18 September 2018

 A young Muslim claimed at a meeting that I attended that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was "racist". We exchanged emails and it turned out that "racism" was being equated with being "eurocentric". My response appears below:-

I don't think our disagreement is as profound as I thought it was when you asserted the the UDHR is "racist". As with all discussions words and differences in interpretations as to what they mean can result in people talking at cross purposes. This is a problem I encounter when discussing the existence of god(s). You need to define what you mean by god(s) before you can discuss. For example when Einstein refers to god, he means a Universe, which has no intelligence and is totally indifferent to humanity. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_and_philosophical_views_of_Albert_Einstein

To me racism is discrimination based a persons genetic make up that they cannot change - "Racism is the belief in the superiority of one race over another, which often results in discrimination and prejudice towards people based on their race or ethnicity." to quote wikipedia - although many (possibly yourself included) have in recent years begun to use  the term to describe many other forms of discrimination.

As with equating secularism with atheism, in my opinion we devalue the language and make it more difficult to discuss the issues because of this conflation of meaning. If we mean cultural imperialism, or tribalism or xenophobia or religious discrimination then I'd suggest that these are the descriptions we should use.

I'd be the first to accept that "the modern doctrine of Human Rights is Eurocentric and often inconsiderate of different perspectives". But that does not make it racist (at least by my definition).

It is not even accepted by all European political philosophies. It is after all based on asserting the  rights of the individual and limiting the powers of the group or state over the individual. Since Humanism is based on on the notion of the rational, autonomous human being, it finds the UDHR an attractive idea, although as with all human constructs it can no doubt be improved upon. Communism (which is also an atheist philosophy) does not accept the idea that the individual should have any protection from the collective will of the people and emphasises group/class solidarity. Human rights are also unacceptable to absolute monarchists, fascists and some people of religion who wish to see their beliefs imposed across the entire population of the world.

I'd be the first to admit that if we introduce modern medicines and technology to tribes that have managed to survive in remote areas, we will undoubtedly destroy their culture, which saddens me. However do we have a right to say that certain populations should not have the benefits of modern medicines/technology because this would change their way of life and culture? If we did this surely we would be treating them like animals in a zoo.  Intervention may be a form of imperialism/colonialism, but I'd have difficulty in not advocating for it.

All cultures evolve over time and change is inevitable. Unfortunately many people have a "golden conception" of a certain period in their culture and want to maintain it regardless of other changes in the world. I think Brexit is very much a symptom of this.

I watched most of the YouTube video and would agree with much of the article about Human Rights being Eurocentric, since most of its history stems from the evolution of thought in Europe and in particular the English speaking world. As with all human constructs its history is an amalgam of many things. Some of the ideas can be traced back to the Magna Carter and the Bill of Rights. Others to religious ideas evolving from the Enlightenment. Indeed I would maintain that a Leicestershire man, George Fox https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Fox , who founded the Society of Friends (the Quakers) can claim some credit (or blame :-) ).  As with many other religious figures he had a revelation on Pendle Hill http://www.strecorsoc.org/gfox/ch06.html . His idea that god dwells in everyone led to Quakers being amongst the earliest advocates of equality and founders of the anti-slavery movement. http://abolition.e2bn.org/people_21.html .

He also inspired William Penn https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Penn who founded Pennsylvania and established a constitution much of which was a foundation for the US constitution after the declaration of independence. That document was also contributed to by Tom Pain https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Paine (whose father was a Quaker) of whom it has been said " His ideas reflected Enlightenment-era ideals of transnational human rights."

To quote from /The_modern_doctrine_of_Human_Rights_is_Eurocentric_in_character_and_has_limited_application_in_the_developing_world.

"All four regional documents have some similarities but they also have their differences. It is interesting to note that the Draft Arab Charter and the African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights are not all that radically different from the UDHR. If one was to convincingly argue that the modern documents of human rights were Eurocentric in character then I suspect one would have expected a greater difference between the doctrines!"

Out of interest would you be happy for the  UDHR to be declared void and all the associated equality/anti discrimination legislation in this country revoked?

Also, looking at the UDHR http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ (which represents an aspiration rather than a guarantee) which right would you wish to surrender? And what would be the implications?

If we take Article 18 by way of example

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

You might object to the right to freedom to change religion or belief. However if you abolish this you also end up abolishing the right to teach and practice your religion. So the right to attempt to convert someone to your religion would also be lost.

You may find this article of interest - http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2018/06/islam-and-human-rights-clash-or-compatibility/ .