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Teacher and Student

Human Rights Issues in Contemporary Islam

Liberty, Human Rights and World Faiths Staff

November 29, 2022


Universal Human Rights Apply to All Nations, Including Islamic Ones

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which United Nations members are signatory and which is “generally agreed to be the foundation of international human rights law,” declares:


“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.” United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 2


“Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 30


Islam is a religion which brings faith, hope and meaning to some two billion adherents around the world. As with all religious traditions, Muslims are entitled to be treated with respect and dignity, and also have an actionable duty to respect the inalienable human rights of others.


Extremism is Not Representative of Peaceful Islam

Just as we stand against racism, imperialism, anti-semitism, white supremacy, Christian nationalism, and other violent and hateful ideologies, fair-minded individuals worldwide have a duty to oppose all abuses perpetrated in the name of religion, including Islamic extremism. 


Former US President George W. Bush repeatedly noted that acts of terrorism and human rights abuses perpetrated by a small minority of extremists are not representative of the vast majority of Muslims. He stated:


"Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others. Ours is a country based upon tolerance and we welcome people of all faiths in America."

"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war."


The Vast Majority of Victims of Islamic Extremism Are Other Muslims

​​Islamic extremism is of considerable concern to mainstream Muslims. The Pew Research Center reported in 2013 that 67% of Muslims surveyed cited concern about religious extremism within Islam, compared to only 27% who were not concerned.  


Whereas the Western press has principally reported on violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists against non-Muslims, the overwhelming majority of victims of such violence are other Muslims. Syrian refugee Hassan Al Kontor, noting the outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees, lamented the lack of Western attention and support for his own nation’s humanitarian and refugee crisis:

“A refugee message to @CBSNews and their anchor.. We are equal! Like Ukraine we have crying mothers, starving kids, people being killed and civilization being destroyed. With all [due] respect!”

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that “Casualties in the U.S. and Europe are all too real. But, it is Muslims that are the overwhelming victims of extremist attacks.”  He wrote:


“It is far too easy for analysts who are not Muslim to focus on the small part of the extremist threat that Muslim extremists pose to non-Muslims in the West and/or demonize one of the world's great religions, and to drift into some form of Islamophobia—blaming a faith for patterns of violence that are driven by a tiny fraction of the world's Muslims and by many other factors like population, failed governance, and weak economic development.


“It is equally easy to avoid analyzing the links between extremist violence and Islam in order to be politically correct or to avoid provoking Muslims and the governments of largely Muslim states. The end result is to ignore the reality that most extremist and terrorist violence does occur in largely Muslim states, although it overwhelmingly consists of attacks by Muslim extremists on fellow Muslims, and not some clash between civilizations.”


Cordesman noted well-documented findings from comprehensive data analysis:


“The overwhelming majority of extremist and violent terrorist incidents do occur in largely Muslim states…most of these incidents are perpetrated by a small minority of Muslims seeking power primarily in their own areas of operation and whose primary victims are fellow Muslims….The vast majority of Muslims oppose violent extremism and terrorism, and…religion is only one of many factors that lead to instability and violence in largely Muslim states. It is a critical ideological force in shaping the current patterns of extremism, but it does not represent the core values of Islam and many other far more material factors help lead to the rise of extremism.”


Extremism as a Political Tool

Islamic extremism is not representative of Muslims generally. During the twentieth and twenty-first century, fundamentalist Islamic extremism has been weaponized and spread by political actors.  The Public Broadcasting Service’ Frontline featured a brief modern history of Islamic terrorism, arising largely from radicals co-opting Islamic teaching as a rallying cry for political movements. 

These movements at times have been organized and supported by outside, non-Islamic groups to push a political agenda as part of larger geopolitical and ideological conflicts. For example, the 1964 Palestinian Liberation Organization’s charter was drafted in Moscow and affirmed by members of the Palestinian National Council reportedly “handpicked by the [Soviet] KGB.”  The Palestinian Liberation Organization was established under the tutelage of the Soviet Union as one of its “people’s liberation fronts,” which were “centers of Marxist indoctrination and opposition to democratic and capitalist movements.” Whereas PLO chief Yasser “Arafat unequivocally state[d] that his sole aim is to destroy Israel,” his Soviet propagandists advised him to “stop talking about annihilating Israel and instead turn your [Arafat’s] terror war into a struggle for human rights,” reframing the conflict as an “‘indigenous’ people’s struggle for liberty.”

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