It’s Time to Revise The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam

Turan Kayaoglu
Turan Kayaoglu Former Brookings Expert, زميل سابق في بروكنجز

April 23, 2012

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

To the surprise of many, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has shown a new commitment to advancing human rights by establishing an Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission within the organization. In the Commission’s first meeting in Jakarta, Secretary General Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu asked the 18-member Commission in his opening address to “review and update OIC instruments, including the Cairo Declaration [of Human Rights in Islam]…” If the Commission intends to indeed advance human rights, then the Cairo Declaration is the first among these instruments in need of serious revision.

In 1990, the OIC approved a document that is now referred to as the Cairo Declaration in an attempt reconcile the concept of human rights and Islam. The Declaration protects many of the universal human rights: it forbids discrimination; supports the preservation of human life, supports the protection of one’s honor, family, and property; and affirms the human right to education, medical and social care, and a clean environment.

From an international human rights perspective, the controversial nature of the Cairo Declaration lies in its claim of adherence to Shari’ah. Its preamble affirms that“fundamental rights and universal freedoms are an integral part of [Islam]” and these rights and freedoms are “binding divine commandments” revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the Quran. The central role of Shari’ah can be clearly seen in the Declaration’s articles. Article 22 states that “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to principles of Shari’ah.” Article 12, affirms that “every man shall have the right, within the framework of Shari’ah, to free movement” (nothing is said  about every woman). Articles 24 and 25 further makes Shari’ah supreme by asserting that Shari’ah is the Declaration’s “only source of reference.”

Such shorthand and cursory use of Shari’ah gives rise to four important shortcomings. The first is that it renders the document too restrictive. Shari’ah represents an extensive moral and legal code, and limiting rights such as free speech to a Shari’ah compatible framework of values would essentially render free-speech meaningless. Furthermore, the document is rendered ambiguous., as it does not specify what constitutes Shari’ah. Given the diversity of opinions on the subject across time and between and within madhabs (schools of Islamic law), it is impossible to know what rights are protected.

Interestingly, the declaration empowers states, not individuals. In the modern world, Shari’ah has increasingly become integrated in states’ domestic legal systems. In the absence of any international authority to decide on Shari’ah, the Cairo Declaration effectively diminishes the universality of human rights by  relegating them to the discretion of governments.

Finally, the declaration conflicts with international human rights. The document provides only a subordinated status to religious minorities and also prohibits conversion from Islam. It also presents glaring evidence of discrimination against women, as it provides the right to freedom of movement or marriage only to men.

These shortcomings render the Declaration useless at best and at worst harmful for human rights. Not surprisingly, the only people who take the document seriously are critics of Islam who invoke it to argue the religion’s incompatibility with human rights. Muslim advocacy groups, scholars on Islam and human rights, and even the OIC Secretary General İhsanoğlu have either ignored the declaration or have avoided defending it publicly.

As part of OIC’s new reform agenda, the  Human Rights Commission presents a unique opportunity for genuine revision of the Cairo Declaration. Such revision will not only signal the OIC’s commitment to human rights, but could also increase theits legitimacy and prestige among Muslims and in the international community, adding much-needed credibility to the new Commission. For the revision process is off to a good start as it has already mobilized the relatively strong NGO community in the Muslim world. Under the leadership of MAZLUMDER, a Turkish-Islamic human rights NGO, more than 230 such organizations from 24 OIC members appealed to the OIC to “ensure space for civil society participation in the Commission and follow a process that is consultative and inclusive of civil society at all levels.”

Efforts at revision should aim to usher in a period of genuine dialogue about how Islam can enhance modern international human rights and not necessarily conflict with it. The Islamic legal and intellectual heritage provides a much stronger basis from which to engage with the liberal-secular precepts of modern international human rights.  Drawing on that tradition and discarding the Cairo Declaration could deliver an Islamic Declaration on Human Rights that Muslims deserve, where its “Islamic” character can be invoked to protect more rights than those provided by similar human rights instruments, not fewer.