actually live up to this standard. There is no reason for complacency or smug self-sufficiency. But we can see that the demand for respect actually pervades all parts of our societies, and that it has, for example, changed the function of married life, so that the modern concept of marriage is of a respectful partnership. This shows the impact of the idea of the respect for human responsibility as, in fact, a new understanding of an old idea: the idea of human dignity.

What, then, is the role of religion – of Christianity and Islam – in all this? Religious traditions have incorporated a deep yearning for social justice that can inspire the debates of today. Religious traditions also embrace the idea of human dignity; in the biblical idea of the creation of all human beings in the image of God, or the Koranic idea of all human beings as called upon to act as khalifa (God’s deputies on Earth, as some translate this concept).

In practice, of course, religious communities have not always supported democracy and human rights. My own church, the Roman Catholic Church, was long opposed to human rights in general and religious liberty in particular. In official documents of the nineteenth century, religious liberty was condemned as leading to everything from indifference over questions of religious truth, to an erosion of authority and even the destruction of the moral fabric of society. It was only in the 1960s that the Catholic Church officially endorsed human rights and religious liberty. This shows that religious communities are part of society and have to undergo the same learning processes that society as a whole has to tackle.

In the case of Islam, many Muslims have found ways to reconcile the requirements of religion with a commitment to democracy and human rights. The fact that such a reconciliation is, thus, a reality as well as a possibility alone counters Huntington’s thesis that democracy and human rights are essentially and exclusively a heritage of the West. But on the other hand, Muslim reformers emphasise that there are many serious questions that have not yet been solved satisfactorily.

These questions include whether and how the Islamic sharia and the modern programme of human rights fit together, and how equal rights for women and men can be fostered, within the framework of Islamic thinking. Does religious liberty encompass the right also to change one’s religion and to convert from Islam to another religion? There has been debate on these questions between Muslims themselves, as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims.

I hope this discussion gives us the opportunity to tackle the question of how to cope with the pluralism of different concepts, on the basis of mutual respect. Let me conclude these initial remarks by saying that there is no clear idea of social justice in Europe – but there are some basic requirements that allow us to cope with the pluralism of various ideas of what social justice is. Human rights epitomise these basic, normative principles.

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